We will remember them

James Cockburn


My story begins back in 1939 when our country was drawn into war. Men and women of all types, shapes and sizes were called, or volunteered to serve with the armed forces.

This story is not about outstanding bravery, endurance or great devotion to duty but simply the comradeship that developed between men who had never met before and out of a chance meeting they became good pals and stuck together through thick and thin — such was my experience.

I, like many others was a Terrior, with little military training mixed with a crowd, most of whom were reservists who had served the colours before in a peace time army.

When I met Tosh, whose real name was McIntosh, we were both serving with an Artillery unit, with the B.E.F in Northern France, fighting the so called ‘phoney war’.

We were both young and full of the soldiering spirit, and both joiners in civvy street. Our one ambition was to get into the Engineers. Our battery was more or less stationary in billets, and many jobs had to be done, as we were building trade workers. We were also expected to carry out this work in the best possible way with little materials. Sometimes it was building latrines, cookhouses or bringing tapped water within easy reach, and expect to acquire the materials ourselves if need be.

Our job on this particular day was to fix a cistern or oil drip flimsy cans on platforms in the middle of a stagnant lake close to our billets. The idea of this was to keep the mosquitos from breeding in the filthy water. Tosh was on his way back after setting up one of the cans, when he suddenly disappeared under water, having stepped into a large hole. In the great confusion we fished Tosh out, very wet but undaunted, a broad smile on his always red face. From that day Tosh and I became firm friends and went everywhere together.

One day we were called to our CO and told to prepare our kit for a journey to the south west of France to a large Army workshop, where we were to be trade tested and transferred into another unit. With our papers in hand, and a send off from some of our pals, we set off on the first stage of our journey. The first night we stayed at a transit camp, run by the Regiment of Guards and, of course, very efficient. Next morning we went to the Company Office for our movement order and on our way back to the Station we met the Guards Orderly Officer and Sergeant Major doing their rounds. Being good soldiers we saluted in respect, but unfortunately Tosh was smoking a fag at the time. Of course, this was an insult to the Officer’s uniform; we were called back and told in no mean terms what kind of soldiers they thought we were. After this we hurried off to the station and out of reach; once in the train we had a good laugh over the incident.

After two or three days we eventually arrived at our destination. Transport was there to take us to our new unit. We had the usual Army welcome and march off to our new billets — a row of Nissan huts in a large field. There we found soldiers from nearly every regiment in the British Army had come to this camp for trade tests.

By the time we had reached this camp things were beginning to warm up in the phoney war. Rumours were about that German paratroopers were being dropped at night in our district so our CO formed an anti paratroops section. This was formed mostly of men from Infantry and Artillery units, reasonably competent in the handling of small arms. Tosh and I were detailed to this section and all training was done after workshop hours, mostly in the evening and in fading light. Our section was led by a workshop NCO whom I never forgot. The reason being that on this particular occasion we were lined up for arms inspection when suddenly a shot rang out and the bullet whistled over our heads — too close for comfort. The culprit was the NCO who had forgotten to press his ammunition down while putting the bolt in on the Officer’s command. After this episode Tosh and I kept well away from this NCO during night operations.

The Officer in charge of this section was also a workshop man, easy to put the wind up if anything happened. If you watched him closely he would produce a flask from his hip pocket, and have a nip when he thought nobody was looking to boost his courage.

Tosh and I had not been at this camp very long when one night as we lay on our beds a shot rang out. We did not pay much attention to this but not long after the Orderly Officer and Sergeant came round inspecting the small arms for the culprit but instead caught most of the blokes out of the Billets. There was a great hue and cry and the names of the absentees were taken. In the morning we heard the reason for the shot; our own Sergeant Major was sleeping out with a French woman when her husband came home unexpectedly and chased him for his life, firing a shot at his disappearing figure.

We never heard much of the retreating armies of the North, but guessed what was happening by the sudden increase of enemy air-craft that circled round our workshop at night, also our parachute section was always on parade after dark. We would disappear into the night in pairs searching for the elusive sky men.

Incidents came to a head one night when we were on workshop guard. Tosh and I were on duty together with the Officer who liked his nip at the flask. He certainly had the wind-up for refugees were beginning to come through on the road by the workshop and most of them were mobile with headlights blazing. Gerry was circling around and someone was flashing a signal to the plane, a mile or so up the road. We were immediately detailed to look for this light and shoot anyone who looked suspicious but although we searched high and low we did not find a thing.

