LANCASTRIA A SUPPRESSED STORY
INTRODUCTION On the morning of 17 June 1940 HMT Lancastria was anchored some miles off St Nazaire, a port on the French Atlantic Coast. Along with a number of other ships, she had been ordered to assist in the evacuation of many British servicemen and civilians who had been left in France after the evacuation of Dunkirk. By mid-afternoon of that day anywhere from 6,000 to 9,000 people were packed aboard the ship when she was hit four times by enemy bombs. Within thirty minutes she had sunk, suffering a loss of life greater than the combined losses of the Lusitania and the Titanic. Because of the recent success of the Dunkirk evacuation, understandably Churchill suppressed any reports of the sinking being released to the public not wanting to damage the moral of the country. It is for this reason that not many people have heard of the tragic evens that happened on that day. With this book I hope to raise awareness of the worst single loss of life in British maritime history using written accounts from some of the 2,477 survivors who made it home. In remembrance of all those who lost their lives that day, it is up to us to keep their memory alive for years to come.
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THE MIRACLE OF DUNKIRK Churchill first learned of the full extent of the disaster that had overwhelmed the French at Sedan, when he flew to Paris for a meeting with the French government on 16 May, and found them in a state of near panic. Back in London the following day, Duff Cooper urged him to prepare the British people for the receipt of bad news. Although documentation in the form of cabinet minutes is sparse, the campaign that emerged can be pieced together from newspapers and recordings and transcripts of radio programs. On 17 May newspapers carried the first open acknowledgement of the German breakthrough on the Meuse, though editorials by military experts reminded the readership that the Germans had broken through in March 191 and had still been defeated. Despite such reassurances, it was announced
that the government had designated Sunday 26 May as a day of national prayer for the British army â€˜in peril in Flandersâ€™. On Monday 20 May the German thrust reached the Channel coast, and on the following day British papers openly discussed the danger this posed to the rear of the British Expeditionary Force (bef), still in western Belgium. The formal decision to start an evacuation through the port of Dunkirk was made at a meeting of the defence committee at 22.00 on Saturday 25 May, though as we have seen, the Royal Navy had been moving ships to Channel ports for at least ten days.
RESCUED FROM THE JAWS OF DEATH
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On 29 May there was a bombshell – the Belgian army had capitulated, reducing further the perimeter around Dunkirk the unstated corollary – one that was well understood by the veterans of World War One – was that with their eastern flank weakened, British and French forces could not long survive. Such prognostications seemed confirmed on 30th May, with the publication of a telegram from the King to Lord Gort, which could be read as a message of farewell. ‘All your countrymen have been following with pride and admiration the courageous resistance of the British Expeditionary Force during the continuing fighting of the last fortnight. Faced by circumstances outside their control in a position of extreme difficulty, they are displaying a gallantry which has never been surpassed in the annals of the British Army. The hearts of everyone of us at home are with you and your magnificent troops in this hour of peril.’ By Thursday evening many were expecting that the weekend would bring the worst, the news that the bef had also been forced to capitulate. On the day the King’s letter to Gort was published, 126,000 troops had already been evacuated, so that the bef’s situation, while serious, was by no means as desperate as it had been made to appear.
The scene had been carefully set for a ‘miracle’. It came on Friday 31 May, with newspapers and the bbc announcing that an evacuation had been underway for several days, and a large part of the bef had already been rescued. The Times editorial, the ‘Sea Grip,’ a piece on British maritime prowess, was followed by ‘Anabasis – the Sea,’ which drew a parallel between Gort and the bef, and Xenophon and the escape of the 10,000. Other papers with less literary leanings gave the public the news with screaming headlines – ‘Saved’ – ‘Disaster Turned To Triumph’ – ‘Rescued From The Jaws Of Death’. On Sunday 2 June, the Dean of St Paul’s referred to the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’. With a great national drama unfolding, the bbc sought and got permission to conduct radio interviews with the troops as they landed, while newsreel cameras filmed soldiers coming ashore smiling, waving, and giving thumbs-up signs. The message was clear – although the army had been driven from the continent, its spirit had not been broken. Increasingly concerned at the air of unreality that seemed to permeate Britain, on 4 June Churchill addressed the House of Commons in terms that spelt out clearly the truly desperate nature of Britain’s situation. He reminded his countrymen that wars were not won by evacuations, and that ‘what has happened
in France and Belgium is a colossal military disaster’.1 The signal ‘Operation Dynamo now completed’ which was circulated on the 4 June, indicated the end of the evacuation at Dunkirk, but by no means implied that all of the bef troops had returned from France, indeed, with the French capitulation on the 12th and capture of the 51st Highland Division on the 13 June, there were still exceedingly large numbers of troops awaiting evacuation.2 The British had an orderly withdrawal, reversing their Line of Communication, starting at Saint Nazaire it had extended to the south of Paris to Reims. Along this line, were British Military Hospitals, heavy repair shops, ordnance parks, military police posts and even naffi, in the guise of efi. In addition, many French airfields had raf fighter squadrons. By 15 June, all British units still in France were directed to commence their withdrawal to the western ports and ‘Plan Areal’ was put into effect.
