When World War II was declared I was Chief Officer aboard the Lancastria. One of the first operations in which she took part after she was converted into a troopship was the evacuation of the allied soldiers from Norway. Poles, Canadians, Frenchmen, British troops, all of them dirty and depressed, most of them without rifles. It was a relief when the whole sad campaign ended and the Lancastria went into Liverpool for overhauling and dry-docking. I shall always remember the date: the 14th of June 1940. I gave leave to as many of the crew as possible. In the first months of the war losses in the Merchant Service were greater than in all the other British services put together. Everyone needed leave as badly as the Lancastria needed her overhaul.
I went up-town for a leisurely lunch then strolled down to the Cunard office. As soon as I saw Captain Davies, Cunard’s Marine Superintendent, I knew something was wrong.
“Big Trouble,” he said. “Get down to the ship and recall everyone. You’re sailing tonight at midnight.”
“Where?” I asked him.
“The mission is unspecified,” he said.
There was nothing I could do but obey orders. All but three of the crew made it, and we sailed that night, reaching Plymouth by Saturday morning. The Franconia also taken unawares sailed with us.
The news from France was very grave. At about eleven that night we sailed for Brest. But when we arrived on Sunday afternoon, the oil tanks beyond the beach were ablaze and choking columns of smoke screened the shore. There was nothing to be done there and as we proceeded down the coast a plane came screaming out of the haze and a bomb sent a white jet of water close aboard the Franconia. Badly shaken she left us and limped home arriving in Liverpool with water over her footplates.
Monday 17th June dawned cool and bright off St. Nazaire where we were anchored five miles from the shore at six a.m. All morning the sky throbbed with the sound of planes. We were told to take as many troops aboard as could be loaded, without regard to the limits laid down by international law. Shortly after breakfast, destroyers began to move out across the harbour, bringing the soldiers off. These were the same destroyers with which I had worked at Norway only a few days before.
By Lunchtime the decks were packed with soldiers sweating in their think khaki; wherever I went I stumbled against kit-bags and tin hats. I made a quick check with the Purser, who had been keeping a tally at the shell doors as the troops swarmed aboard. I was horrified, five thousand men already embarked when our normal capacity was three thousand. As another destroyer came alongside I ordered the shell doors shut, shouting that they would have to make tracks for the troopship Oronsay, which had just anchored.
I was just turning back when a tug came alongside. On deck were a few civilians. These we could make room for. Among them were two children, obviously a brother and sister, perhaps eight and ten years old. Although they were filthy and dishevelled they had the pale civilised gravity that you find only in Continental children. What turned me cold was the sight of the dogs that they clutched tightly to them: a superb golden retriever and a disreputable mongrel. There had been much argument about quarantine regulations a few days before, when some British troops had brought back dogs from Norway and I did not aim to have a repetition.
“We can’t have those dogs aboard,” I told them at the gangway. “You’ll have to leave them on the tug.”
They merely stared at me, uncomprehending. An English lady who stood near them and had been speaking to them in French smiled hesitantly and said to me, “You see, these are Belgian children. They have walked from Brussels, right across France, keeping just ahead of the German Army all the time.”
“Yes, yes,” I said. “Explain to them that we will take them to safety, but it is forbidden for dogs to come aboard.”
The English lady was talking to them now, very gently. I saw the little boy’s face crumple. His eyes filled with tears. Then the two began to speak, fast and very earnestly. His sister hugged the mongrel tight and said nothing.
“He says that the dogs have walked with them from Belgium,” the lady said quietly, “and they cannot be separated no.”
Silence for a moment. “Well, let them come,” I said. “At time you can do only one thing with a regulation and that is break it.” About an hour later came the air raid, which was the end of everything.
We stood on the bridge of the Lancastria, Captain Sharp and I, and watched the planes quivering before us in the blue sky. Every so often the sharp-edged snarl of a bomb, the rocking explosion, the fountains of spray that spattered our decks. While the raid was at its height we were forced with a problem. A signal had just come through from a nearby destroyer suggesting that if the Lancastria was full to capacity she should get underway. All through the raid I could see Captain Sharp thinking about it. Five thousand souls aboard, a pitiful armament of one four-inch gun. What chance would we stand on our own against a submarine attack? Hopefully, we sent back a signal: “Can you escort us if we proceed?” But the destroyer preserved a discreet silence.
“I think,” said Sharp at last, painfully, “that we’ll do better to wait for the Oronsay and go together. What do you think?”
It was a joint decision. “I think we should stay, sir.” I said and we signalled back to the destroyer accordingly.
Presently the raid eased up and the planes wheeled eastward. Mortally tired, I went to my cabin and lay down. But sleep would not come. I had a sixth sense of impending disaster.
