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By John Wright

      Why 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 as strangers. 
      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 Derek.
      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 Anthony.
      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," says Bess.
      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.



Deepwater Horizon -The President's Report
Deepwater Horizon - The Progess of the Event

The KULLUK Grounding
The Costa Concordia Report
The Costa Concordia Grounding
The Elgin Gas Leak
The Loss of the Normand Rough
The Bourbon Dolphin Accident
The Loss of the Stevns Power
Another Marine Disaster
Something About the P36
The Cormorant Alpha Accident
The Ocean Ranger Disaster
The Loss of the Ocean Express

The Life of the Oil Mariner
Offshore Technology and the Kursk
The Sovereign Explorer and the Black Marlin

Safety Case and SEMS
Practical Safety Case Development
Preventing Fires and Explosions Offshore
The ALARP Demonstration
PFEER, DCR and Verification
PFEER and the Dacon Scoop
Human Error and Heavy Weather Damage
Lifeboats & Offshore Installations
More about PFEER
The Offshore Safety Regime - Fit for the Next Decade
The Safety Case and its Future
Collision Risk Management
Shuttle Tanker Collisions
A Good Prospect of Recovery

The History of the UT 704
The Peterhead Connection
Goodbye Kiss
Uses for New Ships
Supporting Deepwater Drilling
Jack-up Moving - An Overview
Seismic Surveying
Breaking the Ice
Tank Cleaning and the Environment
More about Mud Tank Cleaning
Tank Cleaning in 2004
Glossary of Terms

An Unusual Investigation
Gaia and Oil Pollution
The True Price of Oil
Icebergs and Anchor-Handlers
Atlantic SOS
The Greatest Influence
How It Used to Be
Homemade Pizza
Goodbye Far Turbot
The Ship Manager
Running Aground
A Cook's Tale
Navigating the Channel
The Captain's Letter

The Sealaunch Project
Ghost Ships of Hartlepool
Beam Him Up Scotty
The Bilbao OSV Conference