Born in 1918, I was 20 years old when I joined the Airforce, this is my story of the Lancastria which was sent to rescue us after Dunkirk.
When I arrived in France, my companions and I were sent to a huge chateau where a number of high ranking officers were staying. It was out duty to look after them, as I was a butcher boy in Civvies Street. I was elected to do the cooking, we also did general duties and square bashing to keep fit.
There was a panic one day when the officers disappeared, rumours spread like wildfire and the word Dunkirk was being used. There were over 200 men in the unit and we all had to board the many lorries that were sent for us, each of these lorries had a metal U in the tail gate to enable us to board and get off easier. Some of the men rode on these as the lorries sped along the roads and lanes. If they fell off we didn’t stop to pick them up. We sped towards the city of Nantes and I helped to cook the first meal we had had in days, however this was not eaten, as the Germans were too close. The NAFFI was looted by our men so not to leave any food or stores behind for the enemy. The lorries were left and we started to march through the hundreds of refugees fleeing the towns and villages, all the time we were being strafed by the German aircraft overhead. Soon all the kit bags and all the baggage we carried was left in the ditchers.
Finally we made it to Saint Nazaire, a huge expanse of concrete greeted us and it was there where we slept for the night. We could see out on the horizon a huge liner which small boats were being used to ferry men out to it. We didn’t know later that the name of the liner was the Lancastria, it wasn’t a war ship but a liner, but we didn’t care, as we were so glad to be going home.
It was the 17th of June 1940. Small boats took us out to her and the nearer we got we began to realise why she couldn’t come in further for us as the bay was too shallow for the 16,000 ton liner. It was a very daunting task to climb up the ladders to board her; her sides seemed miles above us. Eight hundred RAF men were sent to the holds where the gangway slopped into the lower deck. Someone shouted “I am gong to get some bangers and mash”. I had only gone a few hundred yards down the ramp when there was a great flash of light, like lightening and a deafening noise. I put my hand to my head; most of my hair had been blown off. The Germans had dropped 4 bombs on the ship right into the hold, rumour had it one was a direct hit down one of the funnels. The Germans were still over head firing at the men who were trying to escape. She sank with all on board in less than twenty minutes. As the ship keeled over I was swept towards the propeller of the ship which by now was out of the water, we were all swimming in oil and the bullets were still being fired as they tried to set the sea alight. We all clung to whatever we could, the sea was full of men desperately trying to survive. I was in the water and oil for more than four to five hours. I swam until I reached a dinghy but couldn’t get up the ropes because of oil. Back in the water again till a voice shouted “There’s a boat behind!”, this time I was hauled aboard. I climbed the ladder to the deck and most of the men on board were dead, I was one of the few standing. I remember being violently sick. The boat took us to Saint Nazaire where we ended up in Hospital. I had no clothes as I had ditched them to be able to swim and I was covered in thick black oil.
We were kitted out when we returned to England and I was sent to Ireland on 48 hours compassionate leave. Not even my girlfriend, who later became my wife, knew what had happened to me or where I was as it was decided to keep the tragedy under wraps as it was only two weeks after Dunkirk. It was always played low key but more than 3500 men lost their lives and the amazing courage of those who stayed with the ship singing till she sank, will always stay with me.
I am now 87 and live with my wife of 63 years in Cranham. I am still in touch with the Lancastrian Association. The Lancastria still lays where she sank on the bottom of the Loire estuary.