They were the wartime Newport evacuees whose parents believed they were sending their children to safety, but the ship which took them across the Atlantic was attacked by a U-boat 75 years ago today, MARTIN WADE tells of the sinking of the City of Benares.

THE children were lined up on the quayside at Liverpool, clutching small suitcases and their gas masks. It was a scene played out across the country in the desperate summer of 1940 when youngsters were evacuated from Britain's cities as the bombs of the Luftwaffe rained down.

The 90 evacuees, with seven from Newport, weren't destined for the countryside, they were bound for Canada, but first they had to cross 3,000 miles of Atlantic Ocean patrolled by Nazi U-boats.

In June 1940, the Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed that children could be evacuated to Canada, Australia and other countries overseas. Within weeks there were more than 200,000 applications from worried parents for just 20,000 places.

They were assured a warm welcome. In July, the Argus told how people from Canada and the US were happy to receive British evacuees, reporting one New York woman saying: "I've eight now and another is expected in the Autumn, but I can make room for one of these poor little things."

The children, between the ages of five and 15 who were chosen to travel on a liner, the City of Benares, were sailing from England for Montreal. The seven from Newport were: Aileen, Marion and Rita Moss, Bill and Anita Rees, Roger Poole and John Pemberton.

She sailed on Friday, September 13, 1940 in a convoy of nineteen ships. Four days later when they were 600 miles out to sea, some of the escorts left to meet an eastbound convoy. Despite instructions to disperse the convoy and let all ships proceed on their own, the commander of convoy Rear Admiral Mackinnon delayed the order.

What protection there was could not help the hapless ship. German submarine U-48 had the City of Benares in its sights and fired twice but its torpedoes missed. Its third was not to be so lucky for the liner. It slammed into it just after midnight on 18 Sep 1940. The rest of the convoy dispersed, obeying the instruction not to stay and risk being attacked.

The order was given to abandon the ship. Amid force five winds the boats lurched as they were lowered, many capsizing or being swamped in the swell, the children thrown into the sea. Some leapt from the sinking liner.

Help for those who did escape did not come until 2.15pm the following afternoon when the destroyer HMS Hurricane rescued 105 survivors, including seven children.

Six more children were saved with 36 adults after spending eight days in an open boat before being rescued by another destroyer HMS Anthony.

Were the children from Newport among the few who made it into lifeboats?

A letter was to land on Newport doormats later that month which would tell of their fate. Geoffrey Shakespeare, the MP who headed of the Overseas Reception Board which organised the evacuation, bore the bad news, writing: "The ship carrying your children to Canada was torpedoed on Tuesday night, September 17. I am afraid your children are not among those reported as rescued."

He wrote too: "Like many parents you were anxious to send your children overseas to enjoy a happier and safer life. You courageously took this decision...believing this was better than enduring continuous air-raids.

"As a parent I can realise the anguish that this letter must cause you, and the great sadness which will be brought into your home." He added: "I deeply share your grief."

Patricia Dominy is the sister of John Pemberton, one of the seven Newport children who perished that night. The Crindau Boys' School pupil was 10 when he boarded the liner.

Patricia says: "My father (Frederick) had relations in Canada, so I think that's why John was sent over there."

"I was 18 months old at the time and don't remember it happening, but later, my parents never talked about it.

"There was no counselling on offer then, it was just another tragedy; My parents just had to get on with it."

Strangely she has discovered more in recent years from the internet. "He was a member of St Mark's church choir. Ironically she found out he was a good swimmer and spent a lot of his time at the Corporation baths".

John's headmaster said at the time he was "a good boy, quiet and reserved and well-behaved." He would be missed, he added, "in the classroom and the playground."

“He had no death certificate as he was lost at sea,” Patricia says “but he’s remembered by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission at St George's Chapel in Westminster Abbey.” 

The Argus carried tributes to all the lost children.

Roger James Poole, 11, had "exceptional ability and was one of the most promising boys in the school", adding he seemed to have a "brilliant" career ahead of him, his headteacher said.

Roger, who lived on Allt yr Yn Avenue was a pupil at Newport High School for Boys where his father, Percy, was a PE teacher.

Aileen, 12 , Marion, 10 and Rita Moss, 8, all were pupils at Malpas Primary School and were members of Malpas Gospel Hall Sunday School where Rita had won an award for attendance. They lived at 90 Graig Park Circle with parents Ronald and Lucy. Their headteacher at Malpas told the Argus their deaths were "a great shock to the staff and all who knew them. The children were very popular and will be sorely missed by their playmates and friends."

Gilbert and Cissie Rees of Cae Perllan Road, who owned a firm of opticians lost William, 12, and Anita, 14. A fellow-pupil of Roger Poole at Newport High, Bill was remembered for his “bright smile and cheery disposition".

Miss Crowther, headmistress at Newport Secondary School for Girls told how Anita Rees and Aileen Moss worked hard at knitting and making comforts for soldiers. "They were developing into the kind of girl the school is proud to produce - ready to give ability, energy and time to the community."

The Children's Overseas Reception Board had safely evacuated 2,664 children up until then, but after the sinking of the City of Benares, no more children were sent overseas and the board was disbanded.

We can barely imagine how such a disaster would be greeted today. But then, as Nazi Germany pounded Britain night after night, it came as one tragedy among many. Within the same seven days, two Newport children were killed when a German bomber crashed into their house. However, the words of Dr DW Oates, then Director of Education for Newport are clear in singling out this tragedy as especially horrific. He said the loss was "the result of an act of wanton and barbarous cruelty which will be condemned by all right-thinking and right-feeling people throughout the world."

He told parents: "We hope that it will be a source of some consolation and help to you in your great sorrow to know that it is shared not only by your friends and those at the schools attended by your children, but also by the people of Newport."

Acknowledgement: Shaun McGuire