Children's Overseas Reception Board

Children's Overseas Reception Board (CORB) group bound for New Zealand, 1940

The Children's Overseas Reception Board (CORB) was a British government sponsored organisation.[1] The CORB evacuated 2,664 British children from England, so that they would escape the imminent threat of German invasion and the risk of enemy bombing in World War II. This was during a critical period in British history, between July and September 1940, when the Battle of Britain was raging, and German invasion forces were being amassed across the English Channel.

The children were sent mainly to the four Dominion countries, Canada 1,532 (in nine parties), Australia 577 (three parties), New Zealand 202 (two parties), and South Africa 353 (two parties), but also some to the USA. In the first few months over 211,000 children[2] were registered with the scheme. A further 24,000 children had been approved for sailing in that time and over 1,000 volunteer escorts, including doctors and nurses, enrolled. It was planned as a temporary exile for the children, to return home to their families when conditions permitted.

Historical backgroundEdit

Even before the Second World War began in September 1939, the British government had prepared for the evacuation of over a million vulnerable people, mainly children, from the towns and cities to safe areas in the countryside away from the risk of enemy bombing. It was widely believed that up to four million people could be killed by enemy attacks on British towns and cities.

When war did eventually break out, the question of sending British children to Commonwealth countries was brought up in Parliament. It was initially rejected on the grounds of creating panic or spreading defeatism. Instead the government decided that the evacuation to rural areas of Britain should continue as it was felt that this was adequate.

Nonetheless, it is estimated that, by the end of 1941, some 14,000 British children[3] had been evacuated overseas by private arrangement, over 6,000 to Canada and some 5,000 to the United States.[2]

They went either to relatives or friends or left as part of private schemes, run by businesses such as Hoover and Kodak, who would evacuate the children of their British employees. At the beginning of the War America was neutral, and had strict immigration laws. This presented a serious obstacle to the U.S.A. accepting any significant number of British refugees.

Initially these British evacuations to America were a private undertaking and not a British Government sponsored or aided evacuation, but this changed later (see below).

In a related American activity, the quasi-governmental "U.S. Committee for the Care of European Children" (USCOM)[4] was established in June 1940. Its purpose, was to try to save mainly Jewish refugee children who came from Continental Europe (as contrasted with those of the CORB from Great Britain), and to evacuate them to America. Images of German bombing raids and European refugees had a major impact on American opinion and this increased when the Germans began bombing the UK. America was neutral until December 1941, which meant that USCOM was still able to operate in Vichy France after May 1940. On the ground in France, the Quaker American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) (the Quakers - see History of the Quakers) worked with the OSE to select children. In a complicated process, several hundred children made it to the United States, though the rescue of many more was ultimately thwarted by the Nazi occupation of southern France. The organisation was strongly supported by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Other organisations and individuals also worked to save Jewish children and send them to the United States.

In 1941 Geoffrey Shakespeare, British Under-Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, announced that a total of 838 children had been sent under the auspices of the American Committee for the Evacuation of European Children, with the collaboration of the Children’s Overseas Reception Board.[5]

The Scheme organisationEdit

On 10 May 1940, the Germans started their second blitzkrieg that overran the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, and threatened France. Neville Chamberlain, resigned immediately as Prime Minister, and Winston Churchill was appointed to head a coalition government. Shortly afterwards the Germans initiated their assault on France, quickly overrunning the northern part of the country and forcing the evacuation of British and French troops from Dunkirk between 27 May and 4 June.

With the fall of France imminent, the children's evacuation scheme was again presented in the British Parliament, and this time approved.

