Wartime Evacuation and the Children's Overseas Reception Board
January 31, 2006
In June 1940 Britain expected enemy invasion. The government decided it was necessary to evacuate children and others living in the direct bombing approach to London. Many children were sent to Wales, Scotland, Ireland and the open countryside of England but others were destined to go farther afield to Canada, America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Many children were sent to relatives in these countries but most were taken in by foster families.
The Children's Overseas Reception Board was established in June 1940 and organized the evacuation of hundreds of children to foreign countries during the war. 1,530 children were sent to Canada. The first group of CORB children, 39 boys and 43 girls, sailed for Canada on July 20, 1940 on the SS ANSELM. There is no complete list of ships and CORB batches in the CORB files but we do know that the SS NERISSA sailed for Canada on September 7, 1940 with 16 boys and 18 girls bound for Halifax, N.S. All of these children were transported across Canada to British Columbia. The next ship sailing for Canada on September 13, 1940 was the SS CITY OF BENARES. On September 17 she was torpedoed mid-Atlantic with the loss of 255 passengers, including 84 CORB children. The great exodus ceased but those already in safety had to spend several years far away from everyone and everything they knew.
A few years ago, through Pier 21, I made contact with Bernard Atkins, a former CORB child on the SS NERISSA. Bernard and his two brothers, Maurice and Michael, lived in Beckenham, Kent. In July, 1940 their parents decided to send them to relatives in Canada. Fate played a part in their lives as they were originally scheduled to sail on the SS CITY OF BENARES. Bernard has been a great help with the Nerissa website and become a valued friend. He kindly gave us permission to use a chapter from his personal family memories, "Back Then". The chapter not only tells the story of their voyage to Canada on the SS NERISSA but also gives us a detailed description of the ship. Our sincere thanks to Bernard.
Although kept highly confidential, as it indicated imminent ship sailings, Father through his special press security privileges knew our point of embarkation to Canada. No sooner were we whisked away at Victoria station than both he and Ma were on the express to Liverpool. I remember catching a quick glimpse of Dad and telling my brothers of having seen him, before we were again hustled off out of sight and away.
Sometimes too much knowledge may not prove to be an advantage. As it turned out, what transpired was to torment them for weeks to come. There were some one hundred plus British evacuee children who, under cover of darkness, were to board the SS 'City of Benares' to slip away from the harbour, join convoy OB213, and sail for Canada; that date was Friday, the thirteenth of September. It seems that last minute one of our small group heading for western Canada was suspected of having chicken pox causing us to be detained and another group boarded in our stead. So we were held back 24 hours and put aboard the SS 'Nerissa'. There were twenty-eight of us children in all, a matron to tend our nursing, a curate to stand in for divine guidance, or in our case, as previously mentioned, Mums 'Me Devil'. There were five assigned to each cabin with the oldest of our group being in charge. At twelve I was the youngest of the oldies so, with sex separation, I ended up with three, all boys.
A Scot made up in orneriness for what my group lacked in numbers. To make sure he wasn't mistaken for one of the 'Sassenachs', unlike the rest of us, mostly in short trousers, he, poor wretch, was decked out in full Scottish regalia. Not only that, he spoke in monosyllables and sounded 'funny'! Traveling alone at that age, even at my tender years, I felt for him despite the desire to pop him on the nose.
In his cabin, Maurice had Michael, at six years old, the youngest in our party. As soon as allowed we set off to investigate our ship. The 'Nerissa' was built in Glasgow in 1926 to serve as a freight and passenger liner between the St. Laurence, New York, Halifax and St. Johns. She had an especially designed bow and hull to handle the arduous winter conditions of the ice floes she would encounter. We were soon to learn that this gave her a bucking motion to go with the roll of the open seas.
Her pre-War passenger capacity was 163 1st class and 66 2nd class passengers. She weighed over 5500 tons, which although told to us, meant little. The speed of 15.5 knots we could compare to the 'Queen Mary', the 'Hood', 'Bismark', P.T. Boats and others that, despite our youth, we would read of daily as we approached and entered the Way years. In the search of our ship, compared to the 'Old Man' taking us for an un-coordinated row in the amusement park or trip on the Thames, this was indeed a floating palace. It had wide curved staircases, grand pianos, marble columns, lush red carpets, a barbers shop that sold 'Andrews Liver Salts', that lovely fizzy drink powder, for only three-pence a tin and, a sweetie shop. We were amazed all this could stay afloat. Next morning with drumming of the gong we raced down for breakfast to the dining room which was obviously less luxurious than pre-War days with long tables replacing the ones shown on descriptive posters in the upper lounge.