The next day orders were given to destroy the workshop equipment, stores, and all vehicles not wanted in the move out, and detailed with others to go to the car park with sledge hammers and bash all the engines in, so that no one could use them again. We were then paraded and the Colonel told us the bad news that Gerry wasn’t very far away, and we would have to get out as quickly as possible making for the nearest seaport.

We were then dismissed to pack the bare necessities and destroy everything else, and be ready to move right away. Men who had been at this camp for some time were certainly feeling upset, as this place had been a home from home to them and lots had fancy pieces. Now the time had come to part and the village turned out to see us off, with women crying their eyes out.

The journey was to St Nazaire and it was certainly a difficult one manoeuvring through lanes of mobile refugees, laden with their worldly possessions and all making for the south out of the path of the oncoming Germans.

We knew we were near to our destination by the amount of transport ditched and set on fire. On turning into a large partly built air-field we knew this was our lot for the day. The airfield was large and as far as the eye could see the field was stacked with light service equipment with hundreds of soldiers sorting it out. Some were changing their clothes on the spot; others were packing hundreds of fags and NAAFI stores into their packs. Not far away a section of AMPC were having a gay old time tasting the spirits brought in by different Canteen units and dumped on the ground — these soldiers were at the stage of fighting an imaginary enemy and stray bullets were beginning to fly about.

Round the edge of the airfield slit trenches had been dug probably for the use of the airfield staff. These came in handy that afternoon for suddenly a plane dived out of the blue, shot over the airfield just above our heads. I never saw so many men disappear into the ground in so short a time, including Tosh and myself. Luckily the plane was one of ours. We heard the distant “Ack, Ack” and knew that St Nazaire was being raided but no other planes came our way that afternoon.

Late that night we assembled in orderly fashion on the airfield drawn up in our own units, Tosh and I still together carrying a bren and ammunition and when the order came we all marched slowly and quietly wondering what would happen next. We trudged until daybreak when we could see the distant spires, and knew this was our rendezvous. When we arrived at the docks an orderly queue had been set up and stretched for miles. Joining this we all waited as if for a pleasure steamer. When our turn came for evacuation a destroyer came alongside the quay where we stood and the controller shouted to us to get on board the best way we could as there was no time to waste. As soon as the quota was aboard, off she went, and another ship was there to take her place. Rounding the end of the quay, we say in the distance transport ships lying at anchor. As we drew alongside the largest only a hundred men were allowed on board; Tosh and I were two of them, and we soon knew why — the ship was absolutely packed to capacity.

There were so many we could not get below, so we had to put our kit and bren under the platform of the naval gun in the stern of the ship. This seemed as good a place as any and we then went off in search of a meal. On our travels we found out that the ships name was The Lancastria, a Cunarder of no mean size — packed to overflowing with troops and a handful of civilians.

During this time our own planes were circling around giving us all the assurance we needed. Wandering off we found that a meal was being served — sausage and mash and we were glad of this to fill our stomachs.

On our way back to our kit the ship’s air raid siren went, and in the scuffle Tosh and I were parted. Gerry attacked the ship next to us, damaging her bridge and superstructure. Finding my way back to the stern of the ship I sat down on my kit and sat weighing up our position, when out of the sun dived Gerry — this time he picked the Lancastria, a sitting duck for any reasonable bomb aimer. The first bomb went down the side of our ship. The explosion opened her side plates; the next plane was more accurate — he dropped one down the funnel into the engine room causing havoc, others hit mostly amidships. I could not help but watch all this and could hardly believe what was happening. No retaliation was given except from the destroyers ferrying out to the other troopers.

By this time the ship began to list badly on one side and the crew were trying hard to get the men onto the other side in order to right itself but this didn’t last long. Slowly the ship began to sink — bow first. Men were jumping overboard in panic, others on the upper decks were throwing anything floatable into the water, but instead of helping these objects were landing on the men’s heads knocking them out.

The decks were very crowded, men were running about asking what they should do, but now it was a case of “everyman for himself”. I waited around for Tosh but he never turned up — he had been caught in the rush below decks.

I watched for a few minutes weighing up the best way to get clear of the ship when I noticed other men disappearing over the stern, so I thought “that’s the way I’ll go” when my times comes, better than over the side when a chair was likely to hit me on the head.

