To read Joe’s account in French – Click HERE
Joe Sweeney passed away peacefully at his home in British Columbia, Canada on 6th September 2008 aged 89. He was completely committed to the efforts to raise the profile of those who were killed on the Lancastria and make sure their sacrifice was not forgotten. Joe will be sadly missed by family and members alike. – Mark Hirst, 7th Sept. 2008
I was lying in what had formerly been a luxury cabin, without a care in the world. My only companion was a soldier, whom I did not known, from a British regiment. I never learnt his name. Now it is unlikely that I will ever know.
There was a state of alarm in operation, but the soldiers, exhausted by weeks of Blitzkrieg, no longer paid attention to the sirens or any other warning. Their minds were overcome by careless apathy.
Then, suddenly, the sound of a diving Stuka echoed around the cabin. This wailing, this frightening whistling sound which soldiers as well as civilians in Holland, Belgium and in France had become used to during the preceding weeks. After the crescendo of the diving Stuka came the terrible whistle of a bomb. A deafening, thunderous crash was heard, and when the bomb hit the ship there was a muffled, heavy noise. For my part, I couldn’t have cared less…I thought “ How could a plane hit our boat when there was all this water around us to swallow up the bombs?”
“That one nearly got us!” I said out loud to my unknown companion. “I think we should close the portholes and their metal covers,” I continued. So, without fuss, we set to work.
Fate was quite capable of playing tricks on us. Young, full of energy and enthusiasm, a bit irresponsible, but driven by the love of life that all young people have, I found myself on a liner whose existence I had been unaware of until a few hors before. It was the Lancastria, a Cunard Company liner, rapidly mobilised for military duties, first for the evacuation of Norway, and straight afterwards for that of France. On 17th June 1940, there were several thousand souls scattered about the hull, mostly members of the British Expeditionary Force, on the way back to England.
In one way I was excited by the idea of going to England, yet at the same time I hated leaving France which I had adopted as my second homeland. This time I was not going on holiday, although I felt I had deserved one.
On the contrary, I was traveling in unexpected circumstances. Since 10th May, the German forces had been advancing through Holland, Belgium and France, “like a dose of salts” in British military slang. So, according to the authorities, we were going to England to be able to fight again.
Tugs, trawlers, tenders, in fact craft of all types, each one packed with people, had for hours transported thousands of combatants, all pretty exhausted, from the port of Saint-Nazaire to liners. These were anchored out at sea, several nautical miles from the port, because of the expected air raids. In addition there were some civilians also displaced by the war and who had to be evacuated urgently.
Early that morning two hundred soldiers, myself included, were hurriedly transferred from a tug to the Lancastria. Faithful to merchant navy traditions, everything had been well organised. As soon as we were on board, a sailor gave us each a card while another took our name, number and regiment. Each of us knew exactly where we were to sleep and in which dining room and when we were to eat.
My first thought was to find my bunk, where I could put down my pack and rifle. My second was to wash and shave. Then I thought about food and drink. I just had to find the table I had been allocated, which I quickly did. There I enjoyed my first hot meal for several days. Once my appetite was satisfied, I went back to my bunk to sleep. On the way, I sensed the calm, organised and safe atmosphere which seemed to reign on board the ship. “What a contrast”, I said to myself, “ compared with the pandemonium on land!” I decided that it was the perfect moment to get some sleep. I so much wanted deep sleep, something I had not had for quite some time.
Sometimes sirens wailed, bells rang – they hardly woke me as they seemed such a long way off. Once, however, I felt sufficiently roused to go up on deck, curious to see what was going on. I saw a plane banking sharply as its bombs fell on the Oronsay, anchored on our starboard side; immediately a shower of debris flew up in all directions from the bridge.
About three hours later the first bomb aimed at the Lancastria missed. Straight away, my companion and I checked the portholes again. Alas, before we had finished, the bombardment was started again by another Luftwaffe plane, and this time the noise of its engine was louder and more alarming. Our instincts, and our military training made us throw ourselves to the ground, in spite of the pointlessness of such an action. The whole boat shook again, but the tremors were stronger and lasted longer.