Having surreptitiously been used as an American troop transport carrying back aircraft pilots and others following delivery of warplanes to Britain and like missions, most of the lushness was stripped away from the 'Nerissa'. The menu was much to our like, offering Sugared Rice Crispies, eggs, bacon, fried tomatoes, pancakes, kippers and oily bloaters with their heads still on. The latter two I ordered daily for breakfast even in the worst of storms and a request that I understand even gave the cook a turn. There was few of our group there for breakfast that first day, while not of concern it was hard to fathom. A later visit to the deck above gave reason for their absence. Our fellow passengers were all along the outer deck rail peering downwards, not so much enjoying the great height as being seasick on the dock below. Many parents in all their wisdom had assured them they would be ill. Despite the fact we were still tight to the wharf, they were meeting the family wishes. I decided then I would die before joining them at the rail any time on the voyage. I don't recall how many days we were at sea, possibly ten or more. Those of us who hadn't taken to our bunks were busy showing what good sailors we were, hands in pockets, rolling down the corridors bouncing off the walls. Being an icebreaker we got a forward rising and lunging along with the fore and aft rolling with the sea, which made it not only a challenge for our fun but later was also to prove a protective cloak. On the second or third day as the last sight of land slipped away we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by other ships with destroyers buzzing around us like mother hens. We had joined the convoy that would help see us safely the first three hundred miles on our way. The speed of a convoy as it zigzagged its way across the Atlantic was restricted to that of the slowest ship. In this case, convoy 23424 slugged its way at 5-6 knots, the speed of the 'Benares'.
With Mum's 'Me Devil' riding our shoulders we had little need and saw less of our Curate. No doubt he was there to act should calamity befall us and bring comfort to the needy, whomever they may be at the time. Different, was the need for the Matron. With God's little children throwing up their half digested sandwiches into the sea from the time of boarding. However, Michael in the care of pseudo mother Maurice was low on her list of priorities. She had to be Mum to a ship full of 'sickies'. Meantime, Michael was building up to be the icing on the chocolate cake. Weighing in at no more than 42 lbs., he was looked on as suffering everything from rickets to ringworm. Once out to sea, the rolling of the ship had him join the list of the seasick. This almost confined brother Maurice to the cabin caring for the one entrusted to him. With Mike's retching to contend with, Maurice himself succumbed to seasickness, leaving little I could do but offer sympathy, escape the stench and tend my own cabin. The worst was yet to come. How a body could be seasick and constipated for ten days at the same time was beyond all reason but Matron was not to have her charge reach land in such a condition. Mike was finally back eating, but what, we don't know other than he would take Matron's 'chocolate'. The day came when he finally exploded. A mother at the best of times does not relish such an occasion, but when it is the child of another there is no bond to compel them. I remember Maurice with his ward standing on a cabin bedside table, left to clean up Mike and the cabin, the matron doing little but supervise, and leaving the mess to a fourteen-year-old boy. Maurice never in any way held his brother to account for this. In fact, if anything, it endeared a bond but he never was to forget or forgive the Matron who walked away when he really needed help and understanding. Over the years, when reminiscing, it took little to bring that day back into his life.
It was four days after leaving Liverpool on Friday 13th September, 600 miles out at sea, wallowing in a storm like a sitting duck, the SS 'City of Benares' was torpedoed and quickly went to the bottom. Only a handful of the children survived. The Americans, yet to enter the War, released the grizzly story throughout the world within a matter of hours. The repercussions were enormous. The Germans were accused of doing it knowingly to help break the moral of the British people, while the British Government, under a hail of criticism, cancelled all overseas evacuation of children. Meanwhile we kids on the 'Nerissa' were bobbing, like a cork on our way towards Newfoundland, oblivious of what was going on. Meanwhile, at home, the 'Folks' received a terse telegram, "Your children are safe". Whereas in their position there was little the Government could say, it did nothing to dispel the fear that was to haunt the recipients of the message over the days to come.
One day, (I wish I had the date), the ships alarm sirens screamed out the alert, which was to send us all scurrying, lifebelts entangling our heads, to lifeboat stations. How we made it to deck let alone a specific station I'll never know. There, sitting off to starboard was the ominous dark outline of a submarine. Suddenly, after what seemed ages, we got the order for all the children to move to the rail and wave. "It's one of ours!" Our arms aching we suddenly saw the black shadow slip below the surface.
