I’m going to die now. I wonder what God is like.
A little-known facet of our wartime social history is explored…
by Alan Gill
It should never have happened, but it did. While escorting Naval ships were diverted, the unarmed passenger vessel, City of Benares, with a cargo of British children en route for a safe haven in Canada, was torpedoed by a German U boat, causing the deaths of most of them.
The attack, on Friday September 13, 1940, is considered by many to be the most devastating single loss affecting British non-combatants - certainly affecting children - in World War II. Eighty-three children, many from Catholic homes in and around Liverpool, perished, together with some 150 adult crew members and passengers.
The story, assisted by cinema newsreels - weren’t those clipped accents marvellous? - a re-enactment of the actual attack, and interviews with the now elderly survivors, including a repentant German submariner, makes compelling viewing, and is told in a documentary programme, “The Children of the Doomed Voyage”, to be screened by SBS on Remembrance Day, Saturday, November 11.
For Australian viewers however, there is an unfortunate omission, for which the producers – who would have needed a separate two hour slot to tell the additional story adequately – can hardly be blamed.
The fact is that at about two weeks before the Benares left for Canada, three other vessels, the Batory, Nestor and Diomed had left with similar cargoes of evacuee children bound for Australia.
Miraculously, all three ships arrived safely, but following the sinking of the Benares, further transports were cancelled and an ambitious “rescue” programme involving several other countries of the “white Commonwealth” put into cold storage.
Though it was well publicised at the time, few modern day Australians are aware that child evacuation – with stock images of pale faced youngsters with gas masks and ration books crowding on London railway stations – actually involved Australia.
Evacuation is also confused with migration.
For the record, some 10,000 youngsters came to Australia before and after World War II as supposed “orphan” child migrants. They were placed in institutions, several of them run by the Christian Brothers, and in many cases suffered abominably. The 600 odd evacuee children, on the other hand, came here for the war period only, were fostered by welcoming families and generally had the time of their lives.
All of which raises the question why were the migrant kids not similarly placed into foster care, where they would at least have avoided the horrors of orphanages like Bindoon?
The aim of the British, Canadian, Australian and South African Governments was to find havens for about 30,000 children in the Dominions and similar havens for about one million children in “safe” areas (regions considered less likely to be subject to Nazi bombing) in rural Britain. Only the latter objective was reached. A privately funded scheme patronised by wealthier families was quickly followed by a scheme for ordinary working class children under the auspices of a remarkable organisation known by its initials CORB (Children’s Overseas Reception Board). Altogether – until the traffic was abandoned as “dangerous” – about 2500 went to Canada and 577 children (307 boys and 270 girls) came to Australia. About 200 children were accepted by New Zealand.
News of the sinking of the City of Benares became public as the three ships bound for Australia were on the high seas. The Batory berthed at Fremantle on October 9, then went on to Melbourne and Sydney. The press described the children as having “escaped from war-torn Britain” and called them “Britain’s Crown Jewels”. The Sydney Morning Herald reported: “Cheering and singing, a shipload of British children steamed through Sydney Heads today to make Empire history”. The Nestor took the same course a few days later. The Diomed ended its journey in Adelaide, due to concerns about mines in the sea lanes. From there 18 children were sent to Melbourne and Sydney by train.
The 577 new arrivals were sent to families in all States. They were divided between city and country areas with a few in the outback. In all NSW took 240 evacuees, Victoria 181, Western Australia 60, Queensland 40, South Australia 31 and Tasmania 25. Social workers matched “parents” with “children” to “avoid misfits”.
When the war ended the returning travellers found life in austere Britain depressing. One former evacuee recalled: “When we got home, my mum said, ‘Look up, Joan’. What she wanted me to see was a Union Jack and a huge sign saying ‘Welcome home Joan!’ But all I saw was this row of very dark miserable-looking terraces – and all I was thinking about was Australia.” In fact, about one third of the original evacuees did return.
Many of those who went back to Britain suffered emotional trauma – being torn between their “Australian mum” and their “real mum”. Several vowed to return to Australia when they were grown up.
A woman known to the writer promised her Australian mum that she would “find a good husband”, and bring him to Sydney as soon as the honeymoon was over. Alas, something went wrong and he didn’t want to leave England. She waited until he died, then returned with her now adult children to Sydney. When I met her she was acting as carer for the now elderly woman who had looked after her in the war years.
An even stranger story concerns an Australian, Justin Jones, who travelled to England with his mother and British-born father in 1935/36. While in Britain, his father opened a business and the couple decided to stay. With the advent of war and threat of invasion, his mother was anxious to evacuate the children. Arrangements were made for Justin, eight, and his brother, Brian, six-and-a-half, to return to Australia.
As Justin tells it: “A week or so before we were due to sail my mother had a dream, in which a ship was sunk, we were on it and we were drowned. And so she panicked. She was superstitious and decided it would be better if we all stayed together in Britain. Of course, she rationalised it. The Government at that time was making arrangements for children to be evacuated to country districts and this seemed preferable. She cancelled the tickets.”
The ship on which Justin and Brian were to travel was the ill-fated City of Benares.
The sinking of the City of Benares is sometimes confused with the successful torpedo attack (in July 1940) on another vessel, the Blue Star liner Arandora Star, which was taking enemy aliens – some of whom were actually long term residents of Britain – to Canada. The attack, unlike that on the City of Benares, aroused little critical comment, many Britons probably considering it was a case of “Germans killing their own kind”. Survivors of the Arandora Star were transferred to another vessel, the Dunera, and to a new destination, Australia, where the majority of the surviving “Dunera Boys” still live.
Alan Gill was religious affairs writer for the Sydney Morning Herald for more than 20 years.