“To discover late in life that you should have gone to a watery grave before your eighth birthday is a strange experience. It began like this…”
The opening lines of Ilene Birkwood’s “The Second Torpedo” provide a glimpse into the author’s experiences during World War II. At about 10 p.m. on Aug. 30, 1940, 7-year-old Birkwood and 300 other children survived a U-boat attack.
Birkwood will discuss her book at the Issaquah Library from 2-3:30 p.m. on Nov. 10, the day before Veteran’s Day. According to the King County Library System (KCLS) website, her story “gives us a mesmerizing glimpse into a child’s view of war.”
“Encompassing the stories of children who reached other countries, set against the drama of Britain fighting for its very existence through the Blitz and the Battle of Britain, this book is a riveting combination of personal memories, other survivors’ stories, and extensive research. We experience the Blitz, the Battle of Britain, life in Britain under siege, and even the adventures of the U-boat captain,” KCLS notes.
Birkwood grew up on the Isle of Wight, located in the English Channel off the southern coast of Britain. The island, which was close to German-occupied France and home to a Royal Air Force (RAF) radar station, was frequently bombed during the war. As Hitler prepared to invade, the British government decided to evacuate kids in vulnerable areas.
“Suddenly they were on our doorstep so they thought, let’s get the children out of here,” Birkwood said.
With her three older siblings, Birkwood waved goodbye to her parents and set off in a convoy for Liverpool. There, they would board the ocean liner SS Volendam and sail to Canada, even as the Battle of the Atlantic was raging and ships were sinking at a rate of three per day.
Still, the attack on the SS Volendam was unexpected, she said.
“The British Navy still had total control over the sea, so they figured it would be safe,” Birkwood said. “The problem was that there were so many convoys, there weren’t enough escort ships. Also Ireland was neutral, so all of the U-boats were just sitting there, waiting, and the Navy could do nothing about it.”
Two days into their two-week journey, their ship was torpedoed.
“There’s an almighty crash. Everything in our cabin goes flying all over the place and the alarm bells ring, and I sleep on,” Birkwood recalled.
She and the other children got up on deck in three and a half minutes. She said that “nobody was crying, because it was so exciting,” and “we all knew exactly what to do.”
That was, until the kids started boarding lifeboats and becoming “horrendously seasick,” she said.
“When you’re on a liner, you look down at the heavy sea, and the waves they look big. When you’re in a little boat, they’re like mountains,” she said.
Crew members rowed for about two hours toward an oil tanker that had stopped for them, which was “a very brave thing to do,” Birkwood said. The tanker, a ship with accommodation for 12 people, picked up 220 passengers.
Later, when the Official Secrets Act was lifted, the survivors could research what happened to the ship. The U-boat had launched two torpedoes at the SS Volendam: one ripped a 60 foot hole in the bow, while the other remained, unexploded, in the hold.
By an incredible act of seamanship, the captain managed to navigate the ship 200 miles to Scotland, where the live torpedo was discovered by divers, Birkwood said. That fact was suppressed by the War Office for years.
“They didn’t want Germans to know they had a live torpedo to analyze,” she said. “But had it gone up, I wouldn’t be sitting here today.”
Years later, Birkwood was contacted by another survivor, John Roberts, who told her the story. She “realized for the first time that [she] had been living a charmed life.”
But at the time, Birkwood and her siblings had signed up with another group bound for Canada on the SS City of Benares, until one of the kids got chicken pox. It turned out to be another lucky break.
“We were quarantined and not allowed to sail,” she said. “But the next ship that we should have been on went down, and only 13 children survived.”
The sinking of the SS City of Benares led to Winston Churchill to cancel the Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB) plan to relocate British children abroad.
After that, Birkwood and her siblings returned home, living through Battle of Britain and the Blitz. From a child’s perspective, the war seemed more exciting than dangerous, she said. She remembered finding a mine on a beach near her home and throwing rocks at it, and picking up packets of Nescafe that floated in from sunken ships.
Birkwood said she is looking forward to sharing her experiences with Issaquah Library patrons. She said that when she’s talked to Americans about World War II, they are fascinated by her firsthand account, because the U.S. didn’t enter the war until 1941.
For example, the Battle of Britain took place in 1940, and was the “first defeat Hitler ever had” despite Germany’s air force, the Luftwaffe, outnumbering the RAF three to one.
“We had front row seats for the Battle of Britain,” she said. “All of the dogfights were going on right over our heads.”
Birkwood said she and her family felt relatively safe, but she recalls the bombing vividly.
“I remember walking across this wet, cold grass and the whole sky was orange,” she said. “I think there were 2,000 bombers in first 40 days, and it just kept going all day and all night.”
Later in life, Birkwood married a British man who had lived in Bermuda during the war. They moved to New Zealand, then California to work in the technology industry. After retiring, they moved back to New Zealand, where Birkwood discovered a penchant for writing, then to Issaquah in 2006.
Birkwood has written a few other books, including three mystery novels set in New Zealand, and is currently researching a book about the Druids. “The Second Torpedo” is the only one based on her life.
Birkwood still visits England every year, and said that some of the survivors of the U-boat attack still get together or call each other on Aug. 30. In her book, Birkwood notes that even on Lake Sammamish, she will “always check for periscopes.”
See ilenebirkwood.com for more.