A la recherch du Temps Perdue
(In search of lost time)
by John Bedwell
Marcel Proust, it (the trigger) was the taste of Madeleine cakes
dipped in Camomile tea that brought back memories. For me, it was an
advertisement for QE II cruises that took me back instantly to
September 1940. When I read the line
'In 2005, she (the QE II) became the longest serving Cunard ship
ever , when she passed the 36 years, 4 months & 2 days record of
Scythia ,which sailed from 1921 to 1957'
once again aged 8, with my 5 year old brother Michael sitting in a
train from Euston, on our way to Liverpool to join the 'Scythia'.
With 48 other English children we were on our way to Boston USA as
were dressed in our regulation gabardine school macs, wearing school
caps, and with brown labels threaded through our button holes, just
like 'items of luggage' I felt. Our group was sponsored by
readers of the Boston Evening Transcript - a paper which has long
daylight lasted, I was diverted by sights such as the Grand Union
Canal climbing a flight of locks alongside the railway As the long
day's journey lengthened into night, one of the older boys whiled
away the time by giving an imaginative account of the effects of
German poison gas. I sat in horror, chewing the brim of my cap. The
unpleasant taste it left in my mouth made me sure I had poisoned
myself, though there were no long term effects.
wrote to my father, we were housed in a school while waiting for a
convoy to be assembled. Liverpool was being heavily bombed,
and we spent several nights in air raid shelters. Finally , our
passports were stamped on September 21st. We boarded Scythia and set
sail in convoy for New York.
few memories of the voyage. Before we had sailed west of Ireland all
of us enjoyed the unlimited supply of ice cream, in an undreamt of
variety of flavours. I do remember rumours that a submarine
periscope had been spotted, and shortly afterwards the crew of an
RAF Lockheed Hudson waved to us as they flew over the convoy.
Shortly after that, we hit the full force of a North Atlantic gale,
and I retired to my bunk for the next 12 days or so, until we
approached New York. My passport bears a New York immigration
stamp for October 3rd 1940.
children did not know at the time, was that on 13th September 1940,
another group of children had set sail from Liverpool in the P&O
Liner 'City of Benares'. Those children were travelling under a
government scheme CORB Children's Overseas Reception Board. On
the night of 17th September, the "City of Benares" was torpedoed by
the German U Boat U48, and sank within 30 minutes. There were only
148 survivors of the 406 passengers and crew. There were only 13
children under 16 who survived from among the 90 who made up the
CORB scheme group. Six of these were rescued only after 8 days in an
open lifeboat. I can only imagine what my father felt as he
read the headline in the Daily Mail of 23rd September 1940, '83
Children Die as Huns Sink Liner in Storm'.
good reason to take the opportunity to get us away from the
possibility of a German invasion. As a prisoner of war of the
Germans in 1916 -1918, he had seen with his own eyes the effects on
a civilian population starving under a blockade. My mother had died
in 1938 from pneumonia, just 6 months before May & Baker had
released the sulphanilamide drug which was to save so many lives
during the war.
sent us to our deaths, leaving only my 1 year old sister Margaret
(who was too young to qualify for the evacuation) as the only
survivor of his children? I'm sure that the Boston Evening
Transcript must have quickly confirmed that their sponsored group
had arrived safely. However, it was not until early November that my
father walked to the station news stand to collect his morning
paper. There was Michael looking out soulfully from the cover
of the 'Picture Post' - "Michael Bedwell - One of the British
Children now Safely in the USA" - his luggage label, (somewhat
tattered, but clearly readable) safety pinned to his lapel.
Clear proof that we had indeed arrived.
My memory now fast
forwards another four years:
American foster father had tragically died, my father had
re-married, and Allied forces were advancing across Europe after the
D Day landings.
for us to go home.
Scythia, like all liners, was now being used as a troop carrier, but
the Royal Navy was carrying children who wished to return to the UK
October 3rd 1944, 5 of us joined HMS Thane in New York. The
Thane, a 'Liberty Ship' hull fitted with a flight deck, was no
longer required in her design role as a 'Carrier, Escort' i.e.
providing air cover for convoys. All available space was packed with
fighter aircraft (both in her hangar and lashed to the flight deck)
ready for the advance into Germany.
This photo shows the officer appointed to look after us,
Sub Lieut. Gordon Mc Nally RNVR, with my
brother beside him.
I am on the right. I cannot remember who the
other 3 boys were."
unlimited ice cream on this Atlantic voyage! Once again, I spent
most of the voyage being very sea sick, so the menu was of little
interest. On October 16th , we landed in Glasgow and after another
long , slow journey we were re-united with our father at Euston -
after 4 years in the States, I misheard the name as 'Houston', and
was puzzled why a London station should be named after an American
years later, we learned that HMS Thane made only one more voyage to
New York and back. On 14th January, 1945, she was torpedoed in the
Clyde by one of the last U boats still at sea, with some loss of
life. She was towed into port, but her back was broken. She was
scrapped shortly afterwards.
H.M.S. Thane operating as a ferry
carrier in the autumn of 1944.
And so back to the
account of the Benares tragedy has been published by John Wiley &
Sons, as 'Children of the Doomed Voyage' by Janet Menzies.(ISBN-13
An account of Thane's last voyage appears in 'Life in the Fleet Air
Arm 1944-47' by W.H.Cooper (published privately)
The cover of the 'Picture Post' featuring Michael's picture
recently formed part of a display in the Manchester branch of the
Imperial War Museum.
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