Winston Churchill had the idea that possibly the French Government would continue fighting. With that thought in mind, General Sir Alan Brooke was sent to France as head of the 2nd bef. The 52nd Lowland Division had been sent to France 7–12 June: 1st Canadian Division went 12–13 June and complimented the remnants of the 1st Armored and Beauman’s Divisions.1
THE LANCASTRIA’S CALL TO DUTY In June 1922 the Tyrrenhia took her maiden voyage from Glasgow to Canada. She was an elegant vessel with two masts and a single funnel, and throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s was a ship of peaceful pleasure.3 Catering mainly for the American market, the ship’s name was unpopular; Cunard believing that the ship’s name was too difficult for the Americans and so, on 27 February, they changed the name from Tyrrhenia to Lancastria and she commenced her maiden voyage under the new name to New York on 22 March 1924.4 What the fates made of the change, only time would tell. It is supposed to be very unlucky to change a God-given name, and sailors feel that the naming of a ship is as good as a christening.3 Britain had been at war since the previous September. Lancastria, had been on a cruise in the Bahamas at the outbreak of war when orders from the Admiralty in London arrived and she was immediately requisitioned as a troop transport and sent to New York to be fitted out. Her standard Cunard red, white and black paint was replaced with battleship grey and a 4" gun mounted on the stern deck where normally wealthy cruise passengers took a dip in the pool.5 The RMS Lancastria had now become ‘His Majesty’s Transport Lancastria’ – hence the HMT.3 One of Lancastria’s first missions in the war was to transport troops from Greenock to Norway as part of the attempt to stem the Nazi invasion of that country. The then First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, had been behind the plan to supply British troops to Norway, but the plan was doomed from the outset and the Norway campaign ended in failure. Less than a month after disembarking troops, Lancastria was sent back to pick them up after the Germans overran the country.5
The Norway campaign had been a disaster in its own right, yet Churchill escaped blame despite being the man ultimately responsible for the Norwegian plan. Just weeks later he became Prime Minister. During that return trip she came under attack by high flying aircraft that dropped two bombs. Both missed and no damage was done. At Greenock she loaded some 55 tons of oil fuel before being sent to Liverpool for overhauling and dry-docking, arriving on the 14th of June. Secrecy, as with all earlier military operations in which the Lancastria was involved, meant that neither the crew, nor the Captain himself, knew where the next destination would be. That being the case, Lancastria was always fuelled and supplies loaded to their maximum to cover all eventualities. To Lancastria’s Chief Officer, Harry Grattidge, was seemed a relief at the time. Lancastria’s crew needed a break as much as the liner needed its overhaul. In the first months of the war the losses in the Merchant Service was greater than in all other British services put together. Tension amongst the crew slackened greatly as they entered Liverpool. At 11.00 the crew were paid off. As the vessel was prepared for dry-docking in Liverpool’s Gladstone Dock, Grattidge went for lunch at the Adelphi, then strolled down to the Cunard Offices at Pier Head to pick up his rail voucher. Grattidge had planned to take three weeks leave in the Lake District. As soon as Grattidge entered the office he knew something was wrong. Cunard’s Marine Superintendent Captain Davies was relieved to see Grattidge. The little Welshman said to Gratidge:
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‘Thank God you’re here, big trouble. Grab a taxi now and get to the ship and recall everyone. You haven’t much time – you’re sailing at midnight. The mission is urgent but unspecified. The ship’s needed in Plymouth.’ Grattidge returned to the ship and gave orders to Chief Engineer Dunbar to get steam up. He called Captain Sharp telling him of the situation. Over the next few hours Grattidge busied himself sending out telegrams and arranging for the recall to be broadcast at railway terminals. Loudspeakers at Central and Lime Street stations boomed out across the crowded platforms. ‘Any present or recent members of the crew of the Lancastria are requested to report to the station master’s office at once.’ All but three of the crew made the call and that night the Lancastria left Liverpool for the last time. The crew ranged in age from 14 year old Tom O’Conner making his first voyage as a deck boy to Don Sutherland who was aged 74. Lancastria sailed first to Plymouth, then, in company with another Cunard ship, Franconia sailed to Brest as part of ‘Operation Aerial’ which was the British code name for the evacuation of the remainder of the British Expeditionary Forces from the ports of northwest France. As they approached their destination the Franconia was attacked by a single Ju88 bomber. The near misses severely damaged the Franconia which then returned to Liverpool. The crew could see nothing of Brest or indeed the adjoining coastline, due to vast columns of thick black smoke caused by demolition teams destroying the last of the oil dumps. The smoke was too heavy to be broken up by the light breeze. Captain Sharp looked at Chief Officer Grattidge and said,
‘It’s no good going in there. The place is done for. We’re too late.’ An accompanying destroyer, possibly HMS Highlander, signalled to Lancastria to proceed to Quiberon Bay and so the two great liners sailed South on that Sunday afternoon, in sight of the French coastline. At around 08.00 in the evening they neared their destination. The Lancastria was some way astern of the Franconia. As the larger vessel passed through the first of the boom defences, in place to prevent attack by U-boat, an enemy aircraft dived out of the dark sky. Four bombs fell into the water between the Franconia and Lancastria. As the aircraft levelled out it strafed both ships with machine gun fire. Lancastria’s carpenter, Fred Bradley was stationed by the windlass on the fore deck when the attack took place. He was perhaps the only member of crew to witness the whole thing and saw the entire stern of the Franconia lift clean out of the water by one of the exploding bombs. Although none of the bombs actually hit either vessel the proximity of the explosions to the Franconia shattered and sprung her plates and put out of action one of her engines. Franconia’s Master had no option but to drop anchor and tend to the ship’s wounds. As Lancastria steamed past the crippled vessel and into Quiberon Bay to await orders the Franconia signalled ‘Good luck’. Shortly after Lancastria dropped anchor, a French trawler came alongside and notified Captain Sharp that the bay was not safe and advised him that he should make for St Nazaire. Sharp took the advice and within a short period was underway, alone, to the mouth of the Loire River and St Nazaire.5
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ARRIVAL AT ST. NAZAIRE In the early hours of Monday, the 17 June 1940 the Lancastria eased her way towards the French coast, a few miles from the port of St Nazaire, escorted by a French pilot boat. One of its crewmen boarded Lancastria and made his way to the bridge where he advised Captain Sharp in perfect English that it would be wiser not to continue. He warned Sharp that anchoring the Lancastria so close to shore would be like putting ‘your head into a noose … when they see you anchored outside, a sitting target … ’ Sharp shrugged his shoulders. ‘What alternative have I got?’ Lancastria dropped anchor around six in the morning, approximately three miles from the coast and in 72 feet of water. The area is known as the Carpenter Sea Roads. Her draft would not allow her to proceed any further and the French coastline was only faintly visible. 150 miles East, Nazi Germany’s entire 31st Infantry Division was crossing the Loire River at Orleans. In front of it were the remnants of the British Expeditionary Force, more than 150,000 men. However unlike many of the units that managed to escape through Dunkirk two weeks earlier, the remaining troops were generally support and logistical units with little or no combat experience. During the six week German offensive which they code named ‘case yellow’ the British Army had been completely routed by the faster and better equipped Germans who had spent years preparing for this invasion.
