As a lifelong learner of history, non-fiction books tend to grab my attention, especially one’s with unfamiliar topics. I paused when I read the title, Torpedoed: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of “the Children’s Ship”. Since I could not recall this historic event, I was flooded with unanswerable questions. Deborah Heiligman fills in the pertinent pieces to this tragic story in her young adult, non-fiction award-winning book. Despite the extremely disturbing and unsettling content, I couldn’t stop reading until I reached the last page.
People born after World War II often lack the full understanding of what life was like in Europe. In the opening chapter, Heiligman takes readers back to the 1940 London bombings. After sleepless nights spent in underground bomb shelters, followed by stumbling through rubble filled streets, uncontrollable fears permeated many city dwellers in London.
While I struggle to comprehend the complexity of the decision to send children to another country, I commiserate with parents who were seeking a safe haven for their children. Out of desperation, some parents applied to the CORB (Children’s Overseas Reception Board) program so their children (5 to 15 years old) could be sent to another country. The heart wrenching good-bye scenes were reminiscent of pre-World War II images of parents using kindertransport as a means to rescue their vulnerable children.
Using years of research, Heiligman retells the story of some of the CORB children, their chaperons, paying passengers on the ship as well as the ship’s crew which included a sizable number of Indian sailors, called lascars. Heiligman gathered tiny fragments of information about the lascars. The era’s class conscious and racist attitudes minimized an adequate paper trail. When the German submarine U-48 torpedoed the SS City of Benares, the lascars assisted passengers. Sadly, their heroic stories died with them. Only ten escorts chaperoned the 90 CORB children who were aboard the ship. Ninety-one paying passengers rounded out the roster for the luxury ship which had been painted a neutral color.
Story Unfolds With Multiple Perspectives
Heiligman adeptly weaves together stories of a select number of individuals aboard the ship, their families, the CORB program, as well as some of the Germans aboard the U-48 submarine. Photographs, original documents, and drawings enrich the story. Readers easily become attached to the CORB children as they settle into the first few days of sailing on a luxury ship known for its exceptional food. All along, one wonders who will survive the sinking of the ship. Knowing that only 13 CORB children and 4 escorts survived adds to the intensity of the reading.
Heiligman also includes a small glimpse into the what was happening aboard the U-48 submarine and how the captain later dealt with the news that his ship’s torpedo had murdered so many innocent children. Like so many things that happen in life, luck sometimes determines whether someone lives or dies. Hindsight also provides an understanding of which human decisions and natural events caused additional calamity.
Long after a book is placed on a bookshelf, great books remain on one’s thoughts. Torpedoed: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of “the Children’s Ship” is one of those stories that will be impossible to forget. The immense pain felt by those grieving parents who lost children on the vessel will remain alive in the memories of everyone who reads the book.
- Winner of SCBWI’s 2020 Golden Kite Award for Nonfiction for Older Readers
- ALA 2020 Notable Children’s Book
- 2020 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Award Finalist
- Horn Book FanFare 2019
- Kirkus Best Book of 2019
- Chicago Public Library Best Informational Books for Older Readers 2019
I received a complimentary copy of Torpedoed: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of “the Children’s Ship”
Sandra Bornstein is the author of May This Be the Best Year of Your Life. Sandra’s memoir highlights her living and teaching adventure in Bangalore, India. She was a licensed Colorado teacher who taught K-12 students in the United States and abroad. Sandra also taught college-level courses at Front Range Community College and the University of Colorado-Boulder.
In addition to reviewing books and interviewing authors, Sandra is an award-winning author and lifestyle and travel journalist. Many of Sandra’s travel stories appear on the For Readers Page. TheTravelingBornsteins website showcases recent travel and lifestyle stories.