In Churchill’s newly formed War Cabinet on 17 June, Under-Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs Geoffrey Shakespeare was tasked with implementing the evacuation programme.[6] The same day, negotiations opened with the travel agency Thomas Cook & Son, for the new department to be housed in their London Head Office at 45 Berkeley Street.[7] The British Government would meet the cost of the voyages with contributions taken from parents on a sliding scale, involving a means test.[2]

Although the British Government was now involved, and this scheme was sanctioned by the Cabinet, Churchill and some others were not personally keen on the idea. Queen Elizabeth, wife of King George VI, had made her views clear at the outbreak of war. There was some suggestion that the Queen and her daughters should be evacuated to North America or Canada. To this the Queen replied: 'The children won't go without me. I won't leave the King. And the King will never leave.' Throughout the Second World War the Queen and her children shared the dangers and difficulties of the rest of the nation.

The new organisation and staff were quickly assembled and the scheme launched. Applications for children would be made through schools throughout the country. They would travel alone and be accompanied by selected teachers or escorts at a ratio of one to every 15 children, in addition to nurses and doctors. They would travel to the port of embarkation and be accommodated in a hostel, where final medical checks were made. In order to embark rapidly; the usual formalities were dispensed with, there would be no passports.[6] Each child was given a luggage label with its C.O.R.B. number and as each child embarked they were given an identity disc, also with its C.O.R.B. number.

At its height the C.O.R.B. employed some 620 staff.

SS Volendam and SS City of BenaresEdit

Royal Navy destroyer HMS Anthony rescues survivors from a lifeboat from the SS City of Benares which had been adrift for nine days after the ship sank on 17 September 1940.

Within two weeks of each other, two ships carrying CORB children ‘Sea Evacuees’ as they were known, were torpedoed by German U-boats.

The first was the Holland America Line's SS Volendam, whose passengers included 320 children bound for Halifax and New York. She left Liverpool on 29 August with convoy OB 205, consisting of 32 other ships, and including RMS Rangitata, carrying 113 evacuee children bound for Wellington, New[8] Zealand. On 30 August 1940 at about 11.00pm, the convoy was attacked by U-60, firing two torpedoes that hit No. 1 hold and damaged and caused flooding in No.2 hold. The passengers and crew abandoned ship and were rescued by British merchantmen in the convoy, including the Bassethound, the tanker Valldemosa and the Norwegian Olaf Fostenes, together with the British destroyer HMS Sabre. They were taken to Greenock and other west coast ports in Scotland. All 320 children were rescued, the only casualty was the ship's purser who was drowned. The Volendam did not sink, and was subsequently taken in tow to Scotland for repairs. When she was docked a second unexploded torpedo was found embedded in the bow, if it had exploded she would have probably sunk.

All but two of the 320 children returned to their families after the attack on the SS Volendam. Twelve-year old Patricia Allen of Liverpool and ten-year old Michael Brooker of Kent, returned to find that their homes had been badly damaged in the Luftwaffe raids and their families were living in shelters. The two were labeled as "priority candidates" and sent back to the program to await the next available voyage.[9]

The second incident, which led to the cancellation of the program, occurred 17 September 1940, when the evacuation ship SS City of Benares (Ellerman Lines) carrying 90 children bound for homes in Canada, was torpedoed and sunk. Patricia Allen and Michael Brooker were on board.[10] She had left Liverpool on 13 September for Quebec and Montreal. She was in convoy OB 213 with 19 other ships and was 253 miles west-southwest of Rockall, with the Atlantic weather getting worse and the ship sailing slowly. City of Benares was the flagship of the Convoy Commodore, and was leading the convoy. At around 11.45pm she was attacked by U-48 with two torpedoes but they missed. A second torpedo attack just after midnight hit the ship. She was abandoned and sank within 30 minutes. The British destroyer HMS Hurricane picked up 105 survivors and landed them at Greenock. 42 survivors were left adrift in a lifeboat for eight days, until being picked up by HMS Anthony and also landed at Greenock. The ship's master, the commodore, three staff members, 121 crew members and 134 passengers were lost. 77 of the 90 CORB children died in the sinking, including Patricia Allen and Michael Brooker.[11] This event brought the evacuation programme to a halt.[12]

