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Atlantic Ordeal – The Story of Mary Cornish

By: Elspeth Huxley (740/35922)
Publisher: Chatto and Windus
(From the John Laffin Library)

On Friday, September 13th, 1940, the City of Benares sailed from Liverpool with ninety children and ten adult escorts as passengers for Canada under the Children’s Overseas Reception Board scheme. Four days later she was torpedoed. Lifeboats were lowered, and into one boat, 30ft long, forty-six people were crammed. They consisted of seven white men, thirty-two Lascars, six boys and one of the escorts, Mary Cornish, who in civil life was a teacher of music. After eight days at sea they were rescued by a British destroyer. On landing they learned that, besides themselves, only seven children and two escorts had been saved.

This tragic episode of modern warfare is the subject of Mrs. Huxley’s book. Her narrative is an accurate picture of what actually took place, both on board the City of Benares and later during the eight days’ exposure in the Atlantic. It is compiled from accounts given to Mrs. Huxley by Miss Cornish – a woman who, in spite of extreme modest and diffidence, clearly emerges as a heroine from the Grace Darling and Florence Nightingale mould.

The bare events of the grim adventure need no adornment, Mrs. Huxley has related them with a restraint that is the synonym of artistry. Understatement at times accentuates the horror; quick shafts of humour light the darkest moments. But above that, and above the tragedy of cruelty and waste, one quality emerges: the quality of human courage and endurance.

August 2008


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