For the Lancastria it was a cool and brightening start to the day. Lancastria’s crew could not hear the gunfire of the advance units of the German army, which were only 25 miles from the port of St Nazaire. For the last few months Fifth Column units had been active in the region, known to the British forces as ‘Number two base, Sub-area, Nantes’. As Lancastria’s anchor splashed into the brown, silt-laden waters only one other vessel was visible, the hospital ship, Somersetshire. She had lain there all night receiving evacuated patients from Number Four Army Hospital. As daylight shimmered over the still sea the Somersetshire got underway.5 The following are personal accounts from survivors of the Lancastria taken from The Loss of the Lancastria, compiled by John L. West.6 ‘I arrived into St Nazaire with my mates on the Sunday. We stayed around the docks all night and we were being bombed all night long. In fact at one point I went to one building and a Frenchman said to me “get under there”. He was sitting on a what looked like a bench with a lid on the top, all ventilated fortunately. That is where I ended up sleeping.’ Reg Brown, Section 2, 663 Artisan Works Company, Royal Engineers
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‘Ah, vous Anglais, vous allez partir?’ ‘Oui, madame,’ I replied, ‘nous nous reviendrons.’ ‘Non, non,’ she replied most emphatically, ‘tous est fini!’
‘I sat on the pavement on arrival for half an hour as soon as I felt better one of the lads came up and said, “can you produce a cup of tea from the blues?” I said yes. See that rock of stone, this curb and gutter well here we start. The remaining rations were here given out so I ignored them and did not line up for and rations but got cracking and smashing up wood boxes, got men to open up empty petrol cans and very shortly we had hot water on the way with tea, sugar and milk so by the time the rations finished we had a queue of over 700 lined up for tea, by this time I got warm over the fire and I was feeling it. It Petit came to me and thanked me on behalf of Major Hart and said they were all pleased with the effort I had made to produce this hot tea when all our spirits were so low, he then took a snap of me just as I gave over my pitch to the next army new arrivals.’ P. H. Fairfax, sqms, rasc, aasf
‘We had’ent [sic] gone many miles, when the interpiter [sic] got to know they was on top of us, so he switch us off the main road and headed for St Nazaire, the enemy planes was bombing all the way, followed up with tanks, which ran over and crushed everything and eny [sic] body that was in there way, it took us two or three days to get there, living on Bully and Biscuits. I thort [sic] that our troubles was over when we got to the port, but they was only just starting, there was thousands of troops there, we had to take our turn before we could be taken on small boats to the Lancastria, shrapnel falling all over us all the time.’ F. S. Hodder, rpc
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‘It was on the airfield at St Nazaire that the nightmare commenced. No. 1 hrs had moved off in haste from St. Ettiene de Mont Luc and proceeded to abandon their vehicles on the airfield. “Jerry” planes now flying low over the scenes of chaos until darkness fell. At 23.00, the company was mustered and marched to the docks at St. Nazaire. Here we were attacked by machine gun fire from aircraft, and took shelter under the railway trucks along the dock side. At about 9.00 we were taken aboard a small craft and sailed into the mist, to be eventually embarked on to the ill-fated Lancastria.’ W. May, rasc ‘Marching full kit, early following morning to the dock sides. An old French-woman, looking from her bedroom window close to the street, called out,
“Ah, vous Anglais, vous allez partir?” “Oui, madame,” I replied, “nous nous reviendrons”. “Non, non,” she replied most emphatically, “tous est fini!” ‘Long hours spent near the docks, wondering if we would ever get away. The Marseillaise blared from radios in adjoining homes. ‘A white hospital ship drew close to the quay, her captain hailed us, asking for c.o. He offered to take us all aboard if we would abandon all our arms. This our c.o refused to do, little knowing that everything would eventually be lost, also the lives of many of the men in his charge. A difficult decision for any man in such circumstances.’ SGT. H. Pettit, rasc
THE EVACUATION Destroyers, trawlers, tugs, riverboats and all manner of other craft had been impressed to carry out this transfer of personnel from the port of St Nazaire out to the waiting ships. HMS Highlander, for example, regularly carried 600 fully equipped soldiers the 10 miles out to the liners. Three Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (rnvr) Transport Officers appeared on the Lancastria’s bridge. One of them, a Naval Lieutenant, approached Captain Sharp. ‘How many can you hold?’ Asked the freshfaced Officer. ‘About three thousand, at a pinch.’ Replied Sharp. ‘You’ll have to take as many as you possibly can, without regard to the limits of International Law.’ Came the reply. Chief Officer Grattidge realized the magnitude of this order and what dangers it represented. They were being asked to embark as many men as possible. They had lifeboats and life jackets for 2,200 people. Chief Officer Grattidge looked at the Naval Officer and said: ‘What’s going on? Is this a capitulation?’ ‘Good God! Don’t say that!’ Protested one of the Reserve Officers, and at that they left. There was no time to question the order. Grattidge quickly rehearsed a boat drill and between 07–08.00 the first boats had started to make their way out to the Lancastria. Every inch of the boats making their way out to the Lancastria were crammed full of troops. One of the first and largest units to come alongside the liner belonged to the raf, numbering
two hundred men and eight officers. Wing Commander Douglas Macfadyen was in charge and shown to a cabin. His contingent was led into numbers one and two holds. Subsequent raf units, mainly ground crew from 73 Squadron, were directed towards these two holds and by mid-afternoon Number two hold had more than 800 raf service personnel crowded inside. This was the very bowel of the ship. Great warehouses, lit only by dim electric light bulbs, set flush into the walls and surrounded by thick glass covers. Mattresses and palisades lay all over the floor space and effectively formed a thick carpet. One of the men, Leading Air craftsman Ivor Jenkins shivered, “It’s like a ruddy morgue”, and risking a possible court martial decided to make his way to more ‘homely’ surroundings. As more raf personnel boarded some made their way down to ‘D’ deck only to find it already fully occupied. Captain Griggs of the Royal Armoured Medical Corps was seconded as the ship’s adjutant. He had boarded at 08.00 and along with Colonel Wilson of the ramc were provided an office and started to get some organization in place by collecting a nominal roll and visiting every part of the ship to obtain from nco’s (NonCommissioned Officers) or officers in charge details of their contingent. Whilst the other ranks were directed to the ship’s decks and holds the commissioned officers and senior nco’s were allotted cabins.