Political ConsequencesEdit

The sinking of the City of Benares caused outrage when it was reported on 23 September 1940.[13] The British government protested that children should not have been innocent victims of war. The Americans called it a ‘dastardly act’. The Germans defended the U-boat attack, considering the ship a legitimate military target, and insisted that the British government was to blame for allowing children to travel on such ships in a war zone. The sinking was a public relations disaster for both the CORB programme and the Admiralty.[14] The British public seemed more enraged at the Admiralty than at the Germans.[2] The fact that the escorts were detached, City of Benares was at the head of the convoy, and the convoy was not taking any evasive action all featured prominently in the subsequent inquiry.[14]

Some of the ships used for the schemeEdit

Liverpool was the principal port used for evacuation for the North Atlantic routes to Canada and America. Gourock and Greenock in Scotland were also used. Between 21 July and 20 September 1940, 16 voyages were made carrying 2,664 CORB children.[15] In addition there were also privately sponsored voyages. The programme itself was very limited in size; nineteen ships set sail with 3,127 children, the vast majority of whom made it to their temporary foster homes in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States.[16]

Children's Overseas Reception Scheme (Advisory Council)Edit

The following members were appointed[26] to the Advisory Council as announced in Parliament on 26 June 1940.They met at 45 Berkeley Street London W1, Thomas Cook & Sons, Head Office.

The Right Honourable Lord Snell (Chairman), C.B.E., LL.D.Harry Snell, 1st Baron Snell.
Miss Florence Horsbrugh, M.P., Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Health.
Mr. James Chuter Ede, M.P., Parliamentary Secretary, Board of Education.
Mr. J. Westwood, M.P., Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Scotland.
Miss Ellen Wilkinson, M.P., Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Pensions.
Mr. E. R. Appleton, Organizer of Empire Youth movements.
Major Cyril Bavin, O.B.E., Y.M.C.A.
Reverend John Bennett, Catholic Council of British Overseas Settlement.
The Countess of Bessborough, Chairman of Council, Society for Overseas Settlement of British Women.
Miss, Grace Browning, Girl Guide's Association.
Mr. Laurence Cadbury, O.B.E., M.A., Chairman, Cadbury Brothers, Limited, an authority on school and welfare problems.
Lieut.-Colonel Culshaw, Salvation Army.
Miss Doggett, O.B.E., League of Empire.
Miss Ellen Evans, Principal, The Glamorgan Training College: also appointed with special reference to Wales.
Captain G. F. Gracey, Save the Children's Fund.
Mr. Gordon Green, Fairbridge Farm School.
Mr. W. A. F. Hepburn, O.B.E., M.C., LL.D., Director of Education for Ayrshire, also appointed with special reference to Scotland.
Reverend S. W. Hughes, Free Church Council.
Reverend Canon H. E. Hyde, Church of England Council for Empire Settlement.
Miss M. F. Jobson, J.P., Member of Fife Education Authority and County Council; also appointed with special reference to Scotland.
Miss E. A. Jones, M.A., Headmistresses' Association.
Mr. P. J. Kirkpatrick, Dr. Barnardo's Homes (Thomas John Barnardo).
Mr. Harold Legat, Boy Scouts' Association (The Scout Association).
The Right Honourable Sir Ronald Lindsay, G.C.B., G.C.M.G., sometime His Majesty's Ambassador to Washington.
Mr. W. A. Markham, M.A., Member of Executive National Children's Home and Orphanage.
Mrs. Norman, Vice-Chairman, Women's Voluntary Services.
Mrs. E. Parker, Ex-President, National Union of Teachers.
Dr. Donald Paterson, M.D., F.R.C.P., Physician, Great Ormond Street Hospital.
Miss Gladys Pott, C.B.E., ex-Chairman of Executive of Society for Overseas Settlement of British Women.
Mr. Brendan Quin, 1820 Memorial Settlement.
Sir William Reardon Smith, Baronet, an authority on shipping; also appointed with special reference to Wales.
Miss Edith Thompson, C.B.E., Chairman of Executive, Society for the Overseas Settlement of British Women.

