I am not going to write of all my experiences during my time in France, but of one or two outstanding features; and of what seems to me an amusing episode, leading up to my arrival back in England.
Leaving England, on a glorious Whit Monday, it seemed we were going to have a nice holiday cruise, until we anchored up with other ships in Convoy and steamed across the Channel under cover of dark, to anchor and dock at Le Havre. Here our baptism of air raids took place. After the usual procedure of Clearance, etc., I, with the remainder of the boys, made for H.Q. and, after delivering our Sealed Orders, we were conducted to billets for the night. After breakfast next morning, we were all detailed to our various Companies, and I, with a driver acting as mate, proceeded to Abbeville for orders. Reaching Abbeville that night., we were billeted and given orders for our duty the following morning (Thursday). These orders were, to proceed to Rhiems with a 5 ton lorry, and return with stores and provisions to the Stores at Abbeville. (This incident I describe because it now seems audacious and impertinent on our part).
After the usual procedure we arrived on the outskirts of Rhiems, and driving carefully, we were on the look-out for Military Police to get our bearings and route for the Camp we were making for. Imagine our surprise when we passed through Rhiems without seeing a sign of life, even a cat or dog. All was quiet and eerie, but eventually we arrived at our destination, some three-quarters of a mile due north of Rhiems still no sign of life, but we had our instructions to return with supplies. We spent some two hours loading up tinned foods, tinned fruits, cases of cigarettes and whisky, wines, etc., absolutely undisturbed. We ate well, smoked and drank, and, after checking over all our supplies, decided to return. I made my way round to the driver’s cab whilst my mate jumped in the opposite side, switched on the engine and lit a cigarette. Suddenly there was a rat-tat-tat-tat-tat. My mate and I looked out of the cab and shouted “Blimey, Jerry’s here” After that, time was no factor in our exit. We just gave the lorry the works, taking the corners on two wheels, and did not stop until we saw khaki at the barricades some thirty miles away.
We arrived back a Abbeville without further excitements, apart from a few bursts of gunfire and the occasional sight of German aircraft We reported our reception, and when our stores were examined there was not one bottle of whisky left intact, all the tins of fruit were holed and without juice, in fact nothing was fit for consumption except the cigarettes. The sides and the back of the lorry were riddled with holes.
I will now skip lightly from place to place to the final hours in France.
Evacuation was taking place everywhere. Rumours were strangling everybody. It was not enough to see the faces of refugees, mutilated bodies of humans and beasts, but there was Rumour, Rumour, Rumour, killing all as it was digested. After terrific aerial bombardment We left Abbeville for Rouen, evacuating soldiers. Here we returned to the Royal Engineers whose job was cutting off advance and destroying supplies Here oil tanks were destroyed.. Back to Le Havre; more air raids Down to Nantes for a rest cure. Villa Ville; more air raids and Machine gunning. More oil tanks and supplies being blown up at Le Havre, where the Engineers were now doing good service, oil supplies amounting to nearly twenty million pounds being destroyed from the enemy.
More Evacuations from Villa Vile. We dodged off for Cherbourg, hoping to get a boat for England. No luck , down to Grandville. No luck , so to Rennes. A brief stay here with occasional raids, and we were off down to Nantes again. I was then transferred to H.Q. General Staff and attached as permanent driver to the Commanding Officer (a thorough gentleman). Rumours were again going about, faces beginning to show signs of fatigue. Refugees pouring into the town in thousands. Still we were all confident, but would give no opinions. After a few days ‘holiday’ I began ‘touring’ back to Rennes and Blois over to Caen and back to Rennes H.Q. Evacuation seemed to be the general order. Everywhere one went one was assured of a nice reception by way of an air raid, etc. Still one could not tell what the next day’s orders would be, it was just ‘ca ne fait rien’. I was kept busy, back to Nantes.
The air was keen, something was brewing. Everyone seemed to be asking what was going to happen. Scattered remnants of English troops were being marshalled and taken away. Our orders had come through. I said goodbye to my major and felt sorry he was going one way, and I detained to pick up the last remaining officers. I will pass. quickly over the next 24 hours. I reported back at H.Q. Rennes to evacuate to St. Nazaire and back to Rennes. The air battle was on in real earnest, but my job had to be done. The railway station and goods yards were blown to bits, and a direct hit on the ammunition dumps sealed the fate of those barracks. Panic everywhere. I was glad to get away with my last officers, and we settled down at St. Nazaire Those eighteen hours at St. Nazaire on this last Sunday were as a nightmare. Thousands of troops hiding in fields from air gunners. Still, we had to take a chance, and I don’t think many causalities occurred during this whole period.