Chief Steward and Purser Fred Beattie moved swiftly with Captain Griggs on the nominal rolls but took little heed of the smaller units that were boarding from the variety of craft which was ferrying men out to the Lancastria. Fred Beattie would later that day earn himself the British Empire Medal for meritorious service. As some of the nco’s boarded they were handed a small card like a bus ticket. One raf Sergeant Harry Strudwick was given a card on which was printed ‘Cabin 118. B Deck.’ After weaving his way through the maze of corridors and companionways he eventually found Cabin 118. Inside the three-berth room was packed eight senior nco’s. After a few moments a couple of the nco’s decided to make their way outside whilst the remaining two or three decided to take needed wash and shave. Sergeant Strudwick never saw his fellow passengers again. He never knew what became of them or ever learnt their names.7 ‘The Sun glared down relentlessly on the line of troops climbing the gangplank from the St Nazaire quay to the deck of the British destroyer. For a month the men had worn the same uniforms, had seldom slept regularly, never eaten decent meals and had don’t much marching.
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‘No kit bags or other gear except what’s strapped to you!’ An officer ordered. Duffle bags were being kicked into the harbour or just left on the dock. A few of the men still clutched their kit bags secretively. I felt it was no time for shouting unnecessary orders. The twenty men in my company were mixed in that vast group. Our retreat had been no moral-builder, but my lads still looked like smart soldiers. ‘When everyone was finally aboard, the trim little distorter wasted no time leaving St Nazaire. No crowds waved adieu, but the troops on deck broke into song or cheered. Our passage home would be on a wellarmed British destroyer. Cheers for the Royal Navy!’ A. Picken, Staff Sergeant Major, rasc
NO CROWDS WAVED ADIEU, BUT THE TROOPS ON DECK BROKE INTO SONG OR CHEERED.
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ARRIVING ON LANCASTRIA By lunchtime, Lancastria is know to have taken on well in excess of 5,000 people. Although initially troops were handed a boarding card as they arrived, these had long since run out as troops came aboard via the gun ports on both sides of the ship. Captain sharp sent a radio message to the rn officer running the evacuation from St Nazaire that he was full, only to be told to take a ‘few more’.5
‘We arrived on board the Lancastria at 14.00 Monday the 17th. The ships being overcrowded I saw the purser and chief steward who gave about 20 of us permission to go to the orderly room, lay down our kit and leave as the officer was working with an nco accepting the various nominal rolls. I left at once went below to the dining room had a nice lunch served in really good style by waiters, left the table, got our last two bottles of beer aboard the ship, went back to orderly room had a doze, during that time I heard the officer say he had 8,000 aboard.’ H. Fairfax, sqms, rasc, aasf ‘After taking off my pack wearily, I announced, “Think I’ll scrounge around for some food”. I found a sergeant’s mess below our deck where uniformed stewards served me the best four-course lunch I’ve ever eaten in a service mess. Back in Stateroom 123 I told the others about the posh feed and they ask me to guard their sparse belongings, grabbed their tin hats and left. It was the last time I saw them.’ A. Picken, Staff Sergeant Major, rasc
‘I read in a couple of books in later years how people were issued with cabin numbers and table numbers and sat down at tables laid with silver cutlery, gleaming white napery and partook of the finest meal that they had eaten in years. Personally I couldn’t even scrounge a “cuppa”. But I was quite content with my little space on the deck; in the Army all you are entitled to is two foot, in the ranks.’ Sapper Percy J Brown ‘Once on board everyone was handed a life jacket by members of the crew at the top of the deck but most of the chaps were too tired to bother with them. After being shown to E deck in one of the ships holds with a lot of the raf service men, most of us had a rest, I went on deck later, and to hear that S.S. Oroancy had been hit. It was while I was on deck that machine guns started from our ship at an enemy aircraft, and all of us were ordered below deck to our quarters.’ M. B. Andexser, raf As Captain Sharp stood on the bridge and watched the endless stream of vessels taking troops of the British Expeditionary Force out to Lancastria he quickly glanced upwards.