I had one last look around, met another bloke from our unit, enquired about Tosh without any luck, shook hands with him and we both went our different ways. I discarded my battle dress and over the stern I went, down the rope and dropped from what seemed a great height into the sea and made off as quickly as possible, in case anyone dropped on top of me. Once out of the way I found my hands had been burned by the rope and were stinging with salt water.

Some distance away I met one of our Officers who were also getting clear of the sinking ship. We both struck out together through thick black oil which was floating all around. Gerry was busy at the time bombing another transporter close by, and we could fee the sensation in our stomachs of the bombs exploding in the water. One Gerry plan was diving on the swimmers, machine gunning them as they swam for their lives.

After some time in the water we were picked up by a French minesweeper. The Officer and myself had to be hauled up having lost the use of our limbs but once on board we soon revived and went off below to dry out around the ships boilers.

The minesweeper circled around picking up all in its path and drew alongside a destroyer called “The Havelock” and we were told to jump aboard. Without much ado we turned and made for blighty. On board the destroyer we were given small items of clothing and told to find a spot to sleep for the night. I made my way to the engine room with many others but that night sleep never came. I lay listening to some of the others going through their horrible experiences again.

Many wounded were aboard, also men with oil in their stomachs having swallowed more than enough in this struggle for survival. Theirs was a sorry plight, a few died and were buried that night without ceremony. Even today I think of the many hundreds who never even got on deck of The Lancastria with the chance to save their lives. Theirs is one large steel coffin under the sea outside St Nazaire.

On arriving at Davenport, we made for the dockside where ambulances and Women’s Voluntary Organisations were waiting to attend to the wounded. After all the wounded were gone we were taken to the Naval Barracks and given a first class meal of egg and chips — the best I had ever tasted. We were then taken to the bath house and with the assistance of young training sailors tried to scrub the thick black oil from our bodies. After having our minor wounds treated we were given two blankets and told to bed down in the gym. Two days later what was left of our unit were sent to Luton and given billets in the town. Other parts of the unit were already there having been rescued and landed elsewhere. I am glad to say that Tosh was one of them.

We all had leave and reported back to Luton, Tosh and I with many others were sent to work alongside the civilians at the great Vauxhall works, but Gerry caught up with us one Friday afternoon without any warning, dived on the works and across the town dropping everything he had. Many civilians were killed and wounded, some blamed us for attracting Gerry. Anyway we never went back again.

Tosh and I were still gunners, temporarily attached to the RASC but Tosh was longing to get into the Engineers. He fell foul of the Sgt Major and asked to be posted back to his old Artillery mob doing coastal defence. From there he was eventually posted to the RE’s and became a Sapper. I was transferred into the No.1 HRS and not long after this unit was disbanded to form part of the nucleus of a new regiment – REME.

I was posted to a RASC transport company and later went out to the Middle East. When I said goodbye to Tosh on Luton station I knew that I had lost a good comrade and knew some other soldier would soon be making one. I received a letter from Tosh after he became a Sapper but from that day on I never heard top nor tail how he fared the rest of the war, which was then only beginning.

UPDATE – June 2008

War veteran awarded medal
A Shropshire war veteran has been awarded a prestigious medal for his service in World War Two after surviving Britain’s worst maritime disaster.

James Cockburn, 92, from West Felton, near Oswestry, was one of 2,500 people saved after the 16,000-tonne Cunard liner Lancastria sank when it was bombed by German aircraft in 1940.

Mr Cockburn, a corporal, survived after he was picked up by a French minesweeper, although 4,000 lost their lives.

He went on to serve in Italy and in the desert, alongside British, American and Polish troops.

To commemorate those who fell victim to the events of that day, veterans are being honoured with the HMT Lancastria medal.

The Lancastria commemorative medal is the first of its kind instigated by the Scottish Government.

It has been issued to honour the sacrifice of those who lost their lives and the endurance of those who survived and went on to serve during the Second World War.

Mr Cockburn, originally from near Edinburgh, returned to Scotland to the Scottish Parliament to pick up the prestigious medal.

Mr Cockburn said his trip to the Scottish Parliament was an enjoyable event turning into a real family affair.

He went to Scotland and met up with his sister and one of his children, who both travelled to meet him from their homes near Edinburgh.