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Excerpt: Miracles on the Water

Chapter 1

"We’ve Been Hit!"

Beth Cummings sat upright, lifted suddenly from sleep, and not sure why. It was dark, black-night dark, nothing stirring in her small cabin, and she was wide awake.

A bad dream, perhaps. But then she felt the ship shudder. Rough seas, Beth thought. Very rough seas.

She felt for the light switch. The light wouldn’t come on.

An alarm sounded nearby. She heard groans and rustling, someone in the adjoining cabin. That might be her friend Bess, up and about. Maybe she knew what was happening.

Beth Cummings stepped gingerly from her bed into a gathering pool of water.

Bess Walder had never been a sound sleeper. She was in the top bunk next door. The jolt woke her instantly.

That’s a torpedo! she thought.

She heard another bang, felt the floor shake, then a sound like a closet full of glass, things rattling and breaking inside. Bess came down the ladder and called to the girl in the lower bunk.

"C’mon! Get out!"

The girl shivered under her blanket. She didn't want to go.

Bess Walder was fifteen years old. Beth Cummings was fourteen.

Fred Steels was eleven, And in his cabin there was chaos. The room shook, glass shattered, an armoire crashed, and when Steels tried to leave his bed he found himself trapped. Heavy planks of wood had fallen, making a misshapen X just inches above his body.

Parts of the bunk had collapsed, right on top of him.

Steels, a strong and stocky child, pushed up at the wood. Good thing there's nobody in my top bunk, he thought. One of Steels' cabinmates was crying for his glasses. Alarm bells rang. He heard nothing from the third boy in the cabin, an eleven-year-old named Paul Shearing. He sleeps through anything.

Steels worked at the wood, nudged a fat piece up, away from his face. I can do it, he thought. I can get out. He shoved another plank aside.

Then Fred Steels realized he was soaking wet.

It's blood, he thought, but then he felt a soft spray coming from the washbasin. Water, not blood. The pipes had burst.

Suddenly Steels understood what had happened. "We’ve been hit!" he cried, trying to rouse his cabinmates. The two other boys shifted in their bunks, still fuzzy-headed.

"Come on, then!"

Finally Steels was free, squirming through a narrow space he had made between the wood planks and the side of his bed. He pulled on his bulky life jacket and felt for his shoes in the dark. There they are.

He tried to find his suitcase, then realized there was no point in carrying anything to the ship's deck. Water shot from the basin. Steels' life jacket was getting wet.

Paul Shearing was up now. He had found his life jacket, and a coat his mother had bought for her son’s journey. Then, searching for his shoes, Shearing felt a jab in his foot.


Steels spun around. "What’s happened?"

Shearing winced. He had cut his heel on a piece of glass. "It’s all right."

He stepped gingerly in the water, feeling a sharp sting in his foot. After a while he found a pair of sandals. The third boy in the cabin had found his glasses.

They fumbled about in this way, and then, perhaps two minutes after the initial jolt, the three boys shuffled out the cabin door and along an already-crowded hallway.

Bess Walder and Beth Cummings were making their way somewhere behind them. Together they were among the youngest, and arguably the most important, passengers on board the British liner SS City of Benares.

The Benares carried 215 crew and 191 passengers, including 90 boys and girls who were pioneers in a program designed to spirit British children to safer shores. These young evacuees had been chosen from the country’s most vulnerable communities, from households particularly battered by the German bombardment. It was a bold and controversial experiment, involving thousands of children. They were sailing for Canada, away from war, and they had no idea how long they would be gone.

It was mid-September, 1940. World War II was one year old.

For several days the mood on board the Benares had been cheerful, almost festive. They had left home and family, to be sure, but they had also bid farewell to air raids and rations, put behind them what one of the boys called the "everyday horror" of the German Blitzkrieg. Adolf Hitler's air force had pummeled Liverpool in the days before the Benares set sail from that same port; the children and their escorts had watched the bombs as they fell. Now their home was an eleven-thousand-ton luxury liner, clean and elegant, comfortable and richly stocked. Onboard meals were feasts—heaping buffets of meat and chicken, fresh fruit in large baskets, limitless ice cream for dessert—served by Indian waiters in bright blue and white uniforms. The ship’s decks were a virtual playing field, the playroom a huge and colorful space where imaginations might run, and memories of war recede.

