Torpedoed by Deborah Heligman

Torpedoed is a gripping saga of disaster, heartbreak, and heroism on the open sea.

Torpedoed: the True Story of the World War II Sinking of “The Children’s Ship” by Deborah Heligman. Henry Holt, 2019, 267 pages plus bibliography, notes, and index

Reading Level: Middle Grades, ages 10-12

Recommended for: ages 12-up

They were all alone on the vast sea. A speck, a dot that no one could see. But the speck was a boat, and on the boat were 46 people. Each person had a life, a story, a life worth living and a story worth telling. Would they get to tell it?

In September 1940 war came to Great Britain. At first the Germans limited their bombing raids to war-related targets, but soon began bombing indiscriminately. Hundreds of Londoners saw their homes destroyed and family members killed; thousands more were at risk. The government quickly came up with a plan to get the children out of harm’s way—way out. Ships were chartered to take them to Canada, Australia and South Africa under a program called Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB). Parents could apply, and if accepted could receive free passage for kids between 5 and 15 into the waiting arms of friends or relatives overseas. On September 13, not even a week after bombs began falling on London, the S.S. City of Benares set out from Liverpool, bound for Canada. The passenger list included 90 CORB children accompanied by 10 chaperones, plus paying passengers and a crew of 235, many of them “lascars,” or Indian sailors. The Benares was a luxury liner with features most of the children had never experienced—including all the ice cream they could eat. Three days out, the Navy convoy assigned to escort the Benares through enemy waters turned back as planned. Then one bad decision left the Children’s Ship at the mercy of a German U-Boat.

What happened next is as harrowing as the Titanic saga, and even more heartbreaking because of the number of children involved. Though such disasters often call forth great deeds of heroism, the ship went down so fast many of the victims had no time for heroics, and most of their stories remain known only to God. One lifeboat drifted out of range of the rescue ships and was stranded at sea for eight days before anyone knew where they were. We know their stories because they were eventually spotted, and the foresight and resolution of some of those passengers helped keep the rest alive.

It’s a story worth knowing, but be warned: it’s terribly sad. As a mother and a grandmother, it was hard for me to keep reading about midway through. Such events are the consequence—often unintended—of war. The U-Boat captain had no idea that he was targeting a children’s ship, and when he learned it later he was devastated. (Maybe he should have considered the morality of his government’s bombing civilians during the Blitz.) At any rate, the City of Benares was the next-to-last ship to sail under the CORB program. After that, children were evacuated into the countryside (which, incidentally, provided the fictional pretext for Lucy Pevensie to find a wardrobe in the house of her host).

Overall Rating: 4 (out of 5)

  • Worldview/moral value: 3.5
  • Artistic/literary value: 4.5

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Also at Redeemed Reader 

For more historical watery adventures, see our reviews of Magellan Over the Edge of the World, Sinking the Sultana, and The Wydah. Salt to the Sea is a fictional WWII maritime disaster based on true events. Also by Deborah Heligman: Vincent and Theo.

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Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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