Torpedoed: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of “The Children’s Ship”

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From award-winning author Deborah Heiligman comes Torpedoed, a true account of the attack and sinking of the passenger ship SS City of Benares, which was evacuating children from England during WWII.

Amid the constant rain of German bombs and the escalating violence of World War II, British parents by the thousands chose to send their children out of the country: the wealthy, independently; the poor, through a government relocation program called CORB. In September 1940, passenger liner SS City of Benares set sail for Canada with one hundred children on board.

When the war ships escorting the Benares departed, a German submarine torpedoed what became known as the Children’s Ship. Out of tragedy, ordinary people became heroes. This is their story.

This title has Common Core connections.

From the Publisher

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Author Q&A

You’ve written many books for children, including Printz-honor winning VINCENT AND THEO. What was the inspiration behind writing this new nonfiction book?

My editor actually suggested the topic. She had seen an exhibit about children in war at the Imperial War Museum in London a few years earlier. She couldn’t get the image of a child-sized, bright red, custom-made life jacket out of her mind. She showed me the photo she had taken of it, and suggested I might want to look into the story behind the jacket. It belonged to Colin Ryder Richardson, one of 100 children on board a ship that was sailing from England to Canada. The children were on board to get away from Hitler’s bombs, but then it was torpedoed at night in a raging storm and sank within half an hour. This was in September, 1940. I was hooked from the minute I started researching. I thought about writing it as fiction, but the more I researched, the more I knew that there was enough information for a compelling nonfiction narrative. I worked on the book for four years, and in that time it became more timely, with so many children today in danger as they try to get to safety.

In TORPEDOED, you examine the bombing of passenger ship S.S. City of Benares during WWII, a piece of history unknown to many. What do you hope readers take away from the story?

I hope readers take away that tragedies can bring out the best in people. The stories of heroism, bravery, altruism and community awed and inspired me. It was life-affirming to write, and I hope readers will find it life affirming, too. I also hope people take away that war kills innocents, including children. I’d love this story to inspire people to work towards understanding and peace.

While researching this historic tragedy for your new middle-grade nonfiction book, what was the most profound piece of information you uncovered? What surprised you the most?

Listening to an interview with Rolf Hilse, the radio engineer of the U-boat, was profound. He was only 18 in 1940. Most of the crew were teenagers. Rolf was from an anti-Hitler, anti-Nazi family. Being on the U-boat was scary and intense for him and others. He said that when the captain found out–18 months later–they’d torpedoed a ship with children on board, he was so upset he had a breakdown.

Torpedoed: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of “The Children’s Ship”
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