LR True Stories: The Sinking of the City of Benares

By Sean Clemenson

Operating for over a quarter of a millennia, Lloyd's Register has employed thousands of staff since it's inception in 1760. From Messenger Boys to the Chairmen themselves, the Society's staff have had their fair share of stories. With the Society's staff being stationed across the globe, the Centre holds a unique collection of letters, memoirs and stories through it's extensive archive and library. Such accounts have likely never been seen before by the public. Therefore, the Centre's new blog series - 'LR True Stories' will share these personal accounts; immortalising them to the digital realm for the foreseeable future.

Having worked in the Centre for over three years now, discovering a new fascinating moment in LR's history is part and parcel of using our archive and library. Such stories that spring to mind include Thomas Chapman's close friendship with Charles Dickens; George Morgan's attempted escape of a German POW camp during the Second World War and Jim Frize's heroic organisation of relief efforts during the Mexico City Earthquake of 1985.

Dennis Haffner's account of the Sinking of the City of Benares is yet another story, albeit an upsetting one, that deserves to be remembered.

The infamous sinking of the passenger/cargo ship by a German U-Boat, U-48, led to the deaths of more than 250 people, of which 77 were children. The ship was a part of the Children's Overseas Reception Board (CORB) evacuation scheme that was tasked with transporting children from potential areas of conflict to safer Commonwealth countries (mainly Canada and Australia). 

One of the survivors of the sinking, Dennis Haffner, was a seagoing apprentice on board. He was responsible for collecting the children, taking them to their proper boat stations, helping them put on their life-jackets and taking them to their lifeboats. After the war, Haffner joined Lloyd's Register as a Technical Assistant and later became Senior Ship Surveyor.

The following excerpt is Haffner's account of surviving the sinking of the City of Benares, taken from LR News International (September 1988). To read historic editions of LR News International, visit the Centre's reference library.

The night we were torpedoed, I was on the watch from eight until twelve with the Third Officer. It was dark, cloudy and very windy - probably about force eight - and rough; very rough.

At ten o'clock we were struck by the torpedo in the port side of Number Four hold, above which was the accommodation where the children were berthed. Almost immediately she started to go down. The shout went out: "Clear the boats! Abandon ship!" The Engineers stopped her as soon as we were hit, and managed to get the emergency lighting going which made things easier. Fortunately, we were a light ship and she took a long time to go down - but it was not much time for the children to get themselves organised.

I went along to the verandah cafe at the after end of the promenade deck where the children had to assemble at their station, but I found that not many had turned up with their nurses and escorts. I went down below to try and find out what had happened to them and to gather them up. Their accommodation had been wrecked and many of them had been killed or maimed in the explosion. There was just a large hole where the deck had been, and jagged edges of metal all over the place. I could hear and see the water coming in as she settled by the stern, so I couldn't stay long. There was nothing I could do there anyway. I gathered up a few stragglers and took them up on deck to the boats. Being night-time, many of the children were clad in only their night-clothes.

I tried to get everybody cleared off to their boats - especially the children - and then I reported back to the bridge as I was expected to do. The Captain was there and I reported to him that the children, as far as I could see, were clear and the lifeboats were away. He told me that I could go. "What about you?" I asked, to which he replied, "I'll be all right"; but he went down with his ship.

There was no fire and she went down quietly with her bows up. The shaft tunnel must have been blown up, and she would then have flooded straight through to the engine room if the watertight door had been open or damaged. The Fourth Engineer would have been on watch, but only the Second and Seventh Engineers were saved.

Another ship was hit just after us. The submarine must have fired two torpedoes; one hit us in the stern, and just seconds afterwards the other ship got it in the bow. When I heard the second explosion I though we'd been hit again, but it was the Marina astern to us. You become so confused when you're hit that you're brought up totally disorientated - stunned.

I jumped over the side and swam away from the ship. I still had my greatcoat and bridge-gear on, I couldn't take off my life-jacket with all that on because I would have gone straight down, so I just kept on swimming.