“That pilot nearly got us. His bomb seemed very, very near”, I said aloud. At that moment, we were unaware that the ship had been seriously damaged, and destined to go down twenty minutes later. Without more ado, we got up again to finish the task of checking the portholes. Then, without warning, the vessel lurched to port. Our instinct of self-preservation told us to escape from this cabin, which was too enclosed and more or less on the same level as the holds. We dashed towards the door. Unbeknown to us, the calm that had reigned before had been shattered and replaced by chaos. The stairways were seething with troops, most of whom were still carrying their packs, haversacks and rifles.
It seemed impossible to us to push our way into this turbulent mass of people. Standing hypnotised by the door, I gazed at the scene. My limbs were paralysed, my mind numbed. However, there was one event that I still remember. It was the incredible sight of a delirious soldier who began to brandish his rifle above his head, swearing continuously, as lots of soldiers do when they feel at the end of their tether. In the middle of this swirling crowd, it was inevitable that someone would be smacked by the gun. Another soldier, who must have been a rugby player, suddenly flattened him. The shouts, yells and outbursts became deafening. Then all at once the lights went out. There was just a faint glimmer at the top of the stairs lighting this chaotic, gruesome scene.
In novels, the author creates miracles; in reality, you sometimes see them happen. The ship lurched again, this time to starboard. A few moments later, water started trickling down the stairs. The sound and the sight of this water increased our struggle to get to the port side, the starboard being rapidly abandoned. I grabbed my chance – I ran up the stairs, and immediately others followed. On the first landing, I joined the mass of people emerging from the other sections of the boat. We jostled and chatted a bit as we hurried upwards. At last I reached the or lop deck from which I could see the sky. A few seconds later, there was a jolt and the ship listed to port. Unfortunately those who were struggling up on that side were drenched, and the sight of the water which was streaming in at that moment must have demoralised them even more.
For some time I stood gazing miserably at what was around me. My head was spinning because I couldn’t swim. I didn’t want to believe that such a large boat as this could sink. I said to myself that if the impossible should happen, there would be enough boats nearby to save everybody. I kept telling myself “There is no need to panic.”
In the end, movements around me shook me from my trance. I began to follow people who were going into lounges and suites to bring out things made of wood and throw them in the sea, so that if the worst happened, there would be plenty of floating objects in the water for us to cling to.
From the railing, I observed the water line and realised that the bow was rapidly disappearing, whereas the stern was lifting majestically in the air. Soon there were hundreds of people and lots of wreckage being tossed about in the sea, and other objects going overboard and sinking into the depths.
A bit later, louder than the hissing of the steam escaping from the burst boiler pipes, louder than the clanging of alarm bells, louder than the rattle of machine guns, above the general hubbub, we heard the shouts of a few voices from below begging us not to throw anything else over the side. Incredibly, everyone stopped; the pandemonium subsided and a strangely quiet atmosphere descended on the place where I was.
For a few moments, I lent over the rails looking at the people and things in the sea – I thought about my life. I realised that the possibilities of survival were minimal considering that I couldn’t swim. However I was calm. I regretted being still so young, with so many things left to do in life. I prayed. In the end, I knew I had to throw myself into the water and try to get as far away as possible from this hull to avoid being sucked down into the depths of the ocean. As I watched those jumping, drowning and swimming, I found it hard to believe that the ship was really disappearing.
To get their courage up. Several soldiers, myself included, began to sing popular tunes, mixed with a pot pourri of hymns, national anthems and patriotic songs. The singing spread, and this gave me the excuse to put off what I had to do, but finally I hid my last possessions of any value behind a ventilation scoop, hoping to be able to recover them if the ship didn’t sink. I went back as far as possible, ran and jumped out over the rails. Unfortunately I had not properly judged the angle at which the ship listed. Instead of landing in the water, I hit the plates on the side of the boat and slid against the propeller shaft housing. Bruised, covered in rust, flakes of old paint and slime, I found myself with fifteen or so others, stunned and tattered like me, about thirty feet above the water. I was not alone.
