Miracles on the Water: The Heroic Survivors of a World War II U-Boat Attack
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An unforgettable story of children in wartime, of heroism at sea, and--above all--of courage and the power of the human spirit.
On September 17, 1940, at a little after ten at night, a German submarine torpedoed the passenger liner S.S. City of Benares in the North Atlantic. There were 406 people on board, but the ship's prized passengers were 90 children whose parents had elected to send their boys and girls away from Great Britain to escape the ravages of World War II. They were considered lucky, headed for quiet, peaceful, and relatively bountiful Canada.
The Benares sank in half an hour, in a gale that sent several of her lifeboats pitching into the frigid sea. They were more than five hundred miles from land, three hundred miles from the nearest rescue vessel.
Miracles on the Water tells the astonishing story of the survivors--not one of whom had any reasonable hope of rescue as the ship went down. The initial "miracle" involves one British destroyer's race to the scene, against time and against the elements; the second is the story of Lifeboat 12, missed by the destroyer and left out on the water, 46 people jammed in a craft built and stocked for 30. Those people lasted eight days on little food and tiny rations of drinking water. The survivors have grappled ever since with questions about the ordeal: Should the Benares have been better protected? How and why did they persevere? What role did faith and providence play in the outcome?
Based on first-hand accounts from the child survivors and other passengers, including the author's great-uncle, Miracles on the Water brings us the story of the attack on the Benares and the extraordinary events that followed.
anyone was a monster, it was he. Yet there was at least some reason in this last argument Goebbels made, an argument that would remain the official German position at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal nearly six years later. At the least, the sinking of the Benares would leave the British Admiralty open to questions. Why had the Benares’ naval escort turned when it did? Why had the slow-moving civilian vessels not departed when the warship left—to allow the City of Benares to sail faster and
dizziness. These ailments would keep him hospitalized for three months after HMS Anthony’s arrival at Gourock. MARY CORNISH, RONALD COOPER, AND George Purvis were each awarded the Medal of the British Empire for valor at sea. There would be no disagreement from the other passengers that all three were heroes, truly deserving of the honor. Cooper had guided Lifeboat 12 expertly from the steeply angled Benares to a rough sea; he had saved at least eight lives in the tumult following the boat’s
relieved by the no-life-vest provision. Mary Cornish felt relieved as well. “We’re safe now,” Cornish told the chief escort, Marjorie Day. The children said prayers, asking for calm in the morning. Rory O’Sullivan, still exhausted and flu-ridden, prayed for the ship’s safe arrival in North America. Some of the older children read in their bunks. The younger ones drifted to sleep. The winds rose to a Force 8, more than thirty miles per hour, and a heavy rain slashed the Benares’ decks. Nicoll and
Hillman’s group. They held hands, for comfort mostly, but also to keep their footing. The Benares was listing sharply now. Gazing across the sloping deck, Bess looked at the youngest children, standing there shivering and waiting patiently to board the boats. There were some who could not have been more than five or six years old. How brave they are! Bess thought. And how little they understand. Beth and Bess were, at fourteen and fifteen, among the older evacuees. That meant they were stronger
but violence and cannibalism as well. “There is something peculiar in a small boat upon the wide sea,” Joseph Conrad wrote in Lord Jim. “Trust a boat on the high seas to bring out the irrational that lurks at the bottom of every thought, sentiment, sensation, emotion.” The lessons were simple: Strength of character and a positive outlook were vital; and it mattered who you had at your side in the boat. It was perhaps too soon to gauge such qualities in Lifeboat 12—though the crew had certainly