Jack Keeley, an eight-year-old from Brixton, told his little sister, Joyce, "We’ve gone from one world to another." Indeed they had. The ship’s older passengers relished the calm and opulence, unheard-of commodities in wartime England. All manner of terror and deprivation had disappeared.

Mary Cornish was a pianist and music teacher from London, one of ten children’s escorts traveling on the City of Benares. She was forty-one years old. On the night of September 17, Cornish had tucked in her charges—fifteen girls aged six to thirteen—at about eight o’clock. After dinner, she and two of the other escorts had chatted over coffee in the lounge. At perhaps half past nine, they had decided to take a stroll on deck.

It had been a rough day on the water. Now a steady rain blew across the deck, but every so often the women could make out the moon, nearly full, fat clouds drifting past. The women sang songs, gazed out at the water, and compared notes.

They had been at sea for four days. Seasickness had come and passed for many of the girls in their care. Homesickness, too. Now the mood and camaraderie were first-rate, they agreed, children and escorts smitten by the thrill of the journey. In five days they would land at Montreal.

Mary Cornish was relaxed and happy when she left her fellow escorts and descended the stairs to the main deck. She was a few steps from her cabin when she felt a sharp thud and heard the sounds of smashing glass.

The passageway went dark. She stumbled, feeling for a hallway railing. Some faint light showed itself in the distance, illuminating the bulkheads. The path ahead was cluttered with debris. It was also filling rapidly with water.

The torpedo had struck port side, one deck below. It had detonated directly beneath the children’s bathrooms.

My girls are down there, Mary Cornish said to herself, peering into the blackness. I must get to the girls.

Bohdan Nagorski had been walking on deck, too, and he was still there when the Benares shook, at three minutes past ten. To Nagorski the sound was like the report of a revolver, fired close to the ear. But that was a fleeting impression; in fact he knew almost immediately what had happened.

Three Royal Navy vessels had flanked the City of Benares as she moved into the Atlantic, precisely because British commanders understood the risks associated with the journey. Hitler's submarines had torpedoed more than three hundred vessels in the previous four months. Two weeks earlier the SS Volendam had been hit, carrying 320 children from the evacuation program. But the Volendam had been struck close to shore; all her children had survived.

The Benares had sailed for four days and nights without incident. By the time her naval escort turned about, on the morning of September 17, the ship was nearly five hundred miles northwest of Liverpool. Royal Navy officers supervising the escort—as well as the Benares’ crew and passengers—had believed their liner was safe, far from the prowling U-boats, and beyond the theater of war.

It was just before ten o'clock at night on the seventeenth when Nagorski took his after-dinner stroll with his friend and compatriot Zygmunt Gralinski, a Polish diplomat. Two other passengers joined them—the British parliamentarian James Baldwin-Webb and an Indian medical student who was traveling to the United States for postgraduate research. The men were examples of an eclectic passenger list, reflecting what the historian Ralph Barker called "a colorful mixture of the cosmopolitan, intellectual and the persecuted." Boh-dan Nagorski was a bit of each—a port engineer and shipping executive who had been made a refugee by the war. For a half hour or so they talked about Canada, and they discussed the situation in Poland. At about a minute after ten, Gralinski said he was tired. Nagorski suggested it might be wise to spend the night on deck; if a torpedo struck, he said with a smile, better to be here—closer to the lifeboats, fully dressed, and wide awake.

His remark had been meant as a joke. Gralinski chuckled, Baldwin-Webb bade them good night, and then came the crash. The force of it shook the deck. In a matter of seconds the four men were separated.

Nagorski righted himself and searched for his friend. In these first moments, as the Benares listed slightly and the rain turned hard and icy, he felt strangely calm. I need to get to a lifeboat, he said to himself. And I should get some of my things.

But as he made his way below deck, he also imagined that this would be the last night of his life. In the last year alone Bohdan Nagorski had fled the German bombardment of Poland, traveling "in a railway carriage or motorcar or a peasant’s cart." He had escaped Nazi-occupied France and survived the opening salvos of the London blitz. Now Nagorski stood in his cabin, studying the little room in an almost disinterested way, wondering what belongings were worth carrying to the lifeboat station. He had made similar calculations before—gathering possessions in his home in Gdynia, on the Baltic Sea, stuffing a small suitcase in Bordeaux.