At times of crisis, lots of soldiers smoke to calm their nerves; someone suggested this, and we all nodded in agreement. Some passed round cigarettes, others fished out matches and lighters they still had. Soon we were all inhaling the smoke which made our troubles easier to bear. Alas fate didn’t let us all finish our cigarettes. The ship, in its death throes, made another dive. We no longer had any doubts, but all the same some couldn’t jump. I said another prayer and jumped, following the others who had found the courage. When I hit the water, I seemed to sink for ever. Knowing the theory of swimming, I stretched my arms above my head, holding my breath, in spite of the fact that my lungs were at bursting point. When I finally rose to the surface, I had the impression that I was launched in the air. Then , I don’t know how, I managed to turn on to my back and began to flap my arms as if they were paddles. Just as I was getting the hang of it, I heard a voice, very near me and very frightened shout “ I can’ t swim, I can’t swim!!” “Nor can I!”, I replied, in a voice that sounded just as scared. Unfortunately my reply came too late as the owner of the voice threw his arms around me and dragged me under the water. I struggled to release myself from his grasp and was weakening fast. Suddenly I felt freed and rose back to the surface, weaker, more frightened and totally out of breath.
I looked around for something to cling on to, and after a few moments saw four men holding on to a plank of wood. They were not too far away from me, but all the same it took me ages to reach them. At times they seemed to drift away and I thought I would never reach them. Nevertheless by thrashing through the water, I got to the plank and clung on for dear life.
I took several minutes to recover, get my strength and breath back. Then I looked at my companions, At one end of the plank, someone was crouching on the plank, clinging to it; In spite of the pleas of the others, this fellow refused to drop down into the water, and consequently it was impossible to prevent the plank from tipping up. What is more, while he was supported by the piece of wood, this bloke, no doubt out of his mind, was cursing everyone and every thing on earth, in foul language. A second soldier was holding on with just one hand, supporting with the other a third man who was really suffering and unable to keep afloat by himself. The fourth waited until a boat appeared nearby, when he yelled at the top of his voice “Cheerio, I can swim!” and set off towards the British destroyer Highlander. Apart from that, our life on this strange raft was without incident. We didn’t talk much. Once the enemy planes flew very low over us and we could easily see the pilots – I’d swear I saw one of them make a “V” sign at us. At that moment, the hysteria of our madman became even worse, questioning the legitimacy of all Germans, dead or alive. Sometimes we heard the sound of machine guns and canons. The two of us capable of normal conversation discussed the merits of the fuel oil, black and sticky, leaking from the wreck, blackening our faces – at least it calmed the waves and kept us a bit warmer. We just drifted by people without life jackets, struggling to keep afloat, beside those who had life jackets on but were obviously dead, rocking as we passed. It was as if exhaustion was giving us nightmares. I learnt later that many of them had jumped from the boat without holding down their life jackets, and the impact of hitting the water had broken their necks with fatal results.
For what seemed an eternity, we floated without feeling too worried as we could see rescue vessels. They were sometimes so near that we were convinced we would be on board in a few minutes, but we began to realise that they were too busy picking up other survivors to catch sight of us.
I took a while to realise that the chap holding up the injured man was beginning to weaken, and I offered to take his place for a while. He was relieved, but it was difficult for us to move without causing our safety raft to rock. We managed to swap places several times, even though I was constantly afraid of slipping and disappearing into the depths. The hours passed, and as the light faded slowly as it does at that time of year there, the number of vessels visible diminished, and the two of us able to converse doubted our ability to hold on all night. The layer of oil was thinning, in fact we could not see it any more, and we began to be aware of the waves. One minute we were in a trough, the next minute we were on the crest of a wave from which we could scan the darkness. Finally the light faded and the coldness of the water made us shiver. Our limbs became numb. We realised that the injured man, although he had not said a word, was very, very weak, would soon be at the end of his tether.
