River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Notes from a newcomer

August 2004

Marion reminds us, at the time of our D Day celebrations of another nabd of heroes - survivors of the City of Benares

The ancient Chinese curse 'May you live in interesting times' comes to mind when I think of my parents' generation. Born in the aftermath of the First World War, they grew up in the Depression then, as young men and women, barely out of their teens, were called on to combat the threat of Nazism.

They are now in their 80s and soon there were will be very few of them left to give us a first-hand account of how it felt to crouch, petrified, in the silent eternity after the buzz of a V1 bomb ceased and the moment it reached its deadly destination. Or what it was like to scramble up a Normandy beach with mines exploding all around and with no choice but to leave your injured comrades to die. The anniversary of the D-Day landings earlier this summer was a poignant reminder of how our destiny hangs on when and where we are born.

Next month sees the anniversary of a less well-known wartime tragedy - the sinking of the luxury liner, the City of Benares. Having sailed from Liverpool on the fateful date of Friday 13 September 1940, the ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat three days later. On board were 90 children who were being evacuated under a government scheme to take them to safety in Canada.

The torpedo hit the ship close to where the children's cabins were located so many of them died instantly. Some of the youngsters made it to the lifeboats but an Atlantic gale was blowing and they were drowned when the boats capsized in the stormy sea. Miraculously, 13 of the children survived and most of them are still alive today.

One of them, Ken Sparks, was born in London but moved to Norfolk in the 1960s. By a great stroke of luck, 13-year-old Ken never reached his own lifeboat but was pulled into another one that he happened to be passing. There were six other boys on the boat as well as a priest, a Polish passenger and Miss Mary Cornish, a music teacher who had been travelling as one of the evacuees' adult escorts.

It was eight days before the lifeboat was eventually spotted by the navigator of a Sunderland flying boat. Miss Cornish, who was later awarded for her bravery, constantly massaged their limbs to keep the circulation going and the Polish man, who spoke little English, ensured they were fed. In an interview, Ken told the EDP: "Once a day, we were given a ship's biscuit, a piece of tinned peach and a sip of water. Sometimes we had some juice with the peach."

After being picked up by the British destroyer, HMS Anthony, the survivors were taken to Greenock in Scotland. They were carried ashore and taken to a hotel where they had hot baths before going to bed. But Ken recalls that they were unable to sleep because it was too comfortable after the rigours of the lifeboat.

The Benares survivors have always stayed in close touch with one another over the years. Like the D-Day veterans, they are haunted by the memory of their companions who perished - the ones who did not have the chance to get married, become parents, and enjoy a humdrum life in 'uninteresting' times.

Marion Clarke

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