Obituary address by Mark Hirst
My granddad Walter Hirst first met Charlie on a freezing January day in 1940 as he boarded a train in Dundee to head south for basic training just after the start of World War 2. My gran, Annie, helped Walter with his suitcase as he settled down for the long trip south to London. She turned to Charlie who was already sitting in the carriage and said “look after him for me”. Charlie just nodded and smiled. Decades later he told me that he was a little bemused by this as it was evident my granddad was a few years older than he was. “He should have been looking out for me” he said with a broad smile.
Six months later Charlie was able to fulfill my Gran’s request as the two men boarded the Clyde built Lancastria and faced a day of horror that none of the survivors would ever forget.
Charlie his conscription papers in January 1940. Like Walter he was a joiner to trade, but dutifully resigned his job and headed to the recruiting centre at Woolmanhill in Aberdeen only to be told that the Army were not quite ready for him. He explained to the sergeant that he had resigned his job and had no means to support himself so the recruiting officer suggested Charlie instead volunteer for one of the engineering companies, which he duly did.
Charlie and Walter received just two weeks basic training at a converted Butlins holiday camp at Clackton on Sea, on the south coast of England. One officer from the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment said of the men that they were little more than “civilians in soldiers clothing”.
At the beginning of February 1940 the company was sent to France and the historic French city of Nantes which during medieval times had been the centre of the European slave trade. When 663 Artisan Works Company arrived in the city, hungry and tired after a 3 day train journey from Le Harve some of the sappers joked that the locals must have thought it was a return to the good old days when they clapped eyes on the weary soldiers.
Hundreds of miles away from the frontline 663’s role was to build a variety of construction works, mostly centred on the main airport for Nantes at Bougenais. These support troops, like the hundreds of thousands of others in the region were in place to provide logistical support for the front line army far to the north.
Everything went smoothly in those early months and the men quickly bonded. However by June rumours were running rife that the “real army” was in trouble. On the 14th of June, almost 2 weeks after the last troops of the British Expeditionary Force, the BEF, had been evacuated from the beaches at Dunkirk, Walter, Charlie and a group of other men from the company were sitting around a radio in their billets listening into the BBC World Service and heard Churchill say that the BEF had “completely and successfully evacuated France.” The men looked at each other in disbelief and wondered if they had been left behind. Shortly after Major Morgan, Vingt Cinq as he was known affectionately known by his men, called the company to parade and told them they were to depart immediately to the French port town of Saint Nazaire, 65 km to the West and onward evacuation to the UK.
After sleeping in the streets of Saint Nazaire and enduring a heavy German bombing raid on the town during the night the company finally made their way out to the very large silhouetted ship that was sitting anchored in the Loire estuary.
The Lancastria was a former Cunard liner which was converted at the start of the war to become a troopship. Despite her external hull being painted battleship grey, her interior maintained all the elegance and class that befitted a state of the art cruise ship.
Initially the men were ordered below decks, which were absolutely crowded with soldiers and some refugees.
Just before two o clock the internal bells and claxons on the Lancastria began to sound signalling, and incoming air attack. Walter looked out a port hole window and saw another troop transport about a mile away, the Oronsay, getting hit on its bridge and a large dark grey cloud began rising from the ship. “Best to get topside”, Walter said and so against orders the two men pushed their way through the heavy pack and crush of soldiers and eventually found themselves on the boat deck on the very top of the ship.
The German raiders had temporarily left.
In one corner was a large pile of cork lifejackets, “here take one of these”, Charlie said to Walter, “They’ll make a good pillow.” The two men lay down on the deck, their heads propped up on the “cork pillows” and soaked up the hot summer sun. There was hardly anyone around at that point, most of their unit was trying to get some food below decks. After about 20 minutes or so Walter got up and said he was going below to try and find some food. Charlie suggested it would be better to put the life jacket on rather than try and carry it through the crowded decks below. He placed the lifejacket over Walter’s head and tied off the straps at the back. Walter did the same for Charlie, and they shook hands and Walter told him he would meet up later. Charlie watched him go down the steps at the back of the boat deck. It was the last time the two men would ever see each other.
As Charlie turned he saw the Lancastria’s Chief Purser who was looking a worried man. Charlie asked him what was wrong and the Chief Purser said that there were upwards of 9000 people aboard the ship and only enough lifesaving equipment for two and a half thousand.
Shortly after speaking to the Chief Purser a second air raid siren sounded, but this time the German bombers were aiming for the Lancastria. 4 bombs struck the ship in very rapid succession.
Charlie, who was still up on the boat deck was knocked to the floor by the blast as one bomb fell close to the Lancastria’s single funnel and near to where he had been standing. When he came round, dazed and confused he realised he had been hit near the back of the head by a piece of shrapnel, perhaps a fragment from the wooden deck.
Charlie’s memory of what happened next was patchy as a result of the concussion he had received. The next thing he knew he was sitting in a lifeboat with no one around him. The lifeboat was still attached to the ship’s davits, but Charlie was still half expecting it would launch itself. The next thing he remembered was being in another lifeboat, which by this time someone, perhaps a member of Lancastria’s crew had managed to launch against the odds into the sea off Saint Nazaire. Charlie tried to help survivors into the lifeboat, but most were covered in thick fuel oil from Lancastria’s ruptured tanks and they kept slipping back into the water. Eventually Charlie collapsed into the bottom of the boat, exhausted. All around men were screaming for help and the horror of that scene continued to haunt most survivors for decades after. The 17000 ton Lancastria took just 20 minutes to sink and all the time the German bombers kept up their attack strafing the men with machine gun fire as they struggled in the water.
Eventually, some hours later, Charlie was rescued and transferred to another larger vessel and finally returned to the UK.
The loss of life remains the worst in British maritime history and was the worst single loss of life for British forces in the whole of World War 2. On learning of the news Winston Churchill banned all news coverage fearing the damage it would do to public morale. Charlie and the other survivors were told not to even mention the name of the Lancastria on pain of court martial.
Years later when Charlie read the official death toll figures for the Lancastria released by the Government he believed that the authorities were trying to mitigate the almost reckless overcrowding. Earlier in the morning the Royal Navy had ordered the Captain to ignore international law on passenger limits and load as many as possible. Officially the Government claimed there were around 6000 embarked, and no fewer than 3000 killed. After speaking to the Chief Purser that day Charlie and many others believed the death toll was much higher, at least 4000 and possibly as high as 6000 lost. The number of victims twice that of the Titanic and Lusitania combined, but unlike those two disasters, the Lancastria story was destined to be forgotten for decades.
Once Charlie and the other survivors from 663 reached the UK they were given a travel passes and food vouchers and told to make their way to Leeds where the company were regrouping, straggling back in twos and threes. Of the 242 men of the company, 92 were killed aboard the Lancastria. The unit had suffered a major blow, although other companies on the Lancastria sustained even heavier losses.
My granddad, who was a non-swimmer, survived thanks to the life jacket Charlie had handed to him. He was given home leave and returned to Dundee where he immediately married my gran less than 2 weeks after the disaster. On returning to Leeds he discovered his unit, 663, had already left for the Faroes. My granddad was redeployed to another Royal Engineers unit. He never knew that Charlie had survived and was now on his way to the remote Faroe Islands with the rest of the company.
After the war Walter retold the story of the Lancastria many times, but one name was always mentioned, that of Charlie Napier, or Chick Napier as Walter knew him. If it had not been for that one small act of handing him the lifejacket, Walter would not have survived.
Years after the death of my granddad I began to research the full story of the Lancastria and was desperate to find out what might have happened to Charlie. After a tip off from another member of the unit I began to work my way through the BT phone book calling every C Napier in Aberdeenshire asking if they had been in the Royal Engineers and aboard the Lancastria. Finally I got Charlie’s son, who said he thought that perhaps I was looking for his dad. When I phoned Charlie senior I said “Hello is that Mr Charles Napier?” “Yes.” Came the reply. “Mr Napier who was in 663 Artisan Works Company Royal Engineers and who was on the Lancastria?” There was a long pause and finally Charlie said. “Yes. That’s me.” It was a memory I will cherish for a long time.
Soon after me and dad travelled to Inverurie to meet Charlie in person. I will never forget the amazement of Joan, Charlie’s wife, as he began to recount what had happened aboard the ship. “I have been married to this man all these years and he has never mentioned a word of this,” she said shaking her head.
Charlie epitomised the character of most of the survivors; unassuming, often bemused by the sudden interest in the story after decades of official silence. Of course he maintained his own silence about those events for the most part because they were so painful.
For me, on a personal level Charlie allowed me to reconnect with my granddad and glimpse a day that was to change his life forever and that of all those who witnessed those horrific events in June 1940.
It was clear my granddad held him in great affection and having met him and spoken to Charlie at length I can understand why that was the case.
Both men thought the other had perished on the Lancastria. Alongside Walter, Charlie was a major motivating force for me as I jointly founded the Lancastria Archive. Charlie agreed to many media interviews that I asked of him, without complaint, at least not to me! He made an invaluable contribution to the work of the Association, work that is on-going as it seeks to erect a lasting memorial to the victims on the Clyde and personally I feel a great loss at his passing, but honoured to have had the chance to meet him.
The fact that he endured such an event and like the others in that company, continued to fight on through to the very last days of the war is surely a mark of these men’s exemplary commitment and determination.
Charlie will be missed, but he will never be forgotten.
(Charlie is survived by his son Charlie, daughter-in-law Fiona and granddaughters Rebecca and Victoria)