MARY CORNISH & S.S. CITY OF BENARES
( Betty Marsden [mem.no.27])
In 1940 Mary Cornish was a 41 year old music teacher. She was on board the passenger liner "City of Benares" when she sailed in convoy from Liverpool to Canada on Friday 13th September. The mission was to take 90 evacuee children from the bombed cities of Britain to safety. This was a Government sponsored scheme.
The port remained closed for some hours before the Benares sailed. So whilst the ship was in mid-river and in contact with land the children wrote letters home. From these letters we learn that Mary Cornish had quickly gained the confidence and affection of the girls in her care. Her quiet but strong personality inspired the girls to help each other.
Four days later the City of Benares was sunk without warning by a German U-boat. The vessel sank in 30-40 minutes. The total disregard for the plight of the survivors horrified the civilised world.
As soon as the torpedo struck Mary Cornish tried to reach the children in her care. She groped her way through passage ways in the darkness, kicking, pushing and wrenching obstacles out of her way, tearing her flesh until she finally reached them. She found all but one - a little girl - and although the crew declared, "All clear below!" Mary felt bound to have another search. She was the escort for boat 10 and left an older girl in charge whilst she returned below.
The call was given to abandon ship. Boat 10 was lowered and the children ordered to get in with another escort. When an anxious Mary returned empty handed she was directed into boat 12, joining Father O'Sullivan and the six boys he had grouped together.
The lowering of lifeboats from a listing ship in tempestuous seas was a nightmare. The Benares was in the open Atlantic more than 600 miles from the nearest shore and her escort had left 21 hours earlier. The sinking ship threatened some of the lifeboats with capsizing and many were lost. The shocked passengers believed the adjacent ships would pick them up but the ships' officers were under strict admiralty orders not to attempt rescue work once their escort had left if it involved risk to themselves. As the minutes passed so the sea became more violent. Still they hoped for rescue. At first the children responded to the encouragements of the escorts, but the cruel sea and low temperatures made them subdued.
Boat 12 could not be seen. Even the capsized boats were visible and buoyant, but not Mary Cornish's boat. However, because boat 12 was the last to be lowered and was the farthest astern, it was away from the currents which had capsized the other boats. Number 12, under the charge of 4th Officer Ronnie Cooper, was able to get clear.
Gradually a routine was organised. Rations were allocated twice a day. Father O'Sullivan said prayers, and Mary Cornish told the boys thrilling stories of lone exploits against villains and Nazis and survival against all odds. Mary massaged their cramped limbs and feet. They suffered constipation and dehydration. They baled but could not clear the few inches of water in the bottom of the boat. Then they began to hallucinate.
Ronnie Cooper was an unflappable 22 year old officer, but he had his problems with an overcrowded boat and only a handful of men with abilities in sailing an open boat. Cooper had been lucky in the men he had picked out of the sea. They gave invaluable help.
By Sunday the next of kin of all the children had been informed. By the following Tuesday the survivors' strength was ebbing. They were eking out the meagre rations.
At 1300 hours on Wednesday September 25th, their eighth day in the boat, they saw a speck in the sky which, fortunately, was an R.A.F. plane - a Sunderland flying boat. Soon it turned towards them but had insufficient fuel to rescue them. It signalled, "Help coming". Airborne for many hours on escort duties, it was sheer chance on their return route that took then within sight of the lifeboat. From semaphore signals from the boat they were thrilled to realise they were looking at 46 survivors of the Benares.
Details were passed on to another convoy plane. Fifteen minutes later a second plane was sighted and supplies were dropped to boat 12 plus a message that help was coming. H.M.S. Anthony dropped out of convoy to rescue them. Sunderland aircraft took photos. The following evening, Thursday September 26th they landed at Gourock.
Ronnie Cooper, assistant steward George Purvis and Mary Cornish were all decorated for bravery.
Other information re Mary Cornish from the Public Record Office.
Miss Cornish was awarded the George Cross, notified in a supplement to the London Gazette dated 7 January 1941. Personal details are given as:
Miss Mary A C Cornish, 41 years, occupation - Music Teacher,
Address: 67 Baker Street, W1 (or c/o Mr Patterson, Bywood, West Lavington, Midhurst, Kent)MT 9/3406/M14212/40
Accounts of Miss Cornish's heroism MT 9/3461/M15184/40
List of survivors and their present position as at 10-10-1940. Mary's address is given as: Forest Hill Hydro, Aberfoyle ( her sister and brother-in-law's address) DO 131/20
Numbers on board the Benares:
209 crew (43 Europeans, the rest Lascars)
No 1 overturned by the sinking ship, most
134 passengers died - 57 adults & 77 children
121 crew died - 20 Europeans, 101 Indians ( many of these committed suicide)
Does anyone claim Mary Cornish as a relative?