Issaquah resident Ilene Birkwood, who was on board the SS Volendam when it was torpedoed in 1940, has since researched and wrote a book about the attack. Pictured here are the ship, the hole made by the torpedo, the U-boat captain and kids who survived. Katie Metzger/staff photo

Issaquah resident Ilene Birkwood, who was on board the SS Volendam when it was torpedoed in 1940, has since researched and wrote a book about the attack. Pictured here are the ship, the hole made by the torpedo, the U-boat captain and kids who survived. Katie Metzger/staff photo

World War II survivor shares her story

Issaquah resident Ilene Birkwood wrote a book about her experiences as a child during the war.

“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 for more.

In consideration of how we voice our opinions in the modern world, we’ve closed comments on our websites. We value the opinions of our readers and we encourage you to keep the conversation going.

Please feel free to share your story tips by emailing

To share your opinion for publication, submit a letter through our website Include your name, address and daytime phone number. (We’ll only publish your name and hometown.) We reserve the right to edit letters, but if you keep yours to 300 words or less, we won’t ask you to shorten it.

More in News

American Medical Response (AMR) organized a parade of first responders to show appreciation for St. Elizabeth Hospital staff April 30. Photo by Ray Miller-Still/Sound Publishing
The complications of counting COVID deaths in Washington

State relies on results of tests and death certificates in calculating the daily toll of the disease.

Republicans file lawsuit over Inslee’s emergency: ‘Facts, and the science, are clear’

Lawsuit says state has violated Constitutional rights of citizens.

Issaquah City Council, from left: Mayor Mary Lou Pauly, Councilmember Stacy Goodman, Deputy Council President Chris Reh, Council President Victoria Hunt, Councilmember Lindsey Walsh, Councilmember Tola Marts, Councilmember Barbara de Michele, Councilmember Zach Hall. Natalie DeFord/Staff photo
Update: Issaquah takes steps to mitigate revenue shortfall

Staff cuts and other reductions in place will cover over half of the estimated $10 million loss

Issaquah man charged with fraudulently seeking over $1 million in COVID-19 relief

Software engineer sought loans through CARES Act for fictitious tech companies, federal authorities say.

How to report unemployment fraud

The Snoqualmie Police Department and the Washington State Employment Security Department (ESD)… Continue reading

One dead in Issaquah shooting

Update: initial investigation suggests shooting was unintentional

Among the candidates for Washington state governor in 2020: (Top row, L-R): Omari Tahir Garrett, Winston Wilkes, Thor Amundson, Cameron Vessey, Martin ‘Iceman’ Wheeler, Ryan Ryals; (middle row L-R): Liz Hallock, Goodspaceguy, Gov. Jay Inslee, Don Rivers, Gene Hart; (bottom row L-R): Phil Fortunato, Tim Eyman, Alex Tsimerman, Cairo D’Almeida, Cregan Newhouse, Raul Garcia.
GOP gubernatorial hopefuls aim to oust Inslee amid COVID-19

Former Bothell mayor Joshua Freed and initiative-pusher Tim Eyman could be the front-runners.

Nonprofit launches new online COVID-19 local resource hub for King County

Hub collects links for more than 300 local resources for people affected by virus.

The Regional Homelessness Authority was created by agreement in December 2019. Pictured: King County Executive Dow Constantine shakes hands with Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. Courtesy photo
Regional homelessness authority takes first step amid COVID-19

The authority held its first meeting on Thursday.

Most Read