A little while later, because our eyes had become accustomed to the darkness and it was not completely black, we saw a lifeboat approaching. We had almost given up hope, and it took us several minutes to understand that this little craft was getting nearer, was really coming towards us. Rescue was at hand. Soon we were along side. Two sailors threw us ropes which we attached to the wounded man’s arms, and three sailors hoisted him aboard as gently as possible, and lay him down on a bench. The lifeboat had the name “Lancastria” on the side. Four had been launched, but two had sunk. On ours were two sailors of the Lancastria crew and two volunteers from the destroyer Highlander. They threw the ropes again, and this time we struggled to get them under the arms of our companion who was leaning on the plank. They hoisted him on board, and my other shipmate scrambled up with the minimum of help – he was much more agile than I was. The sailors had to use a rope to get me out of the sea. Utterly exhausted, I slid to the bottom of the boat, my teeth chattering with the cold. Yet I felt very aware of all around me. For me, and doubtless for the others, this boat was as reassuring as dry land. Neptune had certainly had a busy day, but another four men had been snatched from his claws. Alas, many others were not so lucky. Now, mentally confused and physically shattered, I let go.
“Joe!” I heard a voice inside me say. ”You look like a poor fish that has just been dumped in the bottom of a fishing boat. Another internal voice said “Don’t be so stupid! A fish would be twisting and turning. You aren’t able to move a single muscle!” In reality I must have looked a bit like a dead fish, motionless at the bottom of this lifeboat, most of whose sisters had gone down with the mother ship off St Nazaire. Our four rescuers had been working frantically for several hours pulling people out of the sea. As soon as their boat was full, they transferred the rescued men to larger craft and then hurried back to the scene of the disaster to continue their search.
At dusk several of the rescue boats had slipped quietly away, thinking that it was useless to prolong their efforts to find more people in the water. A strange silence reigned at the site of the catastrophe. Yet our keen saviours found four others bobbing in the cold sea.
Naturally the energy of our four fishers of men had been sapped by the many hours they had spent in their boat; they were near exhaustion. The four rescued men were just landlubbers, two of whom had urgent need of medical attention; one, me, was in no fit state to help, and the fourth was trying vigorously to row by himself, but not producing much effect. Consequently the little craft was drifting at the whim of the waves.
It took me some time to get back enough strength to haul myself up on to a seat above the sodden boards. At first my body was completely lacking in feeling, but gradually spasms of shivering replaced the numbness. All I had on were my underpants, having carefully stashed away my other clothes before leaping into the swirling water. The pants were now covered in the oily, black mess from the bottom of the boat, which made me cold and wretched. A weak, Irish voice then said, unexpectedly, “Go on! Take them off. You’ll feel a lot better!” Timidly I obeyed, and strangely did feel better. For some time we did not say or move much, all trying to save what energy we had. Five of the eight occupants were sitting, swaying in unison as the boat rose and fell, with one sailor holding the tiller to keep the bow into the waves as much as possible. Occasionally the sailors changed places, and the two who were almost unconscious were stretched out on the benches, steadied by the others. It was surprising that nobody showed any anxiety, even though we could not see any other vessels. We scanned the seas through the darkness each time the boat crested a wave, but alas for a long time we saw nothing.
God finally rewarded our patience, for we spotted a speck on the horizon.
We remained slightly apprehensive as there was a chance that the ship had not caught sight of our tiny craft, but our hopes certainly rose. We could only watch and wait. I’m sure that even the heathens amongst us offered a silent prayer. After a while our seafarers recognised the ship as a fishing boat, and what is more said that if it kept on its present course it was bound to see us. Our impatience grew as did our concern – the boat seemed to be moving so slowly. However its shape became clearer, and when it got near enough we could make out the tricolour, which reassured us, as we had been discussing its possible nationality up till then. They had given no indication that they had seen us, but our hopes were now high. It kept on coming, but even when it was within hailing distance, did not slow down. We again started to have doubts, and felt growing panic. We started yelling and shouting as loud as we could, but without there being any visible reaction from the approaching boat.
