On September 13, 1940, the passenger ship, the City of Benares, set sail from Liverpool, England, in route to Canada. On board the ship were 406 people, 90 of whom were children who were being sent by their parents to North America to escape the aerial assault of England that the German Luftwaffe had begun a few days earlier. Four days after the ship’s departure, on the evening of September 17th, the City of Benares was attacked and sunk by a German U-boat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, resulting in the death of more than half of its passengers, including 77 of the English children. Deborah Hellingman’s Torpedoed recreates the tragic tale of the City of Benares, from the sad farewells at the harbor in Liverpool to the initial excitement of the children at sea to the rescue of the survivors by a British naval ship eight days after the attack. Along the way, there are numerous scenes of violence and terror, including the fiery confusion on board the torpedoed ship and the fear and desperation of the survivors at sea, clinging to their lifeboats and rafts in the turbulent waves. At the heart of the story, however, are the personalities and life histories of the ship’s passengers and crew, including those who lived and those who died. Using archival documents, along with interviews conducted decades after the event, Hellingman brings vividly to life an assortment of fascinating characters. Along with the boys and girls on board the ship, we meet a glamorous documentary filmmaker, a brave chaperone who risks her own life to protect the children, a rugged old gunner who keeps up the spirits of the boys on one of lifeboats by singing “salty” old sea shanties, and even the German U-boat commander who ordered the attack. Voice actor Marisa Calin’s measured English narration is a perfect match for Hellingman’s story, conveying the violence of the event and the enormity of the loss without ever slipping into sensationalism or sentimentality.
David Shirley ©2020 Parents’ Choice
David Shirley’s recent nonfiction titles include A History of Brooklyn Bridge Park and Fix It Leroy! His YA biographies, Every Day I Sing the Blues: The Story of B. B. King and Satchel Paige: Baseball Legend were honored as the New York Public Library’s Best Books for Teens.