Bess Cummings: One of the last survivors of the sinking of the SS City of Benares in 1940

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The Independent Online

Bess Cummings was one of the last survivors of the sinking of the SS City of Benares, which was torpedoed by a U-Boat in 1940 with 400 passengers and crew onboard, including 90 children.

In September 1940, when Cummings was 15, she and her 10-year-old brother Louis were being evacuated to join relatives in Canada, part of a scheme organised by the Childrens Overseas Reception Board (CORB). They came from the most deprived communities and bombed cities, including Portsmouth, Southampton, Cardiff, Swansea, Liverpool, Newcastle, Sunderland and London. Having travelled up from London, they left on the SS City of Benares from Liverpool on a beautiful evening on Friday 13 September to join a convoy assembled just south of Ireland. The convoy was to be escorted to 15 degrees west by an old 1918 destroyer, HMS Winchelsea, and HMS Dundee, among two sloops.

The children were segregated, with the boys on the portside and the girls to starboard. Life was good those first few days – Bess had never tasted York ham before; she had only eaten spam. There was a huge playroom with full of toys and a huge red rocking horse.

On their fifth day at sea, the 17th, the weather turned for the worse and the children spent the day in their cabins, most of them seasick. Just after 10pm there were two explosions in the portside engine room; it was soon evident that the ship had been torpedoed. Bess had to fight her way out of her cabin as a cupboard had fallen against the door. She met up with her new friend Beth Williams, a 14-year-old from Liverpool; they rushed up to the lifeboat deck to find chaos and panic, and no sign of Louis. They were guided to lifeboat No 5, which launched at a terrifying angle. All the occupants spilled out as it hit the turbulent seas.

Bess and Beth and two dozen others managed to swim back to their waterlogged lifeboat and hung on as best they could until it turned turtle. Overnight only Bess and Beth and a Lascar seaman managed to hang on; the others drifted away into the darkness. In spite of the wind-chill the three clung tightly to a rope along the spine for 16 hours. On the morning of the 18th it was sunny and warm and the two girls encouraged each other to hang on as each freezing wave splashed over them.

The Benares wireless officer had managed to radio an SOS call within minutes of the attack. It was picked up in Scotland and relayed to the Naval Western Approaches HQ in Liverpool. Just after midnight HMS Hurricane, commanded by my father, Lieutenant Commander Hugh Crofton Simms, was instructed to go to the rescue "with utmost dispatch".

He knew exactly what it meant and told the ship's doctor, Surgeon Lieutenant Peter Collinson, that there must be women and children on board. The Hurricane was 300 miles away but immediately turned to the south-west, battling all night into a Force 8 gale and through mountainous seas. A complete silence of fear and apprehension descended on the entire ship's company.

When they arrived at the scene of the attach some of the sights were horrific, and many of the crew were in tears as they helped exhausted children and adults onboard. Finally they came across Bess and Beth and the Lascar still clinging to their lifeboat; their hands were so tightly clenched that the rope had to be cut to release their hands. The No 1 Lieutenant George Pound (the First Sea Lord's son) dived in to help them into the boat; later he rescued an unconscious German woman who had been washed off a raft. That afternoon the Hurricane's crew performed many astounding acts of bravery.

Once onboard Bess and Beth were bathed and then taken to recover in the warmth in my father's and Pound's bridge cabins; Bess, however, was immensely traumatised and dreading explaining to her mother how she had lost her brother.

Louis, who had been saved earlier, saw his sister's green dressing gown drying in the boiler room while on a tour of the ship; he was immediately taken to my father, who hid him behind his back, went into his cabin and then produced Louis from behind him, to Bess's almighty relief.

The Hurricane continued the rescue operation until it was virtually pitch-dark; the last people to be rescued were the Benares' purser and chief engineer. The Hurricane had rescued many liferafts and accounted for 12 lifeboats; altogether she rescued 115 people, including 15 children. No one knew at the time that the Benares lifeboat No 12 had put up a sail and had left of the rescue area. It was to remain at sea for another week with 46 people onboard including six CORB children and one heroic nurse, Mary Cornish. They were miraculously rescued a week later.

The Hurricane's doctor did not sleep for two days, nor his orderly, as they saved Bess's and Beth's lives, among others. Three children died onboard and my father gave them the honour of a full Royal Naval sunset burial at sea on the way to Glasgow. The Hurricane reached Greenock on 20 September to be met by the Lord Provost of Glasgow and a fleet of ambulances. Afterwards, Bess and Beth were visited by my father and the ship's doctor in hospital and slowly recovered over the next six weeks. They stayed in Scotland and continued their education for two years before going home.

Back in London Bess became fearless, feeling she had been deliberately chosen and rescued for a purpose. Wanting to put something back into society, on her father Bernard's advice she became a teacher; she went to a teacher training college in Chichester followed by a year at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. She kept in touch with Beth and after the war arranged to meet Beth's brother, Geoffrey, in London as he passed through on his way back to Liverpool after his demob from the army. It was love at first sight; they married in 1947 and lived in Islington, where Bess was teaching.

In 1952 Geoffrey was promoted to a key position at GCHQ in Cheltenham. They moved there, and in 1959 Bess was appointed headmistress of a new primary school in Cheltenham, and in 1968 became head of Bishops Cleeve primary school. In the mid-1970s she lectured on Primary Education while still head of Bishops Cleeve, and in 1978 took a degree in Management at Bristol University.

She ran a highly disciplined school and though somewhat formidable at first meeting she was always extremely fair at the defaulter's table. In 1983 she stopped teaching following her husband's early retirement. After five years in the Isle of Man they returned to Evesham and thence in 1994 back to Bishops Cleeve, where she became a well-known local public speaker on various subjects to many societies in the area, often recounting her City of Benares rescue.

In 1973 she met some of the other Benares survivors and many of the crew of the Hurricane in Portsmouth at the launching of my yacht Hurricantoo. This led to numerous reunions over the next 20 years, including one in 1988 when she met Wilhelm Kruse, the wireless operator of U-Boat 48 that had sunk the Benares. She was touched to hear that the German crew had been moved to tears on returning to their base in Lorient and discovering that the Benares cargo was mostly children.

Bess never forgot those who didn't return. She became the inspirational leader of the Benares Survivors and organised reunions and Remembrance Services at the Church of Ascension in Kenton, Wembley, whose congregation had lost six children.



Elizabeth Walder, teacher: born Limehouse, London 13 December 1924; married 1947 Geoffrey Cummings (died 2005); died 12 August 2010.

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