We will remember them

Herbert Stokes

My grandfather, Herbert Stokes, was involved in Britain’s greatest ever maritime disaster, the sinking of the Lancastria, where more lives were lost than in the Titanic and Lusitania combined. Even so, most people have never heard of this terrible episode as the survivors were forbidden to talk about it at the time and Churchill hushed it up for the sake of morale.

about Dunkirk there is a paragraph which reads: “Operation Dynamo officially began at 18:57 on 26 May 1940. The signal announcing that the British Expeditionary Force had been evacuated was sent at 23:30 one week later.”

Alas, the impression given by this and by all of the many Dunkirk programmes shown over the last week is that “all” of the BEF was rescued at Dunkirk. Not so. Everyone has heard of the Dunkirk evacuation but another rescue started immediately afterwards: Operation Aerial, the codename for the rescue of Allied troops left in France after Dunkirk. 163,000 people were freed by Operation Aerial, a scale comparable to Operation Dynamo, but most people seem never to have heard of this.

Over 150,000 troops – including my grandfather, Herbert Stokes – were still in France two weeks after Dunkirk was all over, while the Nazis were was already strutting about in Paris. Many of these troops left behind were sadly killed or taken prisoner, but a large number of Army units were ordered to evacuate from other ports further west. Unlike at Dunkirk they were not yet at immediate risk from land attack by the Germans, but they certainly were at risk from the air.

One of those ports, St Nazaire, became the scene the worst loss of life that Britain has ever suffered from one vessel. This was the sinking of one of the ships involved in the rescue, the Lancastria, and my grandfather was on it. For the sake of morale the whole episode was so completely hushed up at the time that few now have ever heard of it.

When the defeated French asked the Germans for an armistice on June 16, time had nearly run out for the British troops still in France further west of Dunkirk. Frantic evacuations began at several ports in Brittany. Let us not forget the big ships operating, under fierce air-attack, from those ports, for another two whole weeks after the Dunkirk evacuation was over. Manned by merchant seamen and fishermen they had names like Sobieski, Ulster Prince, Oronsay and, of course, the ill-fated Lancastria. The Lancastria, originally the Tyrrhenia, had been re-named in 1924 despite a naval superstition that it is very unlucky ever to re-name a ship. In this case the superstition was to prove ominously correct.

My father, Adrian Stokes, has written the following account of what happened to his father, Herbert Stokes, during the first months of World War II. (Adrian was twelve years old at the time.)

by Adrian Stokes

My father, Herbert Stokes, was a great survivor. Blown up by a shell on the Somme in 1916, he was on light duties till the end of the First War; I still have the silver badge awarded to those who had been so severely wounded that they were exempted from further military service. However, he insisted on rejoining the Army, in his old rank of Captain, at the age of 45, on September 2nd 1939.

On 16th September, Herbert left for France with the British Expeditionary Force. Officially his Regiment was the Royal Enniskilin Fusiliers, but in WW2 the Army recognised his experience as the Chief Executive of Queen Charlotte’s hospital in London, and based him in Dieppe organising medical supplies, which came under the general heading of the Quartermaster General.

Herbert’s letters were hardly a record of light duties. They were usually scribbled at the end of an 18-hour day, and reveal the strange unreality of the so-called Phoney War. Work was often interrupted, not by air raids, but by visiting ‘Brass Hats’ or by the lavish entertainment of, or by, local French dignitaries. Few military matters could be mentioned in letters, but in February 1940 the censor passed an account of grave discussions with a very senior officer from the A.T.S. as to whether her women soldiers should have Army Issue Pots, Chamber, with or without handles. These deliberations seem to have borne fruit, because later, when Rheims was occupied by a special contingent of the SS, sent ahead of the main German force to secure the Champagne stocks for their officers’ messes, they found a mysterious crate painted with the words ‘SECURITY – Only to be opened in the presence of a senior officer.’ It contained 144 enamel pots, female staff for the use of, with handles.

Comments on the progress of the war would have been deleted by the censor’s blue indelible pencil. How much the combatants themselves knew is uncertain; in April 1940 writing at 10.20 p.m. after escaping from an official reception for the ‘King-pin of the Parsons and his satellite curates’, Herbert says, ‘Every day brings the end of this most stupid war nearer, and the more immediate prospect of leave more delightful.’

Within days all leave was cancelled. Despite his disappointment, Herbert’s letters remain optimistic, reflecting ‘stirring times’ and looking forward to being ‘really on the job of smashing this mad swine and keeping him away from our folks and families.’ The reality was very different. By mid-May Hitler’s Blitzkrieg was sweeping through Belgium and Herbert’s letters indicate evacuation of medical staff from Dieppe to points further west; the last letter he wrote from France, nearly a week after Dunkirk, describes ‘a wonderful old watering-place’ – probably Deauville.