We were losing hope when the vessel suddenly changed course and made straight for us. When it was a few meters away, just off our bow, we heard a commotion above, saw seamen dashing around, and some ropes and lines dropping down towards our little boat. We were brought back to life and grabbed the loops. In a few seconds there was a sudden jolt, the lifeboat shuddered and lurched forward – we were in tow. Our tug put the engines full ahead. So, skidding along the wave tops, cutting through the water, we headed for St Nazaire, the town we had said goodbye to the day before. The fishing boat hardly slowed as we approached the harbour, and headed for a jetty which joined the shore near the Boulevard Albert 1st. Suddenly the boat turned, and the crew shouted “Cast off!”
They very quickly headed back out to sea and disappeared into the darkness they had emerged from a little earlier. We drifted nearly up to the jetty, rowing for the last few meters. Several civilian volunteers threw ropes down to us. The sailors quickly secured them, and we were guided, with a boat hook, to a bollard where we were rapidly moored securely. I looked up at terra firma above me. I said to myself “This is the end of the first episode. I wonder what the next on has in store.”
“Come on you two, come on!” The shouts brought me back to my senses. We yelled “Goodbye and good luck!” to the others, and the two of us who were capable jumped out of the boat. My companion, always quicker than me, ran to the jetty, leapt up two steps at a time and disappeared. I was still trying to control the awful shivers that shook my body; in my bare feet, I crossed the pebbles, reached the steps and groped my way up. As soon as I reached the top, I looked around. I was uncertain what to do or where to go. I really had no idea, and set off, like a blind man, into an area of the town that I did not know. In the distance the pandemonium continued with bursts of gun fire echoing across the sky. Occasionally I could hear the disturbing drone of the enemy aircraft and above the continual din of the Ack Ack guns, several times the crump of an exploding bomb reached my ears.
I was clinging obstinately to the desire to find a way of fighting off the hypothermia which threatened to plunge me into a state of complete apathy. Since leaving the landing stage, I had seen nobody. Then as I paused, trying to see what to do, I spotted a bar across the street, and imagined that I glimpsed some movement, in spite of the late hour. A chink of light escaped from behind one of the windows, which were covered to conform to the black-out rules, and there were noises coming from inside. I staggered painfully across the cobbled street, and pushed open the door.
What I saw disconcerted me and I thought I was at the gates of Hell. The bar and dining room were packed with soldiers, most of them standing with their packs on their backs and their rifles slung across their shoulders. Some were singing, others shouting and swearing. All were drowning their sorrows, and cursing their fate. They all knew that the next day would see them either in Paradise or in Hell – on their way to England or to the German prison camps.
I pushed my way in, stumbling and trying to dodge the heavy army boots which threatened to crush my feet. I frequently had to duck down to avoid a swinging rifle whose drunken owner was swaying about. I knew that a wretch like me could not expect to get special treatment, and quickly realised that I would have to fend for myself. Fortunately, I noticed, at the side of the front of the bar counter, that there was a sort of half-door which gave access to the interior and it was ajar. As inconspicuously as I could, I crouched down, crawled through under the bar and went on into the dark back room. In spite of the lack of lighting, I could make out rows and rows of shelves on which there were hundreds of bottles. As I was searching along the shelves, undecided as to which bottle contained the panacea to cure my trembling limbs and to cheer me up, I heard steps and shouts close by. The heavy tread of the landlady resounded along the passage, and she was yelling at me at the top of her voice in a dialect I did not understand, but which clearly contained insults. As she approached, my shaking got worse, and I thought I would be knocked flat by this Amazon. But luckily she hesitated for a fraction of a second, and I tried to explain. While she towered over me, I pleaded my misfortune, then fell silent, hoping desperately. She just stood, not at all impressed. I tried again, appealing to her patriotic sentiments, but to no avail – she was Breton. Then suddenly, in a more sympathetic tone of voice, she said “Wait there!” I had no choice and waited obediently.