After a quick survey, Nagorski took his coat and homburg hat and a diplomatic pouch, leaving a trunk and that same small suitcase behind.

All the while the thought beat in his mind like a drum: I am going to die. I will lose my life, somewhere in these waters.

Not far from the City of Benares, the submarine Unterseeboot 48—U-48, for short—cut through the water, just below the surface. Several of her crewmen had gathered to celebrate their latest achievement.

U-48 had already distinguished herself as a fearsome piece in Hitler’s maritime arsenal, and in time this submarine would achieve unparalleled successes for Nazi Germany. Her commander was Heinrich Bleichrodt, a hard-drinking thirty-year-old who had taken the reins only a few days earlier. U-48 had left L’Orient, in Nazi-occupied France, on September 8. For Bleich-rodt the mission would mark the beginning of a storied career. Eventually U-48’s commander would win Germany’s prized Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, for leading a crew that sank more enemy vessels than any other submarine during World War II.

Bleichrodt had spotted the slow-moving shapes of Convoy OB213 in the early afternoon of September 17. Under his orders, U-48 had tailed the City of Benares in a zigzag pattern for nearly ten hours.

In Heinrich Bleichrodt’s mind there was no question that the Benares was fair game. She was sailing in a large convoy, she had gunners positioned at either end, and she was a large liner, an inviting target at a time when U-boat achievements were measured by the tonnage of ships destroyed.

These were arguments the Germans would make years later, when they stood in the dock at Nuremberg, charged with crimes against humanity for attacks including the one on the SS City of Benares. For now U-48’s men were jubilant. "A success," Bleichrodt said simply. Through U-48's conning tower they could see that the liner was sinking by the stern and listing badly. Some of her lifeboats had already begun their descent. Bleichrodt knew they had struck a particularly stinging blow that night in the North Atlantic.

The explosion had torn into the Benares' side, throwing children from their bunks and crushing furniture and equipment over a wide swath of the ship. Lights flickered, dimmed, and went dark; water cascaded into the ship's interior from burst pipes and from the Atlantic itself. Within minutes several people on board the Benares were dead.

Mary Cornish kept looking for "her girls." After a frantic quarter hour she found some of them, only to miss her own lifeboat’s launch. At an officer's order, she went instead to a boat jammed with men, and six of the evacuee boys. All right, then, she thought, I shall care for these children instead. It comforted her somewhat; if she was here, perhaps the boys' escort was in another lifeboat, tending to her girls. The boat went down on the command of an officer, teetering for a moment and then landing with a splash.

Two of the boys in her boat were Fred Steels and Paul Shearing. They had lost contact with their cabinmate, the boy with the glasses. Now, teeth chattering, Steels took hold of the boat's Fleming gear mounted between the seats, small iron levers that propelled the boat forward. Steels tugged hard, helping the men pull clear of the hulking liner. An adventure, he thought. If Mum and Dad could see me . . .

Mary Cornish huddled close to another boy, rubbing his shoulders.

"I’m freezing, ma’am," he said.

She could hardly hear the boy over the roar of the sea.

Bodies passed, bobbing on the water. Cornish looked away and massaged the boy's feet.

"Don’t worry," she told him. "It’s only a torpedo."

Other lifeboats dangled violently from their davits. Fred Steels had watched as one of them—crowded with people—cracked against the ship's side, hurling its occupants into the water.

The Polish diplomat Zygmunt Gralinski stepped down a rope ladder into a lifeboat that was swamped at precisely the moment it touched the water. He fell into the cold sea.

Baldwin-Webb, the British MP, stayed on deck longer than most other passengers, helping women and children board the lifeboats. Suddenly he found himself alone at the ship’s railing, gazing down at the water. He had missed his chance; the lifeboats had all been lowered. People beckoned from below, some forty feet down.

Baldwin-Webb hesitated. Then he stepped to the edge and jumped. He landed on his stomach, hitting the water with a sickening slap.

