We will remember them

Jacqueline Tillyer

SIXTY years ago, as the bombed cruise ship Lancastria slipped beneath the calm seas off St Nazaire, Jacqueline Tillyer’s father kept her afloat by gripping her clothes between his teeth.
When the ship went down, Clifford and Vera Tillyer were already exhausted after spending six weeks fleeing from the advancing German army with two-year-old Jacqueline.
Yet they survived in the water for three hours before being rescued by the naval frigate Highlander.
The sailors revived the unconscious baby by dipping her into alternate baths of hot and cold water, before wrapping her in a naval jersey.
Jacqueline Tanner (nee Tillyer), of Moorlands Road, Link Top, Malvern, was the youngest survivor of the Lancastria bombing, which claimed around 7,000 lives.
She still has the shrunken sweater, along with her mother’s watch, which stopped at 4.07pm on June 17, 1940, the moment when they hit the water.
Mrs Tanner was born in Belgium, where Mr Tillyer worked for the aviation company Avion Fairy. But the family fled south to escape internment when Germany invaded.
Friend and colleague Claude Freeman left at the same time with his wife, Gilberte and their little daughter, Claudine.
The women and children were sent by car from Charleroi to Mons, while the men had to get there by whatever transport they could find.
Fortunately, they met up again in Mons and made their way south to Nantes, in Brittany, sometimes only hours ahead of the advancing German army.
On one occasion during their flight, as bombs fell on a railway station, they lay down on the platform, with the women and children underneath, shielded by the men’s bodies.
The children protested so loudly that Claude knocked their heads together when the danger was over, saying: “We have enough wars going on!”
The Dunkirk evacuation took place two weeks before they joined the former cruise liner Lancastria, anchored 10 miles from St Nazaire harbour.
Home and safety seemed in sight as they boarded the liner, which was packed to capacity with around 9,000 servicemen and civilians, standing shoulder to shoulder on the decks.
“Mother and father and I had gone down into the restaurant when an bomb came down the funnel into the bottom of the ship and exploded,” said Mrs Tanner.
“The ship immediately started to turn and, as my parents tried to get out, my mother called out `Baby here, baby here,’ and I took up the cry too.
“They said the crowd parted and let us go straight up to the deck. They put mother and me in a lifeboat and dad said he would stay with the men, but they made him get in too.”
Unfortunately, the lifeboat soon sank and there was no alternative but to swim.
“Luckily they were good swimmers. They had always been fit and dad kept me afloat by gripping my clothes in his teeth until someone gave him a plank of wood,” said Mrs Tanner.
“It was a beautiful summer and a very calm sea. Oil was spreading over the water and the Germans were machine gunning the sea to set fire to the oil.”
Despite this terrifying experience, the family clung to life until they were picked up by the Highlander, whose deck was strewn with bodies.
They later transferred to the previously bombed Oronsay, which made the voyage back to Plymouth with its bridge shot away and no radio or radar.
Miraculously, their friends the Freemans also survived, although they became separated and must have feared the worst until they met up again in England.
Mrs Tanner went back to St Nazaire for the first time this summer, to attend the 60th memorial ceremonies with her husband, Harry.
She said: “I met a lot of survivors and was impressed with their great will to survive, even now. Old men in wheelchairs struggled to their feet to take the salute.
“The sea was very calm when we were taken out to the official war grave site on a minesweeper and the men were saying it was exactly the same as it had been 60 years ago.
“I thought I would cry during the ceremony, but I didn’t. It was an uplifting experience that raised the hairs on the back of your neck.”