Herbert was now in the rear party, charged with seeing all medical personnel and patients across the Channel. Around the 7th June, his camp moved to Nantes, a town some 30 miles inland from the port of St Nazaire. On Saturday 15 June the two other officers in his camp were away reconnoitering for a new site. Herbert was left behind because, as he told his family afterwards, he was so dead-beat. Meanwhile the order came through that the camp was to be evacuated within seven hours. Herbert got them all safely away, and waited behind for the other two officers to return, which they did to find it all done.

Herbert’s last two days in France are vividly recalled by his water-stained movement orders, immaculately typed, detailing the move from Nantes to St Nazaire. For instance the order for 15/6/1940 includes:

One 25 h.p. Vauxhall will remain with Rear Party. Capt. Webster will retain motor cycle.

Two days hard rations will be carried. Water bottles will be carried filled.

These orders, with a bunch of receipts for meals and rooms in anonymous French hotels (the Army was scrupulous about paying its way) were stuffed into Herbert’s battledress pocket as he scrambled aboard HMT Lancastria at 10 a.m. on Monday, 17th June.

What happened next was that at 3:50 pm the Luftwaffe bombed her, holing her below the waterline, causing her to list rapidly and discharge 1400 tons of oil into the sea. Hundreds of men who had not eaten for days were making their way below decks to the restaurant areas. Moments later, a second bomb penetrated a forward hatch and exploded. Some men died in the water, burning in the oil-slick onto which the Germans had dropped incendiaries; others broke their necks jumping from the ship. Within 25 minutes the Lancastria, listing ever more steeply, turned completely upside down with men still clinging to her hull, and sunk with at least 5,000 casualties, possibly many more. The Luftwaffe continued attacking even after that, so that other vessels were unable to go to immediate aid – Herbert estimated that it was one and a half hours before he was picked up, and some survivors were in the water even longer.

Herbert’s next letter home came from ‘an appropriate address’: Stokes and Military Hospital, Devonport, Plymouth, dated June 17th. With typical understatement he wrote: ‘There is very little wrong with me except some twisting of the back and the effect of an hour and a half’s swim after the Boche had got our ship with a couple of eggs. Thank Heaven I saw all the hospitals and personnel in our charge away without being bombed on the 15th. I and the others, very few left, got on board on the 17th, but we did not have the luck, as ours was the only boat they got. A definitely unpleasant show.’

As for the Lancastria, a brief note among Herbert’s papers reads:

SS Lancastria: 5500 Troops (incl. ship’s complement)
Survivors: 2100
Casualties: 3400

This calculation was optimistic. It is now known that by noon on the 17th June, the Lancastria was crammed with between 7,500 to 9,000 people, grossly overloading her. Of this number, exactly 2,447 survived. Simple subtraction shows that the dead therefore numbered between 5,000 and 6,500, but no one will ever know for sure as no one knows exactly how many were aboard. There were only 2,000 lifejackets. Herbert had no lifejacket but found something even better: a lifebelt which was able to support four men.

Despite the overall success of Operation Aerial, the losses caused Churchill to order the news to be suppressed, so the story is in danger of remaining a forgotten footnote. Churchill wanted nobody to talk about it, so nobody did. My only memory is of my father showing me a gleaming pair of shoes, polished ready for his return to duty. ‘Not bad,’ he said, ‘considering they spent some time in the sea.’

…My grandfather Herbert Stokes, like many of his generation, never spoke of his wartime experiences. A kind and loving, but intensely shy and buttoned-up man, whose mother had died when he was only three, his upper lip was so stiff it was almost solid and it is often only in the letters he has left behind that you can get some idea of what was in his heart. Anyway, the survivors of the Lancastria were all ordered to stay silent on their return to Britain. The following extracts from other family letters tell more of what happened to him that fateful day. Herbert’s eldest daughter Audrey, then a 19-year-old Oxford undergraduate, wrote to her fiance on Friday June 21st, sitting on her father’s bed at the military hospital:

“The ship hadn’t got underway when the Boche dropped two eggs. A reconnaissance plane came first and then the squadron (Dad only saw two aircraft). They got the ship with their third shot and the ship sank in twenty minutes. It is incredible luck that Dad got away all right. The bomb fell hardly any distance away from his cabin. In the water, I gather, he had a few other men hanging onto him. He was afterwards picked up by a minesweeper and then he got into another boat and was landed here. His ears are a bit injured and he got rather a bang when he swung against the ship’s side in getting away. Otherwise I think he must be terribly tired and stiff. It must have been frightful in France with air raids and all the work he had to do and then he didn’t have anything to eat from Sunday night till Tuesday morning. I think about 3,000 men were saved. Most of his kit, of course, is at the bottom of the sea. He is getting a discharge and I expect he will be going home today ….”