Hors d’Oeuvre Varié Consomme Massena Thick Ox Tail Soup Fried Fillet of Cod Colbert (cold) Crab Salad, Mayonnaise Macaroni au Gratin Saute of Ox Tail, Nohant TO ORDER FROM THE GRILL:
Minute Steak, Maitre d’Hotel Boiled Knuckle of Veal and Bacon, Parsley Sauce Green Lima Beans Baked Jacket and Mashed Potatoes COLD BUFFET:
Brawn, Luncheon Sausage, Ox Tongue Riat Beef Roast Lamb Lettuce, Tomatoes, Beetroot Rusk Pudding Apricot Flan Ice Cream and Wafers Cheese Biscuits Coffee
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LANCASTRIA IS ATTACKED Every now and then he could see aircraft high up in the sky, the sun catching their wings in a fine flash of scintillating light, ‘like dragonflies’ Sharp thought. Finally an attack came, but the target appeared to be another liner, the two funnelled Oronsay. According to Sharp’s log the Oronsay was hit at 13:48 and her bridge section blown away. Miraculously none of her crew were killed in this attack although she began to list heavily to port.
Immediately after the attack and with Lancastria’s decks heaving with soldiers and refugees Sharp discussed the options with Grattidge. Should they leave or wait until they had proper escort. Two Royal Navy destroyers were moving about at this time, HMS Havelock and HMS Highlander. Sharp ordered that one of them should be signalled to see if they could offer escort for the Lancastria back to Plymouth. U-boats were known to be lurking in the Bay of Biscay and Sharp knew that there was not enough lifeboats or life jackets for all those aboard and so Sharp did not feel secure in setting sail alone. A signal man repeatedly signalled one of the nearby destroyers, but was met with only a discreet silence. ‘I think’ said Sharp at last, ‘that we’ll do better to wait for the Oronsay and go together.’ And looking at Grattidge said: ‘What do you think?’ Grattidge agreed. Soon after the sky seemed to clear of aircraft and both Grattidge and Sharp headed for their cabins, both exhausted and drained. Sleep did not come easy and both men remained restless.5
‘As soon as we got settled they pulled anchore [sic] to get going, but at that moment a plane came over and dropped two bombs, which badly missed us, then flew off, the Captain orded [sic] drop anchor again, we could not sail because there was a raid on, eny [sic] body that was eny [sic] body went to the Captain to see why we could’ent [sic] get going he said there was afraid on, but it was half an hour before we saw enything [sic] again, but he came back and fetched a mate with him, they both missed, the ship a sitting target for them, we had only a machine gun on he kept fireing [sic] at them, but they got away, by now every body was gitting [sic] there things off, another half hour went by, then it happened they came over us again, this time there was a full squadren [sic], and as they flew over the million to one chance came off, they blown the engine room up put everywhere in darkness and set her on fire, they also dropped one on the second deck and set her on fire, so she was afire down below and on top as well.’ F. S. Hodder, rpc
‘I lay down on deck and presently heard the troops shouting “Look there he is”, a small white silvery plane hovering high up in a small white cloud. There were two Spitfires skimming over the water near the ship. Then I heard men shout “here he comes”, and he started to dive on us out of the sun. I heard the troops trying to tell a gunner where to shoot but he kept saying “where, where?” Soon the scream of the bomb replaced the noise of the diving plane, louder and louder, as we all lay flat cowering on this ‘after deck’, then suddenly the sound of impact, like someone bursting a child’s tin kettle drum with a hammer, then clouds of steam and smoke and fragments raining down. I felt that she was mortally wounded, and the next bomb was also a direct hit as the bow was going down there being a slight slope forward on the deck.’ Capt. N. Field, ramc ‘The ship shuddered as a terrific explosion occurred. She listed sharply, throwing us all into a mass on one side. There was silence for a short time, as the full significance of what had happened dawned upon us, then another lurch. Someone shouted, “She’s hit, she’s going down!” and there was a mad rush for the stairs. Many, I believe, were trapped when the stairs broke.’ SGT. H. Pettit, rasc ‘It was not long before the bombs began to fall near our ship, some bright lad said not to worry they are only small ones anyway, when it happened. I was lying down at the time and there was one Almighty bang, that seemed to lift me clean off the deck where I was, and as if I had been smacked in the ears by an unseen force. What followed in the complete black hold full of burning smoke was terrible, it was confusion to
put it mildly with water pouring in and no way out. Someone, must have been many service men ripped covers off the hold five decks up and passed ropes downs for us to get hold, but there were too few ropes and too many men, by now some in panic. As the ship settled water covered in oil filled our part and gradually took us nearer the top, as many of us as possible held ropes as the intake of water was pulling the men into the ship and gangways.’ B. Andexser, raf ‘Without reason I strolled to the stern of the Lancastria, then also without reason made my way back amid ship through the groups of men on deck. Just after I returned from the stern another plane dove low and lobbed a bomb into a group of about 500 Royal Air Force men who where standing where I had just walked. There was a shattering blast, a spert [sic] of flame and smoke, and the men were gone.’ A. Picken, Staff Sergeant Major, rasc
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SINKING OF THE SHIP The Lancastria quickly settled down by the head; the fact that the ship’s forefoot came to rest on the seabed prevented the ship sinking any faster. Whin moments, those people on deck forward of the bridge were able to walk into the sea – some swam away, but others remain huddled together in the water: only to be machine-gunned by the circling enemy aircraft.8 ‘I stripped off my battle jacket , shoes, socks, trousers and underpants. All around me there were people woman, children and troops. Just as I finished undressing, one of the two army nurses aboard came up from a companionway. I turned away from her embarrassed. “No need for modesty at a time like this,” she said with a firm smile.’ 26
