Every night the bombs slammed down. Every day Bess and Louis Walder shouldered their gasmasks and trudged off to school through roads that were filled with rubble and shattered glass. It was September, 1940, and their country was at war with Germany.
In London, Liverpool, Coventry and cities all over Britain, air raids had become a horrible fact of life. Every night, and often during the day, the German bombers appeared in the sky – air raid sirens sounded, everyone took cover in cellars or shelters, and the fighter pilots took to the clouds to try to stop the bombers getting through. But they always did.
Nearly 3,500 children had already been whisked to safety with families in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and the USA. Now Bess was given the chance of a lifetime. She and her brother Louis were offered places on a ship that was evacuating English children to the safety of Canada: an elegant passenger liner called The City of Benares.
Canada was like a dream: it was almost Hollywood. Nine year-old Louis imagined it would be like the Wild West he’d seen in the movies. He didn’t really comprehend how far away it was from his home in London. Neither of them worried that they had to sail across the wild, cold Atlantic Ocean, where Nazi submarines, or U-boats, hunted in underwater “Wolf Packs” waiting to torpedo passing British ships.
“When can we go?” they cried, excited.
Their parents waved goodbye at the train station.
“Grow up to be a good girl,” Bess’s mother told her.
“You look after that young man,” her father said.
Bess promised to watch over her brother, but rather casually. It wasn’t until later that she realised her parents were worried they might never see their children again. She and Louis were leaving their parents behind to face the bombs, but their own adventure had barely begun.
The City of Benares was a beautiful big ship. As she steamed out of Liverpool on Friday 13 September, all the ships in the harbour sounded their horns, ninety children stood on deck, singing Wish Me Luck as You Wave Me Goodbye. Some of them were as young as four – at fifteen, Bess was one of the oldest, but she was separated from Louis, who was bunked in with other boys on the opposite side of the deck to the girls.
“It was paradise,” Bess recalls, many years later. “A floating palace.” The ship had been specially fitted out with playrooms for the smaller children, toys, and a wonderful rocking horse that could carry three kids at once. There were games and parties, and lots of singing. At every meal, there was more food on the buffet tables than the young passengers had ever seen. “We all had the most wonderful time. It was like being on holiday and the days went by like a beautiful dream.”
Fourteen year-old Beth Cummings, from Liverpool, was also on board. “We’d hardly found our cabins when the alarm bells went,” she remembers. “That was our first lifeboat drill.”
The ship was bound for Halifax in Nova Scotia, sailing in convoy with nineteen others, in the hope that this would protect them from the German U-boats.
They were wrong. One night, five days out from port, six hundred miles out into the stormy Atlantic, Bess was in her cabin when she heard a massive explosion. The ship shuddered. All the lights went out.
“It was the explosion that woke us up,” Beth says. “It almost threw us out of our beds.”
The City of Benares had been hit by a torpedo.
Bess Walder ran out into the night, still in her pyjamas and dressing gown. She couldn’t see Louis anywhere. It was clear that the ship was sinking. The crew were trying to get lifeboats down into the pounding waves, but the boats kept slamming into the hull of the listing ship. It was impossible to climb into the swinging lifeboats.
“I was picked up bodily and flung in,” says Bess. “Most of the children did not get into lifeboats.”
From the crowded lifeboat, the few survivors watched as their ship sank. All around them were huge waves, lashed by an awful gale. In these seas, the small lifeboat quickly filled with water and capsized. Bess was thrown into the water – she felt like she was sliding down a shiny green watery tunnel – and then, amazingly, she popped back up to the surface right next to the overturned lifeboat. There didn’t seem to be anyone else around.
Bess reached out with both hands and slowly, painfully, pulled her body out of the water and up onto the bottom of the boat. As her hands grabbed onto the boat’s keel, she felt someone else’s cold fingers already there, gripping tightly from the other side. It was Beth Cummings. Bess and Beth joined hands and clung to each other and the slippery boat.
