THE late Ernest John survived the biggest single disaster in British maritime history. The sinking of the Lancastria claimed 4,000 lives. The survivors of the tragedy never received any recognition – until now. John Sutton reports.
AT her home in Longford Street, Middlesbrough, Lilian John holds the silver medal in her hands and smiles, remembering her Ernest.
The widow says she feels “righted” after claiming a medal on her husband’s behalf. “He didn’t talk much about the Lancastria, he felt the survivors had been very badly done to,” she says.
But nobody has ever talked much about the Lancastria. The liner was sunk on June 17, 1940, while evacuating troops from St Nazaire, France.
Four thousand died in the biggest disaster in British maritime history. German bombers scored three direct hits on the 578-foot vessel, causing her to list and sink in just 20 minutes.
Ernest, a strong swimmer with lifesaving qualifications, escaped by diving into the sea, blackened with oil that choked hundreds of the souls on board. The ship was packed with civilians and soldiers. Many of Ernest’s brothers in arms from the Queen’s Royal Regiment perished in the waters, or were killed by German machine guns.
The Lancastria was attacked two weeks after the mass evacuation from Dunkirk. The British Government banned announcements in the Press, fearing another blow to national morale.
Even to this day, successive administrations at Westminster refuse to recognise the bravery of nearly 2,500 survivors. But all that has now changed thanks to a decision by the Scottish Parliament to award a medal.
For Ernest, who died in 1993, the commendation is too late, but Lilian is proud her husband’s part has been remembered. She said: “It upset him so much that he didn’t claim any of his war medals for years.
“My children have written to the Ministry of Defence but got nothing, so when the Scottish Parliament did this, we sent off Ernest’s service record.”
Ernest and Lilian’s five children; Keith, Neville, Malcolm, Annette and Allison, joined the quest to get their dad a medal. Allison, 48, who is a postgraduate student, even found a letter Ernest had written to the government asking for information.
She said: “It shows how important this was to him, to get recognition for what happened on the Lancastria.”
And the shipwreck wasn’t the only thing Ernest survived on active service. The North Ormesby lad was one of eight brothers posted to the four corners of the earth in the 1940s.
He survived an earthquake in Quetta, Afghanistan, in 1935, and was at Mount Vesuvius, Italy, when it erupted in 1944.
But like many of his generation, he returned from war and just got on with life. He came home and met Lilian at a dance class on Marton Road. Lilian, who has renal cancer, cheerfully recalled those happy courting days.
She said: “Ernest was a good dancer, and after a class in March 1946 he picked me up when I slipped on some ice, and offered to walk me home. We were married in 1950.”
Ernest was a builder and a steelworker after the war, and then worked as a bus driver for 21 years.
In a letter accompanying the medal, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond said: “We recognise the fortitude and stoicism of the survivors who have had to endure a lack of recognition from a succession of governments. This is thoroughly deserved and long overdue.”
The Lancastria Archive lobbied MSPs, and now intend to build a permanent memorial to the tragedy.
Ernest’s medal will stay with Lilian for now, before it is donated to the Queen’s Royal Regiment museum at Guildford.