Early in 1940 at the age of 34, my father embarked for France with the BEF. Shortly after, all communication from him ceased and at the time of Dunkirk he was reported missing. At the end of June, my mother received an empty cigarette packet through the post and pencilled on it was ‘I’m OK’ and our home address. My father had thrown it from the train window leaving Dover and someone had posted it.
It later transpired that his Unit had been told to make their way back to Dunkirk ‘Every man for himself’. Reaching the crowded beaches, that were being machine gunned and bombed and with little hope of finding a boat, he and his mate decided to swim out to a large vessel on the horizon taking off every item of uniform that was pulling them down.
The ship was the ‘Lancastria’ pulling out of St Nazaire and coming along the coast. With over 5,000 on board, including soldiers, airmen and the Salvation Army, there was no room to go below to get away from the German machine gunning. This was to be his saving as when a bomb made a direct hit down a funnel, the ship caught fire and began to sink. Some who jumped overboard were cut to pieces by the propellers, others unable to swim away were either sucked under by the sinking vessel or caught up in the thick oil that had been set alight by the German air gunners.
My father and three others, clung to a piece of debris for hours, but with so many souls in the sea looking for a lifesaving piece of wood, they had to beat off other would be survivors to prevent themselves from sinking. It was this episode that was to haunt my father for the rest of his days. Eventually picked up by a French fishing boat, he landed at Dover.
My sister and I were too young to understand his terrible nightmares when he would cry out sobbing in this sleep. After swallowing so much oil, he was to suffer breathing problems from time to time and died aged 51 with lung disease.