The teenagers Bess Walder and Beth Cummings reached their lifeboat -- Lifeboat number 5—but the boat took on water almost immediately. After a wild struggle on the waves, it was upended. Bess and Beth were thrown into the sea. The girls spent a harrowing few minutes slashing and crawling to stay above water, and somehow they both found their lifeboat. It was upside down.

Bess Walder swam to the boat, and there she saw Beth, barely, through the sea spray and the rain. Beyond that Bess could see only hands—a row of wrists and knuckles curled over the opposite side. Perhaps a dozen people were clinging desperately to the keel of Lifeboat 5.

"Beth!" Bess cried out. "Hang on!"

In the tumult of the storm and waves, the two girls languished there, ice-cold, holding on, crying out and no one able to hear them. They tried desperately to elevate themselves, to keep their bodies above the water. Every few minutes a flare shot up in the distance. Beth Cummings watched as a pair of hands on the keel lost their grip and slipped away.

A fresh, fiercer storm broke over the scene, and the winds reached gale force. At about half past ten the waters were illuminated suddenly, splashed by a powerful searchlight.

"Rescue!" came the cry from one of the lifeboats. A smattering of cheers went up on the waves. But almost as suddenly the light was gone, having swung an arc around the site and then dipped below the water level. Darkness returned.

The shivering, dying refugees of the Benares never knew it, but the searchlight belonged to Unterseeboot 48. Captain Heinrich Bleichrodt had passed close by on a reconnaissance mission, a visit to the scene of his crime. He could see, from that fleeting look, that no more torpedoes were needed.

The City of Benares slipped into the sea.

U-48 sped away, to the east.

Three hundred miles away, the warship HMS Hurricane made a horseshoe turn.

Hurricane's senior officer, Lieutenant Commander Hugh Crofton Simms, had read a decoded message from the Office of Western Approaches, the Royal Navy’s station near Liverpool that monitored maritime activity in the North Atlantic. A civilian liner had been hit.

"Proceed with utmost dispatch to position 56.43 N, 21.15 W, where survivors are reported in boats."

Immediately Simms set a fast course for the search area, racing the Hurricane through increasingly rough and dangerous seas. His crew was excited, but the seas raged, and the ride became as turbulent as any they had known. Hugh Crofton Simms doubted he would reach the scene in time to be of help.

In Lifeboat number 12, Bohdan Nagorski thought of war, of all the times he had considered life and family, and loss. For the moment at least he believed he had cheated death once more. He had a seat in a lifeboat, a warm coat draped across his knees and over the frame of a cold boy at his side. They had pulled those Fleming handles hard, away from the doomed liner. There were forty-six people crammed in this boat, six more than it was meant to hold. The group was quiet and showing no signs of panic. Presumably a rescue vessel would find them.

But as the storm rose, and the awful cries of the dying filled the night, Nagorski said to himself, We will not make it. We will not last until morning.

Lifeboat 12 was drifting in a particularly unforgiving patch of the Atlantic, six hundred miles from land and three hundred miles from the nearest warship. Nothing in this hellish scene at position 56.43 N, 21.15 W suggested that any of these people would live.

It was the worst maritime disaster of the war to date. Entire families were wiped out. Businessmen, diplomats, and professors were lost. So were scores of crewmembers and evacuee children.

But the fact was that the City of Benares -- while an immediate and powerful symbol of tragedy and the horror of war -- would also prove herself a mother of miracles in the waters where she went down. Mind-bending examples of courage, endurance, and good fortune took shape in the hours and days that followed the attack -- the children in particular exhibiting what one naval officer later called "courage beyond praise."

Sudden, almost imperceptible shifts in fortune were to determine who survived and who perished: the choice of the port-side lifeboat; a delay in reaching the embarkation deck; a foot massage offered by an adult escort to one of the children; or a cheerful talk administered by a child to a failing elderly passenger. Mother Nature played her role. So did bravery. So did patience and discipline, stoicism and keen minds.

But it was chance, more than anything, that dictated who would live.

Excerpted from MIRACLES ON THE WATER by Tom Nagorski, published by Hyperion. Copyright © 2006 Tom Nagorski. All rights reserved. Available wherever books are sold.

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Tom Nagorski