(Albert Nadin passed away on 15th April 2008)
FRANCE AND THE RETREAT
3rd September 1939 – 17th June 1940
As a member of the Territorial Army I was called up on the 29th August, issued with rifle, webbing kit and battledress etc, sent to the RASC depot in Luggershall, Wiltshire, and then posted to a training unit at Mitcham, Surrey, where we were put through intensive PT and drill etc. It did us all good and at the end of the six weeks we were fit enough to ‘jump out of our skins’, as the instructors kept telling us, but the first fourteen days nearly killed me, I can tell you. However, we all survived!
In the January of ’40 we went to France via Southampton – Le Havre, then by train to Nantes in south west France where the main supply bases were. I shared a room with another Sergeant, Doug Kempster, and we became very good friends indeed. He was best man at our wedding in Lincoln in 1940. The main duties we carried out were getting ton after ton of supplies and petrol etc. into the base dumps and loading them on to trains and motor transport for the journey to the forward bases around Rheims.
In April, Doug and I went up to Nancy to a depot just behind the Maginot Line Sector to bring a prisoner, a corporal in the RASC, back to Nantes, where he faced a court martial for being drunk and disorderly and assaulting two French civilians. We were given accommodation by the French Army and picked up the corporal from the Police Station where he had been in the cells for three days in very bad conditions. Anyway, we got him back to Nantes where I found a posting waiting for me, to Rheims, in the RAF Advanced Strike Command section. I stayed there until the end of April and helped to establish a new forward supply dump at Le Champanoise near Troyes.
One night we all went into Troyes for a meal in one of the bistros in the main square. When the waitress came to serve us, she burst into tears and told us that the Germans had started to invade France and that the Maginot Line had been bypassed. It seemed that her husband and brother had been trapped in the fortifications underground. This was the first news we had of the attack and as our dumps were only about 135 kilometres behind the Maginot Line, we all made our way back to the Depot as quickly as we could. The Main Depot was in a right flap and we started to load all the 3 Tonners we could find in the area. The intention was to set up dumps further down the supply line, the first three to be in Orleans, Tours and Rennes. I was posted to Rheims and landed up in Le Champanoise again after two days. The 93 Squadron had established an airfield in a series of cornfields nearby and were making raids on the front line about thirty five miles away with Fairy Battles and using Hurricanes, I think, for fighter cover.
There were a lot of German reconnaissance planes, mainly Storchs’, flying over most of the area for about three days and then the Stukas’ started to make a series of dive bomb attacks on the airfield itself. It became quite clear that the Jerries were moving further down the coast to St Valery and St Malo. We heard that fresh British troops were being landed at the latter port to try and link up with the British Forces in danger of being trapped around Arras in Belgium. That night the area was in uproar, with the RAF pulling out of the airfield as fast as they could, and we were left behind, a total of about sixty Corps troops. We tried all day to contact our Headquarters but to no avail. The following morning two 3 Ton trucks arrived with the c/o, Lieutenant Rush, and twenty men. We loaded the trucks up and I set off with thirty men to a place called Romily. The c/o and the rest of the men remained to be picked up by the main convoy on its way to south west France. By then things were very bad and a full retreat was on.
We got to Romily and the French Mayor allocated space in a bottle factory next to a slaughterhouse, where we unloaded the trucks and waited for the next move. I thought we were on to a good thing, being near to the butchers, and paid a visit to see if we could trade some of our stores for meat. I went in as bold as brass, stood inside the main door and looked around to see long rows of racks with animal carcasses hanging from them. After a minute or two I realised that they consisted of horses and smaller animals like dogs and cats. The French workers confirmed this and said it was a reserve supply in case things got bad in the food supply line, and offered to trade with us. I had another think, and told him we would see them later.
At about 9.00pm a despatch rider arrived with new orders to load up, with a two-hour deadline, and the residue not loaded was to be left behind and the Mayor of the town was to be notified so that he could dispose of it before the Germans arrived. We pushed on through the night with some difficulty, as the roads were full of refugees in cars and horse drawn carts, and many with their belongings on push carts and cycles Close to 5.00am we arrived about twenty miles from Nantes where the main bases were and we spent all that day issuing food etc. to the rearguard as they passed through on their way to the ports for embarkation.
At about 10.00pm that day, we set off on the last leg of our retreat to the ports. We only managed about ten miles and then we reached the embarkation perimeter zone, where the Military Police commandeered our transport and sent us on our way with directions to make for a disused factory about five miles from the port of St Nazaire. We were told to be ready to move in the early hours down to the docks where we would be ferried out to the ships lying in Quiberon Bay, about five miles from the estuary.
The Germans bombed the roads all night and did a lot of damage, killing a lot of troops and civilians, but we got to our destination about 3.00am and spent the rest of the night trying to get some rest, but that proved short lived. It then poured with rain and we were soaked to the skin very quickly. We laid up in the factory all day and about 2.00am the following day the orders came to start the trek to the docks.
It was about 4.30am when we got to the town and then we marched down to some little streets just outside the gates to the quayside. We made a ‘brew up’ and managed to heat up our rations of ‘M+V’, meat and veg, and a good meal it was, being the first hot meal for three days! About 9.00am the Navy embarkation party arrived and we marched into the docks and were formed up into parties of forty men to be put aboard various ships.
