Eight Days: Lifeboat 12

What may be Lifeboat 12 Courtesy Wikipedia

Continuation of Destination Disaster : SS City of Benares

Fourth Officer Ronnie Cooper had gone in command of Lifeboat 12. The boat had tipped backwards while lowering but no one had fallen out. Once launched Cooper picked up 8 swimmers, making  for a total of 46 people aboard the boat. The boat was tossed around in the stormy seas but survived the night, meeting up with one of the Marina’s lifeboats. They stuck together until the Marina boat decided to leave for Ireland, the next day. Lifeboat 12 was overloaded and remained behind. The Marina would make it to Tory Island Light before being picked up by a boat on September 25th.

Cooper had the seating rearranged. Crew in the stern. Indians and passengers in the middle and Cornish and the boys in the bow where a makeshift shelter had been erected. That day George Purvis, a Benares crewmember wisely began rationing food.  Rescue may not come for a few days. While they would have plenty of food, their water would only last 8 days.  Drinking seawater was out of the question. To do so would be suicide.

At first the 6 boys were excited about their trouble. But the humdrum of sitting in a boat doing nothing began to replace the excitement. CORB escort Mary Cornish, or Auntie Mary as the children called her, took up the duties of being the protector of the boys. O’Sullivan, though their escort, had been ill with the flu before the torpedoing and was still ill. He lay in the bottom of the boat, his comrades thinking he would be the first to go. Cornish wasn’t well viewed at first by her fellow survivors. She seemed to be a severe person. But soon opinion changed. She donated her camisole as a flag and kept the boys occupied. Discussions, games and made up stories of Bulldog Drummond kept the boys occupied.

On September 22nd, those in Lifeboat 12 sighted a ship and began waving their ‘flag’. Finally rescue had come or so they thought. Making zigzag patterns the ship traveled away from the Benares survivors. That night a storm hit. Amazingly everyone survived it. But strength was failing and hope draining. With the strict rationing of water the survivors were suffering from dehydration.

By the 24th the survivors were on death’s doorstep. One of the Indian crew lost his mind and jumped overboard. He was swept away by the currents. He may have drank seawater which would have contributed to his demise. The boys were also suffering. Ken Sparks had had a fit and Paul Shearing followed with a much more severe fit some time later. Shearing yelled for water and said he was ‘mad’. Cooper was afraid to give him water as the Indian crew, which outnumbered the Europeans, might riot. The fear was not without a foundation. The ‘head’ of the Indians who communicated with Cooper regularly had said that favoritism could land them in trouble. Cooper handed an axe down to O’Sullivan and had someone nonchalantly take a dipper up to the bow for Shearing. There was thankfully no riot.

A Sunderland Courtesy Wikipedia

On September 25th Sparks spotted a plane. Others in the boat were doubtful, thinking of past  disappointments. The plane, a Sunderland, had found the boat quite by accident. It was a miracle. In the boat the Indians lent their turbans to be used as semaphore flags. The plane told them that another plane would be along to save them. The pilot didn’t have enough fuel or space to take them on. The next plane told the survivors that a ship was 40 miles away. Before leaving to fetch the HMS Anthony pilot, Doughie Baker dropped food to the survivors. What the Lifeboat 12 occupants really needed was water but fruits in juice provided a substitute.  The Sunderland flew back to the HMS Anthony ( which was under  Lieutenant Commander N. V. Thew) and led it to the boat.

English: British destroyer HMS Anthony Underwa...

HMS Anthony Courtesy Wikipedia

When the HMS Anthony arrived, the 45 souls had been at sea for 8 days. Rory O’Sullivan’s appearance had been altered so much in that time, he was mistaken for one of the Indians. Aboard the ship the adults were still feeling the effects of the ordeal even rationing the drinks given to them. Cornish and O’Sullivan were suffering terribly and it was wondered whether or not they would die. The children quickly recovered. But once back at home with their families who had belived they were dead, nightmares and other conditions would plague them. Survivors were taken to Scotland where they learned the tally of the dead. Of the CORB children only 13 had survived, 77 were dead. Two of the Indians taken from Lifeboat 12 later died in hospitals.

