In 1939 Germany invaded Poland, creating ripples of conflict throughout Europe. Hostilities intensified when the United Kingdom and France declared war on Germany and the Germans began relentlessly bombing London. British parents sought to protect their families from these attacks. One option was sending children out of the country. Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB) arranged to transport youngsters ages five through fifteen to relative safety in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa. A luxury ocean liner, the SS City of Benares set sail on September 12, 1940 departing from Liverpool and bound for Canada. The ship carried 406 people. Passengers included 90 CORB children along with their chaperones. Terror struck five days into the journey when a German U-boat fired a torpedo, sinking the City of Benares.
Torpedoed: The True Story of the Sinking of “The Children’s Ship” chronicles this catastrophe and the fate of its few survivors.
One of the hallmarks of this work of nonfiction is the powerful emotion that the story conveys. The author skillfully employs numerous writing techniques to achieve a heightened emotional effect. They include:
- Italicizing specific words to convey a deeper level of meaning.
- Pairing contrasts.
- Pivoting the narrative on a single word.
John McGlashan, the second engineer of the Benares, was annoyed too. But he was angry about something more consequential than obnoxious younger brothers…. He thought the ship should go fast and now."
- Concluding chapters with suspense.
- Zeroing in on tiny details.
Up and down they went, the waves flinging their bodies over and over again onto the boat... Their skin soft like tissue paper."
Time is a critical storytelling element. Like an expert filmmaker, Heiligman contracts and expands the reader’s perception of time. Following a brief introduction, seventy pages cover five days, from the time the ship sets sail to the moment the City of Benares was attacked. When a torpedo strikes the ocean liner, the narrative moves into slow motion. As passengers evacuate the ship, brief visual vignettes paint the scene in flashes of light
"Only flares and rockets lit now and again by the crew illuminated the fragments of the scene: a person walking quickly and clutching a bag, the rain pelting the deck, a sailor trying to stop a swinging lifeboat, a sailor carrying a child, people coming up from the below frantically looking for lifeboats."
One hundred fifteen pages describe the nineteen tortuous hours for individuals who escape the ship and are set adrift in the tempestuous sea. Heiligman stretches out the narrative through numerous short, tightly constructed paragraphs. Nineteen hours feels like forever. Readers experience the never-relenting hopelessness of being alone in the dark. Excellent pacing.
A separate section describes the ordeal for six boys on a tiny lifeboat who were rescued after surviving eight days at sea. Food was in short supply, water even scarcer. Cramped conditions, boredom, disappointment, dwindling heath, and punishing weather were constant foes. Shining through this dismal journey are portraits of desperation, selfless sacrifice, and heroism painted in vivid detail. One particularly remarkable individual is Mary Cornish, a music teacher who boarded the Benares as a chaperone. Stories of Bulldog Drummond, spun from her imagination, entertained the boys who were tightly wedged in the boat. When her lips became encrusted with salt, her voice giving out, her thoughts difficult to hold together, Mary persevered. She watched over the boys, tending to the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of her charges. She was determined to save the lives of all the boys. And she did.
Exceptional book design includes an opening “cast of characters.” This serves as a helpful reference point when tracking the numerous individuals mentioned throughout the text. Photographs and primary source documents are well-placed to complement the corresponding narrative. Short chapters are broken into concise easy-to-read paragraphs which begin with introductory phrases in bold capital letters. The book concludes with a roster naming each individual who shares with the City of Benares a watery grave. Back matter includes an After the Voyage follow-up on the lives of the survivors, an author’s Thank You, Select Bibliography and End Notes.