At close range the air-raid warning sounded over the harbour. I leaped from the bunk. For perhaps one full minute I stood there in the cabin, listening to the longest, most fearful silence I had ever heard. Then the bomb noise again, coming nearer so fast that it ripped at your eardrums. Four times the Lancastria bucked and shuddered like an animal in pain. I ran topside to the bridge.
“How many men down Number Two hold?” Sharp shouted.
“About eight hundred RAF, sir. Why?”
“I think that first one struck there and blew away their exit. God, look at those flames…”
One bomb had gone down the funnel (sic), vast clouds of inky smoke came pumping over us. The smell of oil caught me in the pit of the stomach. One bomb at least must have burst down Number Three hold, releasing 500 tons of fuel oil. Over and over again I could hear the signalmen repeating, “Hello… hello… engine room?” But no answering ring came over the bridge telegraph. Then the smoke drifted and parted and we saw the mess of blood and oil and splintered wood littering the deck and the furious white core of water that came roaring from Number Four hold. I knew now where the fourth bomb had gone.
I met Sharp’s eyes. Then I took the megaphone and my voice boomed out strangely over the dying ship: “Clear away the boats now… your attention please… clear away the boats.”
From the bridge I could see the crew struggling to reach the boats, past hundreds of tightly packed soldiers. It was astonishing that so many men survived. Some soldiers scrambled into a boat deck and sat there, apparently hoping it would land in the water unaided. I saw a soldier slashing with his knife at the rope-fall of a boat that hung suspended. The boat swung slowly outward and toppled its struggling passengers with an almighty splash into the water.
I could feel the deck keeling under my feet. The ship had started to list to starboard. There was only one chance to right her and gain precious moments. My voice again over the megaphone: “All hands to the port side… all hands to the port side… clear away the boats.” Gradually as the troops pressed from the starboard rail, I could feel her coming upright.
I knew now that many of us would have to face swimming for it. The ship was beginning to settle slowly on her port side, and there were thousands lined up on the deck in readiness. Again I passed the order over the megaphone: “Everybody off with their boots.” They all sat down and began to tug at their boot laces, some stripping completely. The German plans came skimming down across the water and we all ducked; machine gun bullets crackled against the bridge and the metal telegraphs. Already people were diving into the sea among them several nuns who had come aboard from the tug.
“It’s time now Harry,” Captain Sharp said. “I’m going to swim for the other end.” I looked at my watch, four eight p.m. Exactly twenty minutes from the time the first hit. “Good luck sir,” I said.
The water was so close to the bridge now it lapped like bath water. The Lancastria quaked once under my feet. Then she was gone, and I walked from the bridge into the sea off St. Nazaire.
The oil crept up my body like cold black syrup. I swam for clear water at right angles to the ship. When I struck it, I grasped a spar to keep me afloat and kept swimming. High overhead the planes still buzz-sawing across the horizon. Suddenly above the shattering explosions and cries of the wounded I heard one single superb tenor float across the water: “There’ll always be an England”. Nearby a little Cockney was swimming stark naked. I asked him how he was getting on. He gave me a look of superb disgust. Then he said: “What’s the good of hanging on under conditions like this, eh? What’s the good? I tell you I’m so fed up I’ve got a perishing good mind to sink.”
I was half inclined to agree with him, but said in my best Chief Officer’s voice, “Here, hang onto this bit of wood and I’ll swim alongside you, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t both be saved.” I saw him glance at the gold braid on my sleeve, for I was still wearing my uniform, and he did what I told him, though I could almost have sworn he shrugged beneath the water.
Eventually a small French row-boat picked us both up and carried us to a tug. From the tug I went to one of the small destroyers which was circling the estuary, picking up survivors. All the rest of the day we ferried back and forth to the Oronsay with boatloads of wounded men, so burned you could scarcely credit that life survived.
It is hard to remember the rest clearly. We eventually arrived in Plymouth late on Tuesday afternoon and I went on by train to London. I had a bath and picked up a second-hand suit, but oil was still clotted in my hair, the taste of oil still on my breath the whole compartment reeked of oil. The other passengers gave me one look and spent the trip in the refreshment car. But one, obviously a shopkeeper, beckoned me into the corridor. He could see, he said, that I was in trouble. Would I accept a loan of a pound to tide me over? I was deeply moved and thanked him, explaining that I was being met in London.
No, it was not money that I needed. It was not money that Rudolph Sharp, the Captain, needed either. Later that week we had lunch in a pub in Liverpool and there we prepared for the official report into how the Lancastria had gone to her death. Latitude 47.09, Longitude 2.20. I shall never forget that position that marks her grave. Of the five thousand souls aboard her, less than half had been saved. She sank like a stone and hundreds could not swim.
“Those children that came aboard from the tug,” Sharp said. “You know they weren’t picked up?”
Yes I had known it. I was still weak and light-headed with oil poisoning but it seemed to me the best thing that had come out of it was that their dogs had been with them.
Captain Harry Grattidge
ex-Commodore of the Cunard Line