Eric Kohn
March 08, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST

In 1940, the lavish passenger liner SS City of Benares embarked on a controversial mission to spare British children from German bombings by transporting them to Canada. In a painfully ironic twist, the Benares was sunk by a Nazi submarine in the middle of the Atlantic. Tom Nagorski, whose great-uncle was among the survivors, recounts the disaster and imperfect rescue missions with probing research and crisp prose (”It was chance, more than anything, that dictated who would live”). Miracles on the Water details the initial recovery of several shipwrecked passengers, then homes in on the eight-day saga of 37 stragglers on forgotten Lifeboat 12. The story unfolds with morbid inevitability, never sentimentalizing death; bodies are dumped into the ocean, and the struggle continues. The subsequent media buzz is striking: The British blame themselves, along with their enemy, for the tragedy.

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