The German U Boats, unless threatened by warships, launched their torpedoes from the surface at their relatively helpless targets. I have also read since (in "This England Magazine, Spring of '84) that we were attacked but our bucking ship, bow to the heavens one minute and waving its screws the next, rose at the right time to let the torpedo pass below our stern. I wonder to this day if it was indeed 'one of ours' or, our Skipper, Captain G.R. Watson played his cards right and saved his precious cargo.
Again my memory fails me. I do not recall sighting land or coming into harbour, so I assume we must have docked overnight at St. John's Newfoundland. I remember lining the rail with all the others watching the cargo hatches being opened to discharge massive containers of supplies no doubt sent to help the cowboys fight those red Indians we had seen so often at the Saturday morning Mickey Mouse club movies. Just as we were all but ready to gallop into the throw, we were taken down the gangplank and whisked off and away, or should I say out the way, on buses. Our destination was a large white, wood planked community hall where the most friendly, generous people greeted us. Only our first taste of what we were to experience on our long trip still to come as we crossed what seemed an endless country portrayed so simply on a postage stamp. Our hosts, whoever they were, had really outdone themselves to present a table 'Canadian style', which was a learning experience for all of us. Not that we would ask, but seeing the gallon pitchers of milk all spaced up and down the tables did make us wonder how many cups of tea they expected us, English though we may be, to absorb in one sitting. Actually when Ginger Ale, Orange Crush, Lime Rickey and 7-Up came to the table we were instantly transformed into 'Canucks'. The ringer was dainty little triangular sandwiches with no crusts and a brown paste in the centre, which disappeared before they hardly had time to hit the table. It was one of the lovely ladies who let the cat out of the bag as to what it was by saying "We'll have to send out for more peanut butter!" Then when topped up to the point of bursting, with fizzy pop bubbles looking for any and every means of escape, they came around the tables with a gift for all of us by which to remember the day.
We each received a shiny new Newfoundland 10 cent piece. That each would be given one was generosity beyond expectation. The equivalent value of five pence was more than many of our party were given to carry them to their destination half way around the world.
Back on our ship life seemed to take on a renewed excitement. More of us were out of the bunks and buzzing around getting in the way and playing on the decks. Even the crew now in relatively safe and calmer waters seemed to relax their guard and want to smile and point out with pride to the highlights of their home on the eastern seashore. One such spectacular sight on our voyage was an armada of icebergs, one of which, even over the distance, made us feel like no more than a pea in the ocean. The children of the day being knowledgeable in worldly events thought 'Titanic', and became ship 'lookouts' for the day.
As we neared Halifax, the end of our sea voyage, the gentler waters brought out the romance of cruising. Between her spells of being seasick, I had become attached to a slim blonde little thing by the name of Doreen. When I say attached I mean we were usually seen hand in hand, nothing more that I'm aware of anyway. One day as we came down the wide curved stairway for dinner we were greeted with the resounding chorus of the wedding march and the grinning faces of all in the foyer. Possibly the last time ever, to be played on the SS 'Nerissa'. It was a short-lived affair though, as once on dry land, somewhere on route across Canada, I lost track of her. Whether she was met at a train stop, met a railroad Romeo or just got tired of secondhand peanut butter served between two protruding piano keys I don't know, but we were never to complete the celebration or meet again.
On April 30th, a few months later, on a return trip to Britain carrying American airmen and Canadian forces, U Boat 552 that was under the command of Captain/Lieutenant Eric Topp torpedoed the S.S. 'Nerissa'. It was reported that Captain G.R. Watson and all the 'Nerissa' crew went down with the ship. Only 35 of the passengers were to survive. Survivors could not agree on whether the second explosion was another torpedo or the cargo aboard, exploding. In their minds it was hard to justify such a small ship being so targeted.
Captain/Lieutenant Eric Topp survived the War and was taken to America. When questioned on the sinking of the 'Nerissa' he confirmed that, ordered back to Dresden, he fired his last 2 torpedoes at his target and turned for home.
There were many acts of bravery to go unreported throughout the War. It was not until 62 yrs. later on reading 'The Brentonian', my old College magazine, that I was to find that Barnett (Buster) Harvey, an old Brentwood College boy, was to have a lake in Strathcona Park named after him. Midshipman Harvey, having been serving in Singapore following five weeks leave, was transferring to Britain aboard the SS 'Nerissa' when it was sunk. He was last seen in the water lifting the child of one of the military passengers into the lifeboat, as the second explosion occurred.
