March 28, 2015

Finest Hour 131, Summer 2006

Page 45

Miracles on the Water: The Heroic Survivors of a WorldWar IIU-Boat Attack (paper-back), by Tom Nagorski. New York: Hyperion, $14.95, $9.92 from

While not qualifying for review in these pages, Miracles on the Water may be of interest to readers. It concerns the sinking of the British passenger liner City of Benares. Author Tom Nagorski tells us it is “in large part the story of the child evacuees who were traveling on board, and in particular how a handful of them were rescued. Winston Churchill, as you probably know, was deeply opposed to plans to evacuating children; he believed such programs would signal that Britain was losing its stomach for war.”

Nagorski, a senior producer at ABC’s World News Tonight and winner of three Emmy Awards, “scores a bull’s-eye” according to Publisher’s Weekly. The Benares, with 406 crew and passengers, was torpedoed by a German U-boat 630 miles out in the North Atlantic on 17 September 1940, in stormy waters. “Those who made it into lifeboats faced gale-force winds and icy waters-—a recipe for hypothermia. With the nearest help 300 miles away, the survivors faced long odds. Despite frequent heroism, many drowned or died of overexposure before the HMS Hurricane arrived and rescued 108 survivors. In its search, HMS Hurricane missed Lifeboat 12, and its passengers endured eight more harrowing days on the open sea before being rescued. In all, only thirteen of the ninety children survived. Nagorski, whose great-uncle was among the survivors, bases his narrative largely on eyewitness accounts.

Roland Green in Booklist comments: “Nagorski’s thoroughly gripping account of a sinking during the Battle of the Atlantic of World War II has more of tragedy than the miraculous in it. When the British liner City of Benares was hit in the fall of 1940, among those aboard were some hundred children being evacuated to Canada, and most of them were lost. Considering the faulty intelligence and bad weather, the rescue work that was done was a very considerable accomplishment. The real miracle was the survival of lifeboat 12 and most of her forty-six passengers (the boat was designed for thirty) for eight days with minimal food and water.”

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The sinking did much to validate Churchill’s belief that children should not be evacuated from Britain, on the grounds of safety as well as the nation’s morale.

Woods Corner is a bookish column named for the pioneer bibliographer of Churchill’s works, the late Frederick Woods.

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