Eighty years ago, one British attempt to protect children from the war comes to a horrific end


The British government had launched a programme to evacuate children from the threat of bombing or invasion to the safety of the overseas Dominions under the auspices of the Children’s Overseas Reception Board (COSB). Wealthy individuals – including with near fatal consequences for his reputation the Minister for Information Duff Cooper – had sent their children abroad privately. One ship carrying children had already been torpedoed and sunk, but all the children had been saved; the children on the City of Benares were not so fortunate. Only seven of the 90 aboard survived when she was sunk by a U-boat on her way to Canada. The weather was poor and hampered attempts to rescue those who had survived the initial explosion. The tragedy was fully exploited by British propaganda but the COSB abandoned its operations.

In response to Luftwaffe bombing of London, in particular the dropping of highly destructive “aerial mines”, and under direct orders from Winston Churchill the RAF mounted as heavy a raid on Berlin as it could with 115 aircraft. The mines might have been intended to disrupt shipping in the port of London but were seen by the British as a terroristic weapon used against civilians.  The Air Staff had objected that in the face of a German striking force four times the size that the RAF could field and with the British planes operating at maximum possible range, the mission made little sense, but it had been overruled; the political imperative to stage reprisals was too strong. The raid inflicted little damage but the air raid sirens did sound.

General de Gaulle staged his highest profile attempt to win the French colonial empire over to the Free French cause, attempting to capitalise on the decision by Chad, Equatorial Africa and the Cameroons to rally to his cause. Backed by two British battleships, an aircraft carrier, other smaller ships and a brigade of infantry, he arrived at Dakar, capital of Senegal. He had been misinformed as to the likelihood that the authorities there would defect from Vichy and the British ships found themselves under heavy fire. Partly because of concern that an opposed landing would fail, partly because it would not have been desirable to cause more heavy French casualties after the shelling of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir, the British withdrew. The debacle was commemorated in a ditty popular in the British forces:

We went to Dakar with General de Gaulle,

We sailed round and round and did bugger all.

The unfortunately named Operation Menace featured many years later as an epitome of confusion and futility in the novel Men At Arms by Evelyn Waugh, who had been amongst the British troops. 

In response to the Dakar foray Vichy French aircraft operating from Morocco bombed Gibraltar in some strength, causing light casualties. Things went less well for Vichy in a more remote corner of its empire. With minimal formality Japanese troops entered Vietnam as the first step towards eliminating France’s power in the region.


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