Boats of all descriptions were being used to transport troops to England. The time seemed long for us awaiting our turn. Again and again our hopes rose, but still we had to wait. I was asleep in the car with a Major and two Captains when a shout was heard across the flats. It was for our Major ; at last we were on the move. It was 3.30 am. A.A.guns were shelling German planes, but none of our boys were dismayed ; we were going home! We moved off at 4. a.m. and had a three mile walk to the docks arriving at 5.15 we halted for a snack and drink of water. Later tea was made. It was a long business ferrying the troops out to the waiting ships. I, with four more pals, had been detailed in advance with records and officers kit. We were in advance of the company and reached the S.S. Lancastria first. On getting aboard, it was obvious that the ship was full and there was room for only a few more. I, with my four chums, were detailed with the other troops to the bottom hold of the ship, aft of the engine room. It was stuffy and warm, and before long everyone was drowsing or sleeping. we five had a sleep of about two hours, then we had a feed of tinned rations. Again they all settled down to sleep ; an air raid had been. reported, but that did not bother anyone.
At 4 p.m. I asked one of my pals (who was awake) if he would come up for a drink as it was so hot and stuffy He said he would come up for a wash, so we left the other three boys asleep and climbed up two decks to twin ships”. Hundreds of boys were sleeping at this time, down below in what would have been holds in peace time. My pal left me at the top of the stairs, I going about thirteen paces along the corridor to the wet canteen”; I looked round to see where he was and saw. him talking to someone he knew Just then there a double thud outside which shook the boat. Nobody took any notice of it and we all moved up a pace. I looked round again to see where my pal was, and had just caught a glimpse of him when Crash! He went with the bang; the boat took a list; lights out; I felt a hot draught and a bang on the head. It was hell let loose. Turn back I could not, it was a raging furnace. I felt sick with fumes, groping about in the dark; forward, I stumbled over bodies ; Moans and shouts everywhere. I mumbled to myself “This is my lot. No dammit there must be way out!” I groped along in the dark, feeling along the wall, when suddenly a flap gave way letting through a streak of light. A sudden ray of hope and a way to freedom entered my mind. I pushed hard and the flap opened, showing light coming through an open porthole, revealing what looked like the dry canteen I dived through, followed by other fellows, and made for the porthole. I got jammed half way through. some thing had to be done ; A horrible feeling passed over me of being trapped in the jaws of a trap. I saw water immediately beneath me, and heard the shouts of the men behind me “For Christ’s sake man get through!” They pushed me, but I did not move, only got rammed tighter in the porthole. “I can’t move!” I shouted “Pull me back inside”. At last I was pulled back inside, whilst slimmer fellows swarmed through the porthole as fast as they enter the room, and I saw another porthole to help more of them escape.
I opened it to enable more light to enter the room. As I looked round the place I saw another chance in a wooden door. What lay behind the door I did not know only the fact that I had still got to find a way out. The door was looked, but, being made of matchwood did not offer much resistance to my boots. I took several hefty kicks and it burst open, revealing the iron doors mid ships. With even mind I tackled the screw bolts and the doors gave, but owing to the angle of the ship, which lay at an angle of 45 degrees it was impossible for one to open the four sections of them. Voices were shouting behind me in all kinds of babble, but I took no notice; instead, I shouted “Come on boys, if you want to get out help me to open these doors!” It was not long before we had the doors fast open, giving all who could reach it the way to freedom. A quick glance and I made up my mind, saying “Well, old boy, you cannot swim, but you must take a chance.” I saw a rope dangling about nine feet out in the water, and without hesitation I jumped, measuring my distance and catching the rope in my two hands. I went under the water, and after taking a little more than I could hold I came to the surface, and seeing a lifeboat a few feet from me, made for it by kicking out in the water.
Fate was with me and I succeeded in reaching the boat and getting into it. The next thing was to get the boat nearer the ship, and, with the help of a few men already in the boat, and not thinking of our safety (the ship had got a very bad. list and was towering above us) we succeeded in pulling in near enough to fill the boat far beyond capacity. We had to shout “Enough men! No more, or we shall capsize”. There was a frenzy, but we had to get away from the ship, so we got oars out and began pushing away from the side. Still more men, came along, clinging to the ropes either side. Eventually, with careful avoidance with the oars, we moved off.
The fear on the faces of everyone as we moved slowly away was terrible. It seemed that we were getting no further from the ship. I heard myself shouting, almost frenziedly, to the men (including myself) at the oars, to pull with every ounce away from the ship. It was babble and panic again. I shouted “Will someone take command, and, and tell the men on the left to keep their oars out of the water! we must turn round and move away from the ship, otherwise, if she turns turtle, we shall go under with the suction!” We all pulled like demons, and, inch by inch, we began to pull away. Struggling bodies, trying to grab the oars, making it more difficult for us to move. In -out. In -out.
In -out” we started yelling, making believe we were having a race against the other lifeboat in front. “Come on boys!” I shouted, In -out. In -out. We’re catching them up”
Suddenly, out of the sky like hawk., streaked German planes, diving on us. Flattening out, they started machine-gunning us. Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat. Yells go up from the boat, from the water, all round. Cries of “For Christ’s sake help Help! He…lp!” Bodies floated by, and we struck a big patch of oil. Suddenly the raiders began dropping flares on the oil, but our luck held out a little longer, and eventually, with a little more persuasion, we managed to reach the side of a trawler (French). Rat-tat-tat-tat went the machine guns, and the French gunner replied with a sharp. burst which drove the raiders off.