She returned a minute later. “Take these!”, she murmured between her teeth as she held out a half bottle of cognac in one hand and a packet of gauloises and some matches in the other. It was when she had first gone into the storeroom that I remembered that I was naked. As soon as her eyes became accustomed to the darkness, she was able to see my pitiable state, and knew that I was telling the truth. “Off you go! Out straight away!”, she said, in her sharp tone of voice again. “This way, through this door at the back!” As she opened the door, her voice softened and she sighed, “ Good luck, son!” “Madame, good luck to you as well, and many thanks!”, I replied sincerely.
Once again I ventured out into the dark, but a little happier now and more confident. I held in my hands, which were still shaking with cold and fatigue, the wherewithal to help me survive the next few hours. I made my way rather aimlessly around the building, went back across the street and sat down on the edge of the pavement, which was raised up above the road level at this point, and let my legs dangle down. I sipped the brandy, and smoked, and felt a feeling of growing contentment spreading over me. I began to dream up plans to escape by getting into Spain. “If only I could find some civilian clothes, I’m sure I could make it,” I said to myself with some determination.
While I was pondering, I had not noticed a teenage girl appear from nowhere. I got up politely to greet her, and after a quick “Hello”, she asked me in a friendly and very practical way if I was injured. I answered “No, I’m fine, but freezing.” We sat down together and she began to question me eagerly about the details of the shipwreck. I answered as well as I could. Then suddenly a flare lit up the sky, and she jumped up with a start, and she cried out, shocked and astounded, “My God! You’ve got no clothes on!” She hesitated, then added “You poor man!” She recovered her composure somewhat, and blurted out “Wait here, monsieur. I’ll go and get you some of my brother’s things.” She was back in a few minutes, holding some riding breeches and a blue cotton flannel shirt. With her help, I managed to get into the trousers, but had to tear the seams up to my thighs to get them on; at last I felt decent again, and much less embarrassed. It was the same thing with the shirt, which had to be pulled over my head; it needed some adjustment to the collar before I could get into it. Immediately I felt warmer, and besides, my guardian angel had also brought more brandy and cigarettes. I felt in heaven, with at least some clothes on, and a good supply of drink and cigarettes. The Good Samaritan and the tramp laughed and chatted for a few more minutes, and then she said that there was more work to do and excused herself saying that she was one of the group of volunteers who patrolled the streets looking for wounded soldiers and those who needed help. “Goodbye and good luck, monsieur,” she cried as she disappeared into the night. I didn’t even have time to reply and thank her. I sat back down, a bit drunk and even more carefree than before.
A bit later, I stood up and began to walk. The first person I came across was an immaculately dressed Royal Marine officer – an incongruous contrast to me in my borrowed clothes. He stopped and, looking at me with astonishment and a little scorn, barked “From the Lancastria?” “Of course,” I replied. “You have two choices,” he said curtly. “An ambulance will come past soon. You can go to the hospital where you will be under the protection of the Red Cross, or ..”, he hesitated for a good while before adding “or you can take your chance – there is still the possibility that you will be able to escape on a boat. But I warn you that not many boats will get through.” “I’ll take my chance. Which dock must I make for?” “ Over there!” he said, pointing to the bridge from which low rumblings were heard. Then he strode off in the opposite direction, like a peacock. I made sure I had my bottles and cigarettes, and then set off.
I had not gone far before the Royal Marine ambulance van arrived and stopped beside me. A medical orderly jumped out of the side door, ran to the back, opened up and shouted, “Quick! In you get!” I did as he asked as quickly as I could, although there were already four wounded men on the stretchers and other victims of the bombing or shipwreck filling the rest of the space. Once inside, my bottles were automatically passed round for medical purposes. Incredibly the ambulance stopped again, and the energetic orderly crammed in three more soