In the summer of 1940, faced with the threat of Nazi German invasion, the British government sponsored a scheme to evacuate children to overseas countries. This is the story of Beryl Myatt, a child evacuee during the Second World War.

Photographs

Beryl Myatt

Photographs

Beryl Myatt

Beryl Myatt, who died aged nine when the SS CITY OF BENARES was torpedoed on 17 September 1940.

The Children's Overseas Reception Board (CORB) evacuated thousands of British children to safety in Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. In wartime, however, these long voyages were hazardous. German submarines - U-boats - patrolled the shipping lanes from Britain into the Atlantic Ocean, preying on merchant ships in an attempt to strangle Britain's lifeline of vital imports.

In September 1940, nine-year-old Beryl Myatt was living at home in Hillingdon, outside London. Among her surviving papers, her Odeon Mickey Mouse Club membership card suggests she enjoyed going to the cinema, and certificates show that she achieved full attendance at Oak Farm Junior school in spring 1939 and in the spring and summer terms of 1940. Letters and cables from summer 1940 between Beryl's parents, Tom and Emmie, and her aunt and uncle in Winnipeg, Canada, refer to her as 'very sociable' and 'very fond of reading'.

On 9 September, a letter arrived for her father. It contained instructions for her evacuation, via CORB, to Canada to live with her aunt and uncle.

Private papers

Letter to Beryl Myatt's father Tom

Private papers

Letter to Beryl Myatt's father Tom

Letter to Beryl Myatt's father Tom, with instructions for her journey to Liverpool. 

Geoffrey Shakespeare's letter of condolence to Tom Myatt, 19 September 1940.
IWM (Documents.5973/A)

The next day, Beryl left home for Liverpool, where she would board the passenger liner SS City of Benares. On Friday 13 September 1940, the City of Benares left Liverpool bound for Quebec and Montreal in Canada. The ship was carrying 90 child evacuees, accompanied by adult escorts, as well as other passengers. It was part of a twenty-vessel convoy, which would be escorted for the first part of its journey by a Royal Navy destroyer and two sloops.

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SS CITY OF BENARES

Photographs

SS CITY OF BENARES

Shipping losses: SS CITY OF BENARES torpedoed by U 48 on 18 September 1940. The CITY OF BENARES was carrying 90 child evacuees to North America, 77 were drowned.

Shipping losses: SS CITY OF BENARES torpedoed by U 48 on 18 September 1940. The CITY OF BENARES was carrying 90 child evacuees to North America, 77 were drowned.
© IWM (ZZZ 2070B)

As it was thought that the risk of U-boat attack was greatest in the first few days at sea, the passengers aboard City of Benares held regular lifeboat drills and were instructed to sleep in their lifejackets. With bad weather, many of the children were seasick.

On 17 September, the City of Benares was 250 miles (402 km) west of the Hebrides and was thought to be out of the most dangerous zone. But later that day, the ship was spotted by Heinrich Bleichrodt, captain of the German submarine U-48. That night Bleichrodt fired a torpedo that penetrated the ship's hull and exploded, filling the ship with the acrid smell of explosives. Captain L Nicoll gave the order to abandon ship. Children, escorts and passengers started boarding their lifeboats, a process hampered by the bad weather and the ship's loss of power. At around 11pm, the City of Benares sank, its bow rising from the sea, and disappearing into the rough Atlantic Ocean with its emergency lights still blazing.

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U-48, 1941

Photographs

U-48, 1941

U-boat Operation: U 48, commanded by Kapitan Leutnant Herbert Schultze returns to port in 1941.

Twenty four hours later, the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Hurricane arrived on the scene of the sinking having picked up a distress call. Hurricanepicked up 105 survivors in lifeboats and clinging on to rafts. Fifty one passengers and 122 members of the City of Benares' crew were lost - 101 of the lost crew were Indian sailors, known as 'lascars'. In addition, of the 90 children who had been aboard, 77 died in the sinking. Among the dead was Beryl Myatt.

The news of the sinking took some days to reach the families of those lost at sea. Unaware of her death, Beryl's parents Tom and Emmie wrote to her on 21 September, saying 'we expect that you enjoyed your voyage on the boat across the wide Atlantic Ocean' and reminding her to be a good girl for her aunt and uncle. Her parents marked the letter with the muddy paw print of the family dog, Chummy, and signed the letter 'with tons of love and heaps of kisses. God bless you. Mummy + Daddy xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx'.

Private papers

Tom and Emmie Myatt's letter to Beryl

Private papers

Tom and Emmie Myatt's letter to Beryl

Tom and Emmie Myatt's letter to Beryl, 21 September 1940. Chummy's muddy paw print can be seen faintly at the top of the page. 

Tom and Emmie Myatt's letter to Beryl, 21 September 1940. Chummy's muddy paw print can be seen faintly at the top of the page.
© IWM (Documents.5973/I)

Two days previously Geoffrey Shakespeare, head of the CORB, had written to Beryl's father to inform him of his daughter's loss at sea. He wrote 'As a parent I can realise the anguish this letter must cause you, and the great sadness that will be brought into your home'. Shakespeare's letter must not have arrived before Beryl's parents wrote their letter to Beryl on 21 September.

Private papers

Letter of Condolence

Private papers

Letter of Condolence

Geoffrey Shakespeare's letter of condolence to Tom Myatt, 19 September 1940. 

Geoffrey Shakespeare's letter of condolence to Tom Myatt, 19 September 1940.
IWM (Documents.5973/A)

On 23 September, reports of the sinking reached British newspapers. The Times denounced the sinking as a 'hideous German crime…brutal and barbarous slaughter'. The Daily Express called it murder, a 'deliberate and sadistic crime'.

Even after the story of the sinking appeared in the newspapers, the ordeal of some of the survivors was not yet over. Forty-five survivors, including six children and two adult escorts, spent more than seven days at sea in a lifeboat, subsisting on a diet of hard biscuits, tinned food, and strictly limited rations of fresh water. On 25 September, they were rescued by the destroyer HMS Anthony.

Photographs

HMS Anthony

Photographs

HMS Anthony

HMS Anthony rescues survivors of the City of Benares from their lifeboat, 25 September 1940. 

The sinking of the City of Benares prompted the cancellation of the overseas evacuation scheme, as public opinion turned against exposing children to the threat of future U-boat attacks. Like the families all the children lost aboard the City of Benares, Tom and Emmie Myatt received many letters of sympathy and condolence. The following year in May 1941, on Beryl's birthday, her parents made a donation to a children's charity in her memory.

By the time of what would have been Beryl's tenth birthday, Britain's towns and cities had been subjected to a months of heavy bombing during the Blitz. Bombing raids would continue throughout the war, though less frequently and with less intensity. In total, more than 15,000 children would be killed or seriously injured by air raids in Britain. In one of the Second World War's bitter ironies, the children of the City of Benares, like Beryl Myatt, were sent away so that they might be spared those terrible dangers.

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