We managed to scramble aboard, many injured amongst us, and, after seeing to them and their comfort, we formed ourselves into small parties, throwing ropes overboard and helping to save many more lives. Three of us, including myself applied Sohaeffers method of artificial respiration and were successful in many oases in bringing men to life. I myself failed only once.
In the engine room, bunks, cabins, bridge, in fact everywhere one looked were bodies, and what a terrible picture! Men covered from head to foot in oil. Naked men. Mutilated bodies. men badly burned, and amongst us, one woman and child. Out on the sea were hundreds of bodies, many past recognition, shot to pieces, machine gunned or blown to pieces. At last came the order from the French captain that he could not take on any more men. They had worked hard, as had we boys. Shivering, we stood watching a battle between the R.A.F. and the raiders, who were eventually driven off after an attack on a British destroyer.
As we moved off towards the “Oronsay”, three German mines were exploded, causing more anxiety to us all, but finally we were taken aboard and made a lot more comfortable.
Never shall I forget the last minute of the Lancastria, as she lay with that terrible list, hundreds of men clinging to the top of her, screaming, rolling off her as she finally turned over and the water swallowed her. Graceful was the Lancastria, and quietly and gracefully she went under, and the waters stilled over her. We hovered around on the “Oronsay” until 8 p .m. when orders were given that she was to proceed and take a chance. Slowly she moved away, zig-zagging slowly in the dark. The journey seamed endless. Dawn broke at last, how far were we from land? how long before we landed? Had we any escorts? Questions were being asked, but nobody could give a true answer.
At about 10.30 all survivors of the Lancastria were marshalled together in the well deck saloon for a roll call. There were 500 aboard. The order was given for all to form their- own detachments, each company of men under an N.C.O. to keep their places until arrival at Plymouth. There, as each regiment was called, they would be taken off. As a final instruction all were warned not to move about the ship, or she would turn turtle. We were to land at 8.30 p.m., and at 4 p.m. volunteer semaphore signallers were asked for, to send a message ashore. Again the question was asked, what was wrong with the wireless in the Oronsay? at 6 p.m. the order came for us to get ready to land (We had been looking at the English coast since 2.30) and we finally set foot on the jetty at 8.30, where we were fed and given tea and. cigarettes, and finally moved off to our billet and examination by the Medical Officer.
It was then that we wore told the story of the Oronsay, and we paid tribute to a gallant captain. The Oronsay had received a direct hit on the bridge (before the attack on the Lancastria). The bomb took away the bridge, chart rooms, steering and wireless room, and broke the captain’s leg. The Oronsay was holed and taking in three feet of water, but the auxiliary pumps were just capable of taking out as much water from the ship. After the Captain had been told he could land the men back in St. Nazaire, he chanced a dash for England, alone. The dye was cast, and by the aid of the auxiliary steering gear, sextant and memory, the Captain brought his badly crippled ship safely into port. Only his skill and daring brought us back to safety, for within half an hour of the landing of the last soldier the pumps failed, but the Captain had done his job.
We survivors finally reached London on Wednesday, June 19th, and after refitting were sent to our homes for a well earned rest
Edwin’s 1940 notes
May 13th – Left England for france
May 14th – Arrived Le Harve
May 15th – To Nantes stayed at Fougeres
May 16th – Arrived Nantes
May 17th – Report to H.Q.
May 18th – Return to Le Harve
May 19th – Arrived at Le Harve
May 20th – Left for Rhieme, Arrived Abbeville
May 21st – Arrived at Rhiems, Machined gunned
May 22nd – Back to Abbeville
May 23rd – Bombed out of Abbeville Station
May 24th – Arrived at Rouen
May 25th – Bombed and Machined gunnd at Rouen
May 26th – Bombed at Le Harve
May 27th – At Villaville
May 28th – At Hornfleur, Bombed and Machined gunned
May 29th – Remes
May 30th – At Nantes Chateau until June 5th
June 5th – St Nazaire and la baule
June 6th – Pornichet to Nantes Chateau
June 8th – Villaville, Bombed and Machine gunned
June 9th – Villaville, Bombed and on to grandville, Bombed again
June 10th – Grandville to Remes
June 11th – Remes H.Q.
June 12th – Remes H.Q. Bombed then to Nantes
June 13th – Nantes to Remes then back again
June 14th – Nantes H.Q. and Chateau
June 15th – Evacuation? to where?
June 16th – St Nazarre, Bombed and Machine gunned
June 17th – Docks at St Nazaire. On Ship SS. Lancastria, Ship Bombed and sank. I survived wounded
June 18th – Put aboard The Ononsay reached Plymouth at night
June 19th – Arrived London, Croydon.