By John Wright
would you give your children away to strangers unless it was
to save their lives?
The parents of the 3,500 children evacuated from
Britain in the summer of 1940 to escape from the bombing
must have clung to this logic, just as the kids themselves
would have clung to their teddy bears and life jackets.
The evacuees were from all over Britain, mainly the
big industrial centres, and they were now heading for the
apparent safety of other Commonwealth countries. How would
it affect them? Would they see their parents again? No one
knew the war had five more years to go.
In fact, their experience as evacuees would vary
dramatically. Few would come out of it completely
unscathed, and many children would return to their families
But for Londoners Bess Walder (15) and Derek Capel
(12), it would be even worse; the ship they were on would
never make it across the Atlantic. What they experienced
and saw one night and in the days following has left them
with the most painful memories it is possible to bear during
the 60 years ever since.
On September 17, 1940 their ship 'The City of Benares',
carrying 90 child evacuees, was torpedoed and sunk by a
German U-boat. More than 70 of the children died. Derek's
little brother, 5, was one of them, and Bess's nine year-old
brother Louis was on board too.
When Derek and Alan's mother put her children on the
London bus to connect with the train to Liverpool, the
parting would have been emotional enough. But she could
have no idea that two weeks later she would receive a
telegram along the lines of: "We regret to inform you that
the ship has been sunk, and your sons are presumed drowned."
On September 13 the ship headed out into the
Atlantic. Derek told me that he and Alan shared a cabin and
were woken by the explosion the night the torpedo struck.
It was 10.30 and they were wearing pyjamas.
"I remember everything falling," he said. "Part of
the cabin walls had collapsed. We put on our life jackets
and clambered into the corridor, where we heard our escort,
Reverend Rory O' Sullivan, who was in the opposite cabin.
He was banging on his door shouting for help."
"The cabins were dark, but there were blue emergency
lights in the corridor. His door must have been buckled,
but we banged on it to help get him out." Eventually, their
escort got out. It had taken so long because in the dark
"he'd been trying to pull his wardrobe door open," says
Then Derek held Alan's hand and they went up on deck,
where "Rory took charge of Alan," says Derek. They emerged
not only into the cold night air, but also into a full
Atlantic gale with rain, thunder and lightning.
As the children made their way, as practised, to their
allotted lifeboats, "a man grabbed Alan," says Derek,
"saying 'I'll take the little one' and put him into a
lifeboat that was ready to be lowered." Derek would never
see Alan again. Derek was put into another lifeboat, and in
the sea it heaved up and down in the huge ocean swell.
"The waves were so big, it was like one second being
on top of a church tower looking down, and the next, at the
bottom looking up at it. It was freezing cold and to start
with we were waist-deep in water," says Derek. Because the
ship was being tossed up and down so much, some of the
lifeboats were being let down at a steep angle, causing
their occupants to be tipped out.
There were 43 of them in their lifeboat; some of the
Indian crew, a Polish millionaire, six boys and another
escort, Mary Cornish, who leant her petticoat to be hoisted
up the mast to help them be seen. "I remember seeing little
icebergs in the sea," says Derek.
Mary rubbed the boys' hands and legs all the time, and
the Polish man made sure they got their share of the
rations. "We had a piece of tinned peach once a day, and
some water in the morning and afternoon until it ran out
after a week," Derek told me. "We had a ship's biscuit too,
but it was too dry to swallow."
Two days after Derek's parents got the telegram, they
were spotted by the navigator of a Sunderland flying boat,
Ray Jones, and picked up by a British destroyer, HMS
But yet another tragedy was about to begin, a
peacetime one that would last the whole of Derek's parents'
lives and for most of Derek's too. "Two months later," says
Derek, "my parents got an official letter saying that Alan
had been 'buried at sea'."
Knowing all these years since that "Alan didn't make
it," as Derek puts it, was bad enough. But, only a few
years ago at a reunion, Derek discovered by chance something
that could have lifted the agony from his parents' minds, if
only they'd known it 50 years earlier.
The letter they'd received had given the impression
that Alan had had a slow lingering death over two months.
But Derek found out from an ex-sailor that in fact Alan had
been rescued the next day, and had died on the rescue ship.
As for Bess Walder, she and another girl, Beth
Cummings (14) from Liverpool, were two of the children who
had been tipped out of their lifeboat. "Huge
hurricane-strength waves kept coming," Bess told me, "and
Beth and I were the only children who managed to climb back
on." Extraordinarily, both girls managed to survive in such
a storm by clinging to the keel of their upturned lifeboat.
Bess's father had taught her and Louis to swim in the
sea. "15 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 and drown,"
The girls wore only pyjama tops and their waterlogged
dressing gowns. "Our pyjama bottoms had been washed away,"
says Bess, "and our mouths became swollen." Waves battered
their bodies on the boards of the hull so much, that Bess
sustained internal injuries that would prevent her having
children in later life.
"It was getting dark the next day when I saw a dot on
the horizon," says Bess. "We were dying." There were only
three of them left, Bess, Beth, and a semi-conscious Indian
seaman, who had tied himself with another, who'd drowned, to
the stern of the boat.
"The dot got bigger. It was HMS Hurricane and it came
straight for us." The sailors on board started cheering,
but Bess could see they'd been crying as well. "All day
they'd been picking up dead children from the sea."
Later a boy they'd rescued was down below and thought
he recognised a dressing gown in a pile of wet clothes.
"I'd been put in the Captain's cabin, and there was a knock
at the door," remembers Bess. "The Captain came in and
said: ‘sit up, Miss. I've got a surprise for you’; and
Louis stepped out from behind him."
The rescued children were taken to Greenock in
Scotland to convalesce, and were carried ashore because they
were too weak to walk. Their legs had been in water the
whole time, and now had frostbite. But soon they were back
with their families.
Derek Capel and Bess Walder (now Cummings because she
married Beth's brother) are now in their seventies and both
living in the West Country, a place whose relative peace has
helped play a part in their emotional recovery.
Derek Capel and Bess wouldn't think of themselves as
heroic for hanging on the way they did all those years ago
in the Atlantic. Others had come along to make sure their
younger brothers got safely into lifeboats. Even Derek
knows that now.
But Bess's tenacity in such appalling circumstances,
and Derek and Alan's brave attempt to rescue their escort
when their ship was sinking, are all the more touching when
you think they were only children themselves.
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