We will remember them

Harry Helis

17th of June, 1940.

After laying in a large French field all night, we were told to get into our Sections, cold and hungry, to start a trek to find our way to the port of St Nazaire. After walking many, many miles; our officers realising that we were lost gave us orders to fall-out by the roadside while they went to gather information that would lead us to our destination.

Eventually, the officers returned in lorries, which we boarded, and we were taken to St. Nazaire where we boarded a French Destroyer. The destroyer took us alongside the Lancastria only to be told that it was completely packed and no more troops could board her. We received orders to ‘cruise around’ until the Oronsay entered the harbour and when it appeared the excitement was terrific — but what followed was horrific.

A light German aircraft came out of the sun and dropped a stick of four small bombs onto the deck of the Oronsay, putting some of her equipment out of action. Rope ladders were slung over the side and, with the help of the Oronsay’s crew, in full marching order, we scrambled aboard. We stripped off our gear and were given lifebuoys, then hurriedly assembled for lifeboat drill.

Within minutes the German bombers arrived and started dropping bombs, mostly intent on sinking the Lancastria. All of the time the destroyers and the Oronsay’s guns were firing at the bombers; some brave troops helping to re-load the guns.

A bomb fell right down the funnel of the Lancastria and civilians, soldiers, RAF and Navy personnel were thrown into the sea as the boat broke up and capsized. Over 4,500* personnel were killed and Churchill put an immediate ban on all publication of accounts of this terrible tragedy, although many stories came out after peace was declared.

We were turned out of the cabins we first went into when we boarded the Oronsay so as to attend to the sick and injured, many of whom had been in the sea a very long time. Some very good swimmers had swan a long way to the Oronsay; a very long way.

As the Oronsay plotted its way to Plymouth we were asked to move aside off the deck and to form a guard of honour as some of the bodies were shot overboard.

We landed at Plymouth and were met by a brilliant group of Salvation Army volunteers, handing out sandwiches, cakes and tea. We were certainly ready for something to eat.

* [Editor’s Note] No one will ever know the exact number who died that day – some say there were as many as 9,000 on board by the time the Lancastria was bombed, others estimate 7,000. All we do know is that around 6,000 were on board by 13.00 hrs, and that many more arrived after that. Only 2,447 arrived home.