A. Picken, Staff Sergeant Major rasc (Many years later Picken would meet the army nurse that he exposed himself to on the ship at a survivors memorial. He was just as embarrassed as he was all those years ago.) ‘The decks was full of bullet holes she kept sinking bit by bit, I went up the deck , there I saw the Captain standing watching, he said you will have to get in she will be soon be gone. Well I looked which way to go, I saw they were all going one way so I went the other, where there was only one or two, I keep’it [sic] myself up on my back I could’ent [sic] use my arms, because of the burns, I got a little way away from her and I saw scores of women throw their children in and then drop in after never to be seen again, what a sight.’ S. Hodder, rpc
‘I saw many things then such as soldiers struggling to release the captive rope fixing a life boat to the deck and one shouted “can you not cut it” (the rope). I saw a boat being lowered full of civilians, and one end too fast spilled them all out and one fat old lady having fallen into the water like a plum having nothing to do but sit pretty in the water with her life jacket on, gave a dreadful scream and put her head under the water and drowned herself. Such as is the power of panic.’ Capt. N. Field, ramc ‘One woman didn’t want to get into the lifeboat but tearfully watched as her husband searched around the deck for their two-year-old daughter. The woman was forced into the boat, and as it touched the water the boat capsized, spilling its passengers overboard. The man looking for his child was Mr Clifford Tillyer, a Fairey Aviation technician who had escaped with his wife and child from Belgium. He found the little girl, quickly threw her into the water and dove in after her, swimming with the child in his arms. His wife joined him and they swam together, supporting the tiny Jacqueline between them.’ A. Picken, Staff Sergeant Major, rasc ‘As I decided to “git” [sic] a soldier came and said “you’d better jump now sir, she’s going”, so we both clambered out over the rail and jumped feet first about seventy feet. I was saved from being stunned by my life jacket (as even though a sorbo one, it would have been a killer
from that height) by landing on my side, but when I eventually broke surface blood was pouring out of my throat like a hose pipe and the other chap who had jumped and came to help me just turned away and gave me up as finished I shouted “I’ve got T.B.” thinking that I had, had a cavity in my lung which had burst under the shock of the fall into the water. I thought to myself, this is the end, what a lonely place to drown.’ Capt. N. Field, ramc
Captain Sharp knew now that they didn’t have long left. Oil from Lancastria ruptured fuel tanks were spreading quickly around the sinking liner. Finally, after several chaotic minutes that witnessed the full range of human emotion, Sharp turned to Grattidge and said: ‘It’s time now, Harry. I’m going to swim for the after-end.’ Grattidge looked at his watch: 16.08. Knowing Sharp was a poor swimmer he made him take the only lifebelt on the bridge. ‘Good luck, Sir.’ They both stepped off the bridge and into the oilsoaked sea 9 miles from the harbour at St. Nazaire.5
A SUPPRESSED STORY
IN THE WATER ‘As we came alongside the lifeboat my daughter was taken inboard and I was quite happy holding on to the side whilst awaiting rescue from either of the destroyers present, or the French tugs. However, it would appear that, despite the fact that the lifeboat was very heavily loaded they insisted that I went aboard, and the efforts of the soldiers to row the boat in a given direction was screamingly funny, Some were pulling one way and some the other, and consequently the boat was just going round in circles. After a while an Irishman of all people decided to get up and control operations, and having tried for several minutes without success, in a truly Irish manner he said “Shure and begorra you (this I leave to your imagination) will you pull now” and I must say it had the desired effect.’ C. Green, Civilian 28
‘There was a rumbling noise overhead and the planes roared down in our direction from behind. Behind us we saw twin geysers of water skipping along the surface. We were being machine-gunned! ‘Had I been able to swim, I would have dived below the water, but I could only hang onto the end of the oar and pray still louder. The man on the other end of the oar looked over his shoulder. Suddenly, as the two high spouts of water zipped closer, my companion screamed, “Oh my Christ!” A bullet ripped through his forehead, his hands slipped from the oar and he sank almost at once. The other spout of water passed by well on the far side of me. I had been between the two paths of machine-gun fire.
“OH MY CHRIST!” A BULLET RIPPED THROUGH HIS FOREHEAD, HIS HANDS SLIPPED FROM THE OAR AND HE SANK ALMOST AT ONCE.
A SUPPRESSED STORY
‘Several of the German planes now swooped low over us, heeled and climbed upwards. Then something dropped from them. At first we thought we were to be bomber again, but we saw that the planes were dropping something else. Flares! If they set the oil afire, we would have the unhappy choice of being roasted or drowned! The other men and I grasped the oar harder, terror stricken, too afraid even to say anything to each other.’ A. Picken, Staff Sergeant Major, rasc ‘A screaming, panic stricken man jointed us, throwing his arms around the neck of one of our group, trying to tear the life jacket from his shoulders. Had this fellow been calm, we might possibly have accepted him, though it is doubtful if we could have supported the extra burden. He was, in his condition, a menace
to our own hopes of survival, so we fought him off, thus wasting some of our precious reserves of energy. He left us, and , swimming reasonably well reached a floating body, wearing a life jacket, some distance away. As he approached, the body came to life and there followed an awful struggle, the sight and sounds of which still disturbs me, and which ended only in the disappearance below the surface of the poor crazy fellow. If his opponent in this grim struggle survives, I hope he suffers no remorse. What he did, he had to do.’ SGT. H. Pettit, rasc ‘As long as I live I shall never forget the sight of thousands of soldiers scrambling along her hull side down towards the keel as it came out of the water, all screaming, or shall we say shouting and yelling.