Herbert did indeed go home later that day as the entire hospital was evacuated. This extract from a letter which my grandmother wrote to her brother, the Daily Mirror press baron Cecil King, tells more of what happened to her husband Herbert. The letter is also dated Friday 21 June, and she had just brought him back to their home in the Cotswolds:

“Just a note while Herbs is asleep. I arrived in Plymouth at 3 o’clock this morning and was allowed to see him at 8 – only an hour or two before the whole hospital was ordered to be evacuated. I might so easily have missed him. He looks very ill indeed, but as he is only suffering from shock and extreme exhaustion I have been allowed to break every known rule and to bring him home. He had been bombed incessantly for 5 weeks without the protection of a single anti aircraft gun. He says Dieppe is completely wrecked. Among many other escapes he met 4 German tanks at a hundred yards while he was helping the A.M.P.S. to put up some sort of defense and even then wasn’t hit. He was so done-in when he had moved everything over to the west that his two senior officers left him to rest while they went off to prospect a new site further south in the belief that we would stand on the Loire. In the meanwhile he got orders to pack up the whole base for England within 7 hours. He was single-handed but it was done and he saw them safely off on the 15th and boarded the Lancastria on the 17th with his two senior officers returned by that time. The ship’s usual compliment is 1200 and it filled up to 6000 and was kept waiting from 11 till 4.30 with German planes circling round and round practicing till at last of course they got a direct hit. The idea was to wait till another transport was over loaded before setting forth. Herbs was in his cabin where he found a life-belt which made it possible for him to keep 3 other men afloat for one and a half hours. He says he never will forget seeing the troops linking arms and walking down the sloping sinking side of the ship singing ‘Roll out the Barrel’. He thinks about half, about 3000 were saved. I only think all the time how unbelievable it is that he is here and for the moment safe. He never thought he had a chance of seeing us again and doesn’t seem to want me to leave him for a single second.

“There wasn’t a bed to be got in Plymouth which is crammed with B.E.F., an odd assortment of allies and the population of Guernsey. I was cheered to see hundreds of French sailors, a train-load of men I took to be Poles, and 6 fat French seaplanes floating in the harbour.

“H. says the French defeat was due to the absolute panic of the people and a lot of the troops, there is no other word for it ….”

Herbert was awarded the M.B.E. in July 1940. He had sick leave until he was posted to 213th Infantry Brigade on 16th August and then as Deputy Adjutant and Quartermaster General with Headquarters South Eastern Command. Here he found a new General, Bernard Montgomery, who instructed his staff to go on daily early morning runs. Characteristically Herbert, who was, after all, forty-six years old and had probably done no such thing since he was at school, took a dim view of this and was not to be ordered about in this way. He ignored Monty’s demand.

Herbert remained in England for the rest of the war and was rapidly promoted to Major and then Lieutenant Colonel. On 1st October 1943 he was appointed Colonel in charge of Administration in the South Midland District. He was able to visit his home in Gloucestershire from time to time. In the services, no one ever mentioned what they were doing or where they were stationed so we can only guess that Herbert was very much involved in the planning of the Arnhem operation and in the invasion of Normandy on 6th June 1944. He was demobilised on 24 August 1945; at the age of 51 he was in the first category of service personnel to be demobilised. Subsequently he was granted the rank of Honorary Colonel. He spent his gratuity on a beautiful diamond bracelet for his wife.

Churchill condemned to official secrecy the story of what remains Britain’s worst ever maritime tragedy. ‘The newspapers have got quite enough disaster for today,’ he wrote. Also he did not want to take the edge off the ‘Finest Hour’ broadcast speech which he was preparing. The occasional newspaper article appears: Evening Standard 30 May 2000 and The Times shortly after around the time of the 60th anniversary. Veteran soldier George Crew, interviewed by the Standard, corroborated a terrible memory of my grandfather’s: ‘The young private heard a sound that haunts him still. “I looked back and I could hear people still on the sinking boat singing Roll Out The Barrel. I can never hear that song without remembering those who sang it as they died.”’ (The piece in the Standard was entitled “The day the dying sang.”) The BBC transmitted one documentary about the Lancastria disaster on 19 July 2001 entitled “A Secret Sacrifice”. And that’s about it. We have a mission in my family to try and dispel this secret, and bring to public knowledge this little-known episode in the war, which is in danger of remaining a forgotten footnote. This is why I am writing this for the People’s War website.

Teresa Stokes, 21st February 2004