Source: Nagorski, Tom. Miracles on the Water : The Heroic Survivors of a World War II U-Boat Attack

28 thoughts on “Eight Days: Lifeboat 12

    • Yes, a very outstanding person. She was a classic pianist, I believe, before volunteering to act as a CORB escort. When I started reading that Lifeboat 12 had not been picked up, I thought that by the time I reached the end of the story, at least half of No. 12’s passengers would be dead. It really is amazing that most of them survived. Thanks for commenting!


  1. What an amazing story. It just shows that sometimes all it takes is one calm head to influence a group. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to keep 6 boys from going crazy in such a situation, Mary Cornish must have been an amazing woman.


    • Yes, Mary Cornish was something of a hero. There was one man, Harry Peard, I think it was, who the little group wasn’t very fond of due to ‘vulgarity’, but they learned to like him. He kept the kids encouraged. Can you imagine sitting in a full boat for 8 days and never being able to get up and walk around? It’s a wonder more of them didn’t lose their minds.

      It’s also very strange that the boat that didn’t get picked up right away, did very well in comparison to the survivors of the first night. So many died. The Grimmonds for example. They had just had their home obliterated before leaving England. Five children leaving behind parents and other siblings. All five died in the tragedy.

      Thanks for your comment!


    • Someone considered vulgar by the group would help keep boys amused I’m sure! Probably having a bit of disagreement between the occupants would have been something that kept them alert instead of them all losing hope early on.


    • One of Harry Peard’s ‘annoyances’ was that before bedtime(?) he would lumber down to the bow where Cornish and the boys were and give them a few words of advice/encouragement, which wasn’t always welcomed by Cornish. He was forever reminding her she didn’t know how to care for children. The boat was crowded to begin with, and his little trips to the bow probably didn’t do much to help the moods of other survivors, but still he served well in this episode.

      Another of his shenanigans involved taking a swim during the daytime. He’d dive off the boat shaking it when he went. I can only imagine the scare he gave the other passengers the first time he did it.

      It really is a surprise they kept up hope for as long as they did. The ship they sighted also helped some to believe they had reached the shipping lanes. From the stories I’ve read in general regarding the sea, it seems to be very tricky. They once thought they sighted land.


    • I can imagine the other survivors would have been praying for sharks during Harry Peard’s swims! Ships and sightings of land would help keep their spirits up. It amazes me whenever I hear stories of how long people have kept going in those kinds of conditions.


    • Haha! His swims helped him in the way of exercise. Unlike many others when the rescue ship came he was able to bound aboard. I think the adventure may have affected his health in the long run though.

      Yes so many survival-at-sea stories prove disastrous. For the most part this one had a happy ending.


    • Yes, it was. I can only imagine how much worse off they would have been without rations. But as time progressed they were so thirsty and their throat/mouth in such bad condition, that they didn’t really look forward to food anymore. Except when it was peaches, pears, etc. It offered some relief.


  2. I really enjoyed reading some of your “look what else happened during ____” stories. Well written and engaging. I see I’m going to have some good reading with my caffiene in the mornings, lol. I will be following your blog, so thank-you for writing these and for stopping by my blog, Diy Nerd, I appreciate it! Hope you have a great weekend!


  3. Very well written and thoughtful posts about the Benares. It is hard to summarize all that happened, and you’ve done a very good job. I have just written a novel about the disaster, from the point of view of the children. It is very much a fictionalized version of the events, but I am hoping to bring attention to the disaster and to the plight of the children. I am doing some final research and am wondering if you by any chance know whether or not Ken Sparks is still alive?


    • Hello Amanda! Your book sounds fascinating. I’m going to be on the look out for that one. After consulting my copy of “Miracles on the Water” it appears Ken Sparks was alive at the time of its publication. It is the 2006 edition and Nagorski speaks as if Ken Sparks is still alive. But that being seven years ago, I couldn’t say if that is true now. One of the female survivors recently died, but I’ve not heard anything about Ken. Sorry. 😦

      Good luck with your book!


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