So many men had run across her hull as it lay level with the water, that the keel was plastered with them. But these men came of a race which had over run the earth and soon the shooting stopped, to be replaced by ‘roll out the barrel’, with the ‘Hun’ of the sea.’ Capt. N. Field, ramc ‘ … As I swam away from the ship, I remember looking back. She had already turned turtle. A crowd of our boys were sitting on the keel singing, “There’ll [sic] always be an England”.’ P.K.Barker, raf ‘After the sinking I found myself swimming towards the coast of France where I fully intended to escape in some way or another. Unfortunately I was hit in the leg by a tracer bullet from one of the enemy
planes that was flying over the scene. Dead fish filled my army shirt and I tore it off to ease my swimming. I also took off the rest of my clothes as they were soaked with the flues oil that had come from the liner. In this state, completely bare I was picked up by the Swansea Trawler Cambridgshire and then transferred to the John Holt.’ R.W. May, rasc
A SUPPRESSED STORY
THE RESCUE HMS Highlander was the first ship to get to the stricken liner and its floundering crew. The destroyers’ sea boats were launched and, with scrambling nets lowered, she approached the huddles of survivors. The sea boats made repeated journeys with the crews struggling to lift oil soaked survivors out of the sea; leaving obvious corpses to float away.9 ‘Some three hours passed and we were fortunate enough to be spotted by a small craft that came along side, which had some other survivors on board, some were dying as we made our way back to port. Everyone was ill. ‘On arrival the dock was packed with local french with blankets to put around us ambulances were standing by to take us to hospital on the front. On arrival there we were cleaned by Nuns who managed to get some of the oil from our bodies. The injured were put in one ward while others in another.’ M.B.Andexser, raf ‘I don’t know how long I was in the water, but when help came a small rench [sic] boat I haden’t [sic] the strength to get hold of the line, so a sailor got down a rope ladder and got me and put me on the boat then they went looking for more, but I never saw them get eny [sic] more, they signalled to a ship that was going home and told them that they had about ten or twelve survivors, would they take us, they refused at first, but then they said they would find room for us on the hold.’ F.S.Hodder, rpc
‘I saw a young seaman dive several times into the water, to assist men in difficulties, and to examine inert bodies for any signs of life, before we made for the very welcome bulk of HMS Havelock, a Hunt class destroyer. ‘On board the warship, I spent a night which I shall never forget. After trying to remove the oil from my body, inside and out, I was put below in a mess deck crammed with survivors, some of whom I recognised as being from my own unit. There were many injured, and what with their groaning, plus a few “Action Stations” for the crew, there was little rest for any of us, tried as we were. Endless supplies of hot, sweet tea were provided, and how welcome it was.’ SGT. H.Pettit, rasc ‘I made for the corcker [sic] at the side of the ship this consisted of platted rope I tried to grab this but could not get a grip when down came another rope and this time although nearly exhausted and knowing I could not last much longer I took the rope by my hands, arms & teeth I got it round my body, under my arms and twice round my right arm, bending the end with my left I bound it & up I went to the deck & as I was lifted over I seem to go right out, but not for long as I managed to pick myself up and walk alone to the covered in deck where there were many more sitting silent black oil covered men. I then asked an officer the time he told me it was about 21.00 Soon after this we began to move off, returning to the very shores we had run away from St Nazaire.’ P.H.Fairfax, sqms, rasc, aasf
‘I suppose I was swimming for perhaps one and a half hours towards the destroyers when I saw one get under way, the other lowered a life boat so I gave them a shout “Over here.” Whether or not they heard I don’t know, but before too long I felt hands clasp the seat of my trousers and someone say “Can you get your leg over” – the gunwale that was. I then passed out completely and the next thing I knew someone was shaking me. The boat seeming to be full of drowned rats and a voice was saying “Can you make it up the rope ladder.” I could and was never more thankful for a ladder in my life.’ Sapper Percy J Brown
A SUPPRESSED STORY
‘I was swimming around for bits of wreckage to cling to for about one and a half hours until a French fisherman picked me up. Many died being taken on board. We were then taken back to St Nazaire. The Germans were bombing us in the docks. We had to stay there for two and a half days until an old cargo boat took us back to land at Falmouth. This would have been the 20 June. At Falmouth I was treated for my burnt hands and had the oil taken off.’ Sapper Cyril Cumbes, Royal Engineers
THE AFTERMATH There were a great number of recorded acts of heroism and bravery that summer’s afternoon. An raf Padre slid down a rope into no. two hold to lead the wounded survivors from the initial bomb in prayer and the singing of ‘O God our Help in Ages Past’; the soldiers who gave their life-jackets to nonswimmer’s; the soldiers who gave a piggy-back-swim-ride to a little child; the people who struggled to keep other afloat for hour after hour; the soldier who, having himself been rescued, immediately dived back into the sea to assist others.9
No one will ever know the exact number who died that day – some say there were as many as 9,000 on board by the time the Lancastria was bombed, others estimate 7,000. All we do know is that around 6,000 were on board by 13.00, and that many more arrived after that. Only 2,447 arrived home.
A SUPPRESSED STORY
REMEMBERING THE LOST Churchill immediately hid the news from the public. In 1940, after Dunkirk, to reveal the truth would have been too damaging for civilian morale. He said, ‘The newspapers have got quite enough disaster for today, at least.’ Since that time the disaster has never been recognised for what it was the greatest maritime disaster in Britain’s history. More people were killed on the Lancastria than on the Titanic and Lusitania put together. During the weeks and months following the sinking of the Lancastria, bodies were washed ashore or confined to the deep but many remained with the ship.
so buried were to be re-interned elsewhere. In fact some bodies were taken by French people as one of their own and buried as a family member until after the war. One of the survivors, Major C V Peter Petit, rasc, organized the first reunion of survivors, which took place on 18 June 1946 at the Marlborough Club in London. Peter Petit then started the Lancastria Survivors Association which featured an annual parade, reunion dinner and service of remembrance.9
Major Petit died in 1969 and the Association lapsed. It was revived in 1981 as The HMT Lancastria Each tide would bring its sad flotsam and the French Association, largely on the initiative its first people, by then under the control of the German forces, President, Brian Reynolds. Membership was extended were fated with the task of retrieving them. From Le so that survivors’ relatives could join. Subsequently Croisic on the north coast of the south, including all membership has been broadened further so it is open the islands between, beaches received bodies and other to ‘any person who wishes to remember the sacrifices debris with each tide. Although the field at Escoublac made on, or as a result of, the action of the was donated to victims, there was no single Lancastria 17 June 1940’. cemetery in 1940. The purpose of our Association is to remember and French people took the recovered bodies to their honour all those who were present or who lost their own cemeteries to give them a Christian burial but lives in the Lancastria disaster. We meet our objectives when the German authorities heard this they forbad by holding meetings and services, both on a national the burial of enemy servicemen in the local town and a regional basis and by making pilgrimages to the cemeteries. It was ordered that those who had been St Nazaire area, visiting cemeteries where victims are buried, and the wreck itself.10
A SUPPRESSED STORY
SURVIVORS Sadly the Lancastria Assotiation is no longer active due to a decreasing number of members and a lack of public knowledge of the disaster. But this doesn’t mean that day has been forgotten, there are still survivors alive today and the stories that they have passed down through their families and friends will always be re-told. I have personally learnt about this story from my own Grandparents, Harold and Jacqueline Tanner. My Grandmother was one of the few civilians on board and also the youngest survivor that made it through that day. She was with her parents Clifford and Vera Tillyer who were escaping from Belgium where Clifford worked as a Fairey Aviation technician. The three of them can be seen in the photo on page 37, Jacqueline sitting on Clifford’s lap and Vera sat with them just a day after Lancastria went down, in Plymouth having tea. Jacqueline is also pictured page 39 preparing to lay a wreath at what we believe to be the first service at the Cenotaph with Vera watching over her in the background. Finally Jacqueline can be seen in the photo, right with her arm around one of the other survivors at the 60th anniversary of the sinking in France.
When Lancastria went down Clifford and Vera did all they could to keep Jacqueline out the water, even going as far as holding her in their teeth as they swam. No one is too sure about how long they were in the water – this is the case with many of the other survivors – but it is safe to say they would have been swimming in the thick oil, amongst the wounded and dead with a small baby to look out for, for hours before they were picked up by one of the boats and taken back to Plymounth. It is because of their strength and bravery that my family and I are here today, so we couldn’t be more proud of them and to tell their story to whoever is interested. This is my reasoning behind designing this book, so my Grandmother’s and all the other survivors I have referenced in the book, stories can be heard and hopefully to raise more awareness of the day.
REFERENCES Websites 1
shtml http://www.lancastria-association.org.uk/index. php?page=history
Images Pg 2 fig 1. http://rania.co.uk/dunkirk/html/history.html Pg 5 fig 2. http://silverqueencruises.com/about/
http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/lancastria01. shmtl 3
Pg 6, 9, 10 fig 3–8. Crab, Brian James, The Forgotten Tragedy, The Story of the Sinking of HMT Lancastria, Woolnoughs, Irthlingborough, 2002 Pg 13 fig 9. Glossop, David & Raye, Remember the Lancastria, Britain’s Worst Maritime Disaster, 70th Anniversary Booklet, 2010
http://www.lancastria.org.uk/lancastria_at_war/the_loading_ begins/the_loading_begins.html 7
http://www.lancastria-association.org.uk/index. php?page=about_us 8
Books West, John L, The Loss of ‘Lancastria’, Millgate Publishing, 1988 6
Pg 14, 18 fig 10–12. Crab, Brian James, The Forgotten Tragedy, The Story of the Sinking of HMT Lancastria, Woolnoughs, Irthlingborough, 2002 Pg 19 fig 13. Bond, Geoffrey, Lancastria, Oldbourne Press, London, 1959 Pg 23 fig 14–16. Crab, Brian James, The Forgotten Tragedy, The Story of the Sinking of HMT Lancastria, Woolnoughs, Irthlingborough, 2002 fig 17. Bond, Geoffrey, Lancastria, Oldbourne Press, London, 1959
Glossop, David & Raye, Remember the Lancastria, Britain’s Worst Maritime Disaster, 70th Anniversary Booklet, 2010
Pg 27 fig 18. Glossop, David & Raye, Remember the Lancastria, Britain’s Worst Maritime Disaster, 70th Anniversary Booklet, 2010
Bond, Geoffrey, Lancastria, Oldbourne Press, London, 1959
Pg 28 fig 19. Bond, Geoffrey, Lancastria, Oldbourne Press, London, 1959
Pg 30–31 fig 20. Glossop, David & Raye, Remember the Lancastria, Britain’s Worst Maritime Disaster, 70th Anniversary Booklet, 2010 Pg 32 fig 21. Crab, Brian James, The Forgotten Tragedy, The Story of the Sinking of HMT Lancastria, Woolnoughs, Irthlingborough, 2002 Pg 34 fig 22. Glossop, David & Raye, Remember the Lancastria, Britain’s Worst Maritime Disaster, 70th Anniversary Booklet, 2010 Pg 35, 36 fig 23–25. Crab, Brian James, The Forgotten Tragedy, The Story of the Sinking of HMT Lancastria, Woolnoughs, Irthlingborough, 2002 Pg 37, 39 fig 26–27. Tanner, Harold & Jacqueline Pg 41 fig 28. Tanner, Nigel