“Fifteen adults got onto the lifeboat as well, but after hours in the dark and thinking they wouldn’t be rescued, one by one they voluntarily let themselves slip off,” says Bess. “There was a row of hands alongside mine, on my side of the keel, and another row of hands on Beth’s side, facing me. Bit by bit the rows of hands grew less and less as people lost their grip, or lost their will to live – and let go.”
A young Indian crewmember held on, attached to the stern of the boat by a rope tied around his waist. He was nearly unconscious, but refused to let go of his mate, who had already drowned.
“There was nothing for us to do except hang on to this rope,” Bess and Beth recall. “So we were facing each other on the side of the lifeboat with this rope between us. And we never let go of that rope in all the time that followed – which turned out to be nineteen hours in all … we knew if we did let go, that would be the end of us.”
Their eyes were swollen from the saltwater, their lips were peeling, their tongues all bloated from thirst. “We were dying.”
But the gale force storm did not let up for a moment.
“The waves were terrible. We were being thrown one way and then dragged back again. Then there would be a huge wave coming right over us. You couldn’t see and you would be coughing and spluttering … next thing you were up in the air and back again … We were just two schoolgirls fighting the North Atlantic. There is nothing more lonely than being in mid-Atlantic on a boat upside down – nothing alive except us three.”
Once, Bess looked up to see the ship’s gorgeous rocking horse float past.
“I just have to hold on,” she muttered to herself. Above all, she wanted to survive, so she could explain to her parents why she hadn’t been able to look after Louis.
“We’ll hang on,” she told Beth.
“Yes,” Beth whispered. She was too tired and cold to talk any more.
“We knew we were alone but that made us feel it was up to us to survive,” she recalls. “We needed each other and we wanted to survive for our parents’ sake.”
“Because there were two of us, we were inextricably linked,” says Bess. “We were not in the business of giving in.”
Then, at last, near dark on the next day, the girls saw a dot on the horizon. By now they were too feeble to wave for help.
“The dot got bigger. It was HMS Hurricane and it came straight for us.” The sailors on board the ship were cheering, and shouting out, “Hang on, we’re coming!” They had been on the point of giving up their search for the surviving children of the City of Benares.
When the rescue boat drew close, the nearest seaman reached out his arms to Bess.
“Come on, darling,” he said. “Let go.”
But she couldn’t. Her hands had been gripping so tightly, for so long, her fingers had to be prised off the boat.
The next day, Bess lay in a warm cabin onboard Hurricane, recovering. She was feeling miserable about Louis, and trying to figure out how to tell her parents that she had failed, and that her little brother was dead.
There was a knock on the cabin door.
“Sit up, Miss,” shouted the captain, from the corridor. “I’ve got a present for you.”
Bess sat up in her bunk. The door creaked open, and then, from behind the captain, out peeked Louis.
“What are you doing, lying there?” he asked, cheeky as ever.
“Where have you been?” shouted Bess, pretending to be angry.
Louis hesitated, for just a moment, and then ran into her arms.
Bess and Beth became best friends, and Bess eventually married Beth’s brother, Geoffrey.
General WW2 research materials include:
Second World War, by Martin Gilbert
Forgotten Voices of the Second World War, by Max Arthur
Keep Smiling Through: The Home Front 1939-45, by Susan Briggs
Life on the Home Front, by Tim Healey
The Turn of the Tide, by Arthur Bryant
Blitz, by Constantine Fitz Gibbon
The Blitz: Westminster at War, by William Sansom
Note: sources and references
Any material in quotation marks is a direct quote from one of the participants, recorded and reported later by various sources.
This story has been told several times, probably the most familiar being the BBC’s Finest Hour documentary series and book, which feature interviews with Bess Walder.
I have also selected words from Bess’s speech to the 60th Memorial Service for the Lost Children and Reunion of the Survivors of the City of Benares, and her comments to authors including Edward Stokes (Innocents Abroad) and Ralph Barker (Children of the Benares, for which Beth wrote the foreward).
The most recent book on the topic is Children of the Doomed Voyage by Janet Menzies. Some quotes included above are sourced from pre-release materials for that book.
Lifeboat is a play about the girls’ adventure.