A Scottish Advisory Council for CORB was also appointed, which met at 27, St. Andrew's Square, Edinburgh 2.

The Right Honourable the Lord Provost of Glasgow, P. J. Dollan, Esq., (Chairman).
Mr. Joseph Westwood, M.P., Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. (also attended London HQ meetings)
Mr. A. L. Fletcher, B.A., former Director of Education for the County of Midlothian.
Miss Mary Tweedie, former Headmistress of the Edinburgh Ladies' College (The Mary Erskine School).
Mrs. McNab Shaw, a member of the Ayr County Council.
Miss Margaret Jobson, J.P., a member of the Fife County Council, and Fife Education Authority, (also attended London HQ meetings).
Mr. W. A. F. Hepburn, O.B.E., M.C., LL.D., Director of Education for Ayrshire, (also attended London HQ meetings).
A representative of the Quarrier's Homes, Bridge of Weir, who was appointed.


After the disaster of the City of Benares British public opinion was opposed to the continuation of overseas evacuation, fearing further tragedies. Winston Churchill had been opposed to the scheme, so the government announced the cancellation of the CORB program. However, private evacuation efforts continued into late 1941. By September 1940 the Royal Air Force had achieved mastery over the German Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain and the threat of an imminent German invasion (Operation Sea Lion) had abated.[27]

Although the evacuation scheme had ceased in September 1940, CORB remained active. It was only disbanded, along with the advisory councils, in 1944, by which point the perceived German military threat had diminished.

The German captain of U-48, Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Bleichrodt survived the war, and was held and tried by the Allies on war crimes charges concerning the sinking of the City of Benares. He was accused of sinking the ship with the full knowledge that it had been transporting evacuees. He reaffirmed the German position that there was no way that he or the crew of the submarine could have known who was on board. It was upheld and he was acquitted. However, Bleichrodt refused to apologise to the survivors, despite several crew members of U-48, including the radio operator, expressing their shock and regret once the facts became known.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ The National Archives Children’s Overseas Reception Board
  2. ^ a b c d Calder p129
  3. ^ Calder p139
  4. ^ "The United States Committee for the Care of European Children".
  5. ^ Hansard: Parliamentary answer 25 February 1941
  6. ^ a b Hansard June 1940
  7. ^ Brendon p278
  8. ^ I
  9. ^ Nagorski, Tom (2015-08-04). Miracles on the Water: The Heroic Survivors of a World War II U-Boat Attack. Hachette Books. ISBN 9780316348676.
  10. ^ "Life on board the City of Benares - the Children's Ship - Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool museums". Retrieved 2018-11-09.
  11. ^ "Corona Daily Independent Newspaper Archives, Sep 23, 1940". 1940-09-23. Retrieved 2018-11-09.
  12. ^ Archives, The National (2015-09-17). "Remembering the City of Benares tragedy | The National Archives blog". The National Archives blog. Retrieved 2018-11-09.
  13. ^ Liverpool Daily Post, Monday 23 September 1940, HEADLINE ‘294 drowned in Nazi outrage’
  14. ^ a b Fethney p148
  15. ^'s_Overseas_Reception_Board[permanent dead link]
  16. ^ a b Fethney p304
  17. ^ Fethney p60
  18. ^ a b c d e Pier 21 Halifax
  19. ^ a b Imperial War Museum, Collections
  20. ^ Manchester Guardian Newspaper 19 August 1940
  22. ^ "Home - The National Archives". The National Archives.
  23. ^ "page not found – National Archives of Australia".
  24. ^ Fethney p156
  25. ^ a b The Wartime Memories Project – Evacuees
  26. ^ "Oral Answers to Questions — Children's Overseas Recep Tion Scheme (Advisory Council)".
  27. ^ Gilbert, 20th Century, pp. 321-342


External linksEdit