It seems strange that, after over 60 years, having written a few lines to the 'Brentonian' magazine that the article on the honouring of Barnett Harvey and my lines, two former Brentwood College students and wartime passengers of the 'Nerissa', would come together on the same page.
Recent information, forwarded to me through Pier 21 and Ann Hentschel, who has created a Nerissa website (www.ssnerissa.com), causes me to continue to question some of my recollections. Regarding our sailing date, it differs from the report by Curate Anthony W. Muir who sailed with us, as reported in the 1984 Spring issue (page 65) of "This England" magazine, which states we sailed 24 hrs. after the City of Benares, which originally we were assigned to board. For me, still at loose ends is how long we were at sea and our arrival date in Halifax. I hope someday to resolve this query.
Records of C.O.R.B. sailings are incomplete as to departure and arrival dates, as is the number of passengers caused by cancellations. The age shown of children reflect that given at time of application. Passenger list shows that Curate Anthony Muir sailed on the S.S. 'Nerissa' 6 days prior to Rev. W. King (lost at sea) who was aboard the 'City of Benares', not after, as stated in This England Magazine, Spring 1984.
"Back Then" - Recollections of life in Britain up until Sept. 1940 and from then on, in Canada, until the present day - by Bernard H. Atkins.
Children's Overseas Reception Board - Ship's Nominal Roll
Nurses and Escorts
ATKINS, Bernard July 16, 1928 November 21, 2009 At the age of 81 years, Bern passed away peacefully at home, surrounded by his loving family. He was born in Beckenham, Kent, England, and at twelve years old was evacuated in September of 1940 from the London bombing blitz along with two of his brothers, Maurice and Michael. Transported by ship, the SS Nerissa, and across Canada by train to Victoria, he lived briefly with his relatives, the Webb family. Bern happily became the foster child of Major & Mrs. C. Wilson in Gordon Head, and in his teens worked on their bulb farm, delivered mail and became a choker man in a logging camp before attending Brentwood College from 1943-46. Like his father before him, he loved photography and in April of 1947, Bern joined the B.C. Govt. Dept. of Travel Industry Photo Branch as a photo assistant. He travelled extensively throughout the Province as a still photographer, cinematographer, and film director, winning many awards including the "Teddy Roosevelt Award " for his conservation film "Valley of the Swans. " One of Bern's proudest achievements was his documentary film "The Silent Ones. " It won recognition for recording the expedition in 1957 to Anthony Island in the Queen Charlottes to collect a selection of totem poles to be transported south to the museums of Victoria and Vancouver for preservation, display and study. In a small way this documentary contributed to the Island being protected and declared a World Park. In 1959 after two issues of Beautiful B.C. Magazine, he took over the position of production editor until he was formally appointed Editor, a position he held until the Magazine was sold to private industry in the early '80's. Wearing many other hats, under the title of Director of Special Services, he produced numerous brochures and special publications promoting the Province; coordinated the first run of the Royal Hudson train from Vancouver to Squamish, headed the nine tourist regions of the Province, and revived the feature film industry. He coordinated a spectacular promotional event whereby he accompanied his much esteemed Minister, the Honourable Grace McCarthy, and her assistant, John Plul, on the Royal Hudson train to Southern California. During his exciting career he worked for thirteen different Ministers, retiring after 37 years service due to failing health. He loved the beauty of B.C., was proud to be a Canadian and often expressed his gratitude for the many opportunities his adopted country afforded him. Predeceased by his brothers, Maurice, and Gordon, in England, he leaves behind Cathy, his loving wife, best friend and companion of 50 years; son, Gordon; daughters, Jacqueline, Gail, Joanne and son-in-law Mark; grandchildren, Colin, Dylan, Mathew and Jenna Sedgwick, Liam and Celina Whitney; brother, Michael and family; Joan Popham and family; and the Colvin and Grant families. Bern will be remembered for the many attributes he passed on to his children and, in turn, his grandchildren: a dry sense of humour, hard work ethic, unconditional love and support of family and friends, endless generosity, and most of all, how to live life to its fullest, greeting everyday with a positive attitude. He will be loved and will live on in their hearts forever. At Bern's request, there will be no formal service. In lieu of flowers, donations in his memory may be made to the Heart and Stroke Fndn., Can. Diabetes, or Hospice. 570157
From remembering.ca. Published in the Victoria Times-Colonist on 11/28/2009
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