I saw a lifeboat and made for it, but it had been turned upside-down. It must have capsized, for there were still some people clinging to it, clambering and kicking out in an attempt to climb onto its upturned hull. I didn't want to get mixed up with that since I didn't think there were going to be many survivors from it, so I swam away again. I don't think anybody was saved out of that boat.

I was at the end of my tether, a numbness coming over me, when I saw another lifeboat. Somebody's hands reached over the side and i grabbed them. I was hauled into the boat where I then lost consciousness. I came to in the bottom of the boat with somebody pouring brandy into me. I gulped it down - I don't know how much I drank but it really did the trick. Soon I was all right.

The lifeboat was absolutely full. In fact they weren't going to pick me up until they saw I was an officer of some sort and, as there was no officer on board already, they hauled me in. Otherwise it might well have been a different story.

Despite being the only officer, because I was only seventeen, I had but a meagre knowledge of lifeboats, but I did manage to get us all organised. We found the canvas boat-cover which fortunately had been left in the boat, and soon we had everybody covered - it was sleeting and snowing, and there was also spray coming over. It was dreadful weather: rough seas, force eight, the waves towering up and plummeting down - it was terrible. I had to sit in the freezing cold in my wet clothes. I think I was the closest to becoming a casualty and, to be quite honest, the brandy had saved my life.

We just sat and waited and waited. Eventually we spotted a ship on the horizon. It was a destroyer coming to rescue us. I thought it had missed our boat as it went round and round to other boats. However, what had actually happened was that they had seen our boat was all right and had gone to pick up people of the rafts first. We were one of the last groups to be rescued.

Haffner and survivors

Safely ashore: Dennis Haffner (left) with two other survivors from the disaster - the Seventh Engineer (centre) and the Bugle Boy, N.Gardiner.

On board the destroyer they looked after us very well. Straight away we were given two tots of rum. Then we were taken to the boiler room to take off our wet clothes and have them dried on the gratings. These two tots of rum put new life into us. By the time we'd arrived in the boiler room, I don't think any of us could remember why we were there or where we were going. We were on board for three days while we headed for Gourock. The day after our arrival, we went off to our respective homes and that was the end of the ordeal for us. David Critchely, the other cadet (with whom I'd been jointly responsible for getting the children to the boats), was in the last boat to be picked up after eight days at sea. Imagine sitting in a lifeboat for eight days in that rough weather. The Fourth Officer, who was in charge, was decorated with an MBE.

Later we had to attend an enquiry. The man in charge of it stated that everybody had done their job well. There was no question of any fault to be found in the crew for bad behaviour or not doing their job properly. Every member did their job to the best of their ability under the circumstances. It was the weather that caused the large numbers of casualties after the torpedoeing.

The loss of the ship convinced the British public that evacuations by sea were futile. The CORB Seavac scheme was short-lived and quickly scrapped. British morale at the time, which had remained resilient during the Battle of Britain, took a serious blow.

To this day, it is not known exactly who was at fault for the sinking of the City of Benares. German news agencies claimed that the Germany Navy was unaware of child evacuees on board and maintained that the vessel was an armed auxiliary cruiser, thus providing the justification for an attack under the terms of warfare.

A statement from the Germany Navy, published in The Times (edition 26 September 1940) read "If the ship was really torpedoed with the loss of children, then the murderer's name is Churchill. Nothing is sacred to this monster. The world is beginning to recognise him more and more for what he is - a fiend in human form. The device of putting children in auxiliary cruisers and then calling them children's transport ships, might possibly extend to munition factories, which through the presence of a few children could be given the status of orphanages".

In contrast, blame was also placed on the Admiralty for ordering the convoy to pass through waters that it knew were populated by enemy submarines. In fact, the ship's telegram operator was even made aware of such a presence - but the Admiralty failed to take action.

The City of Benares disaster is still one of the most studied tragedies of the Second World War.

After surviving the ordeal, Haffner worked as a ship draughtsman, naval architect and assistant inspector at a number of shipbuilders, including Barclay Curle & Co. and Cammell Laird. In May 1955, Haffner joined Lloyd's Register, working in it's Technical Records Department and later the Ship Plans Department at its 71 Fenchurch Street. After a career spanning 27 years at the Society, Haffner retired.

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