We passed the Red Cross Transport SS Somerset, which had been turned into a hospital ship. The ship had been bombed during the night, in spite of being fully lit up from stem to stern, but she did not receive any direct hits and was ready to move into the estuary when the tide was right. About 11.00am we boarded HMS Highlander and she started up the estuary as soon as the destroyer was packed with troops.
The destroyer moved along the estuary at half speed, we were expecting trouble along the way and arrived in the bay to see about eight ships, including three large troop transports. We ended up alongside a French railway ferry which was putting their quota of troops aboard the SS Lancastria. Our turn came, and we quickly made our way through the cargo entrance in the side of the ship, which had been a cruise ship in the Thirties. At this stage Doug and I were parted; as I stepped through the entrance a Military Policeman put his arm across Doug and said, “That’s enough,” and the Destroyer moved away towards another big transport about a mile away. I later learned it was the SS Oronsay. As soon as I got on board the first thing I wanted was a wash, a bottle of beer, and some food, so two of us went down into the ship after piling our kit on the top deck just below the bridge. We soon saw that it was impossible to move around the passages and cabins, as even the stairs had troops sitting and sleeping on them, so we made our way back to ‘A’ deck, and in doing so saved our lives.
It was about 12.30pm when I stretched out and tried to get some sleep. It was a lovely summer’s day and all went well until about 2.00pm when the Naval escort ships fired their guns, and before I could get to my feet I saw a German bomber coming out of the sun and flying low right over the ships. We could see the pilot and gunners quite clearly and we knew from the markings she was German. I can remember standing up and shouting, “It’s a bloody Jerry,” and watched it drop bombs on the ‘Oronsay’. The bombs looked like a cluster of plums as they dropped right at the side of the Bridge. There was a big explosion and I could see the debris flying through the air. I thought of Doug and hoped he was all right and also said to myself, “It will be our turn next.” The smoke around the ‘Oronsay’ had now cleared and as far as I could see the damage seemed to be around the Bridge and top deck and she was getting under way. I could see the anchor being pulled up. The bombing went on and another ship, the ‘Franconia’, was hit and put out of action. The Navy vessels were firing non-stop and we received about six near misses from the German bombers, but at about 3.55pm two bombers flew over the ‘Lancastria’ dropping four bombs right along the deck from the stern to the bow. The explosions deafened and stunned us.
I cannot remember much else, but found out later that two bombs went straight down into the bowels of the ship. The terrible part was that the RAF personnel, approximately eight hundred men, were trapped in the main holds.
They had boarded the ship early on in the day and had been accommodated down in the bottom of the ship. Things happened so quickly; the ship sank in approximately seventeen minutes after she was hit. The rest of the troops who were below started to come up on deck but only the ones on ‘B’ & ‘D’ decks could possibly have reached the top deck. The official account was about four thousand trapped inside the ship, drowned or killed by the bombs, and some three thousand survivors.
The ship was by then lurching from side to side, it seemed to right itself, but then listed to port. By then I had stripped off to my shirt and underpants and for some obscure reason I was still carrying my boots until I went into the water. I went to the side of the ship and tried with others to free the davits of the lifeboats but they appeared to be rusted up and would not move in spite of hammering them with the butts of our rifles. By this time a lot of troops had jumped overboard and I then saw the Captain leaning over the Bridge with a megaphone shouting, “Every man for himself.” I went to the other side of the ship which was now shuddering and listing badly to port. I looked over the rails and saw that everything that was loose was dropping onto the people swimming in the water and causing a lot of casualties, so I decided to wait until she was lower in the water and looked around for something to help me keep afloat. Cork lifebuoys and belts had only been issued to the troops who had boarded the ship earlier that morning.
My mind was made up for me when she started to sink, turning slowly over on to her side and within seconds the top deck rail was almost level with the water. I was not a good swimmer but I stepped over the rail into the sea and made every effort to get away from the ship as far as I possibly could. I got about thirty yards away, looked back and saw she was sinking fast but a lot of troops were still on board and were scrambling up the bottom of the ship as she turned over. I managed to get hold of an oar and another chap joined me and we managed to keep afloat by kicking out and holding the oar in front of us. By this time the oil was covering the whole area and we could feel it coming up from below. We were just drifting around while the German bombers were flying low and machine-gunning the survivors in the sea. By this time I was scared stiff and was covered in oil and could not seem to be able to keep my head out of the water.
We went on drifting about for an hour or so, but then a piece of wreckage, something like a raft, suddenly appeared as we were lifted up on top of a wave and we could see it was floating towards us. As we bobbed up and down in the water, we could see four men hanging on the sides. They shouted to us to try and paddle towards them as they were starting to drift away from us. We did this and managed to reach them. They were all covered in oil and to this day I do not know what they looked like! One of the men said, “You both can join us, but no one is going to be allowed to climb on top of the wreckage. If we just hang on treading water we could all make it.” It was a most suitable suggestion and we thanked them and left the oar to float away, it may have helped some other poor devils.
We were in the water for about another four hours and it was getting us all down. Two of the chaps just gave up and slipped away and the four of us left were very tired and were being battered by the waves. Then we saw the lights of a small steamer about a mile away and we spotted a ships lifeboat coming towards us. It reached us and pulled three of my comrades aboard. It was about eighteen feet long and already had about ten people in it. My turn came, as I thought, but someone said, “We can’t take any more, but we will come back for you.” It was dark and I knew they would have a job to find me again so I thought, “here goes,” and pushed and splashed towards the boat, made it, and got my right arm through the looped rope running along the side of the boat, and locked my left arm on to my right, and thought, “they will have to knock me on the head before I let go!” I was pulled along for about ten yards before they realised they were towing me, then someone said, “Get the poor chap aboard before he is choked by this sodding oil.” They pulled me aboard and I just slumped in the bottom of the boat with the other survivors resting their feet on my back.
When we reached the steamer it proved to be a French trawler. The crew tied ropes around us and hauled us aboard. The first person I met onboard was one of our officers, a Lieutenant Sawyer and he helped me down a ladder into a big steel tank. It must have been the fish hold because it stank of fish. They gave us a big canvas sheet to keep us warm and handed down a bucket of hot red wine. I think I must have slept through it all because I do not remember anything else until we arrived back in St Nazaire docks, and we climbed onto the quayside. I was naked except for a shirt covered in thick oil and completely exhausted. A lot of men and women appeared carrying blankets, and quickly stripped us of the remnants of clothing and wrapped us up in the blankets and tied cords around our chests and waists to hold the blankets in place. We were put into Red Cross ambulances and taken to a Convent Hospital about five miles from St. Nazaire where we were taken down into a basement shower room. The hospital nurses were nuns and they set about scrubbing us down with soft household hand brushes. This removed most of the oil but it left a residue of grease that seemed to have permeated the skin and it was months before it finally cleared up, leaving burnt patches on the skin due to the corrosive effects of the oil. It also affected my throat, making my speech hoarse and that never did get back to normal, but I was so glad to be alive after experiencing and surviving this awful disaster.
After the showers, we were taken to the hospital wards and given mattresses which were laid between the beds of the hospital patients and we were soon fast asleep. We were wakened by a Royal Naval Beach Party who had landed further down the coast and who had come ashore from a destroyer. They were responsible for getting the small groups of survivors in the area to the docks for embarkation on ships which were then coming up the estuary and river into the docks. This was about 6.00am and we arrived into the dock area about 6.45am and onto the quayside at 7.15am where we were directed to a pile of Army Officers kit piled up on the quayside. We all were naked beneath the blankets and I ended up with a pair of officer’s breeches, socks, underclothing etc, and shoes size 91/2.
I have since learned that breeches and field boots were only worn during active service by senior officers of field rank and above, such as a General, so mine must have belonged to the General leading the Party – General A. Brooke who had boarded HMS Cambridgeshire, the previous afternoon, the 17th June.
By this time the SS Robert Holt, a ship belonging to the Holt Line, had entered the dock and we were quickly put aboard. Off we went back down the estuary into Quiberon Bay, it was a queer sensation passing quite near to where the ‘Lancastria’ had sunk. There was still a lot of debris and oil over a large area. The crew looked after us very well indeed and our party of fourteen men settled down on deck just below the bridge, the same spot as on the ‘Lancastria.’ I slept on and off for the whole journey back to England. During the second day on the ship, we were a bit uneasy when the engines ceased and the ship stopped. We all wondered what was happening, and then we realised someone was being buried at sea. This happened twice more that day and we were told for the first time that there were a lot of wounded men below decks who had been loaded in another dock before they picked us up.
We got to Plymouth about 5.00pm on the 20th June. The harbour was full of ships unloading troops and cargo but we were given priority to enter. The ship inched into a berth and the order was given, “All survivors of the ‘Lancastria’ will disembark first.” Once on shore we were packed into taxis and ferried up to the hospital and barracks at Crownhill where, being able to make our way to our depots, we were given injections etc. and put to bed in the barracks for the night. The next day we were put on the train for London where transport from the depot was waiting, after which we were given seven days leave. My skin was still badly affected by the oil and my father and mother were very shocked when I arrived home in Cardiff but were glad to see me home and safe.
On my return to the depot I met up again with Doug Kempster who had watched the ‘Lancastria’ sink and thought I had ‘bought it’, as they used to say in the Army. He had been on the ‘Oronsay’ when she was hit and told me he was in the stern of the ship when the four bombs dropped and that only one had hit the ship. She was able to limp home under rigged steering after half the bridge had been blown away and a lot of troops killed or wounded.
We got a posting together and went to Lincoln to open up a big new buffer depot in Stamp End. A lot of the Army units from France were being sent up to Lincolnshire where they were being accommodated in canvas camps all over the county and it was feared that we would be next on Hitler’s list, as the county had a long coastline and was very flat, ideal for a sea borne landing. The Depot was an old disused factory next to Swift’s chicken packing depot. The Royal Engineers quickly got to work and fixed the building up, and the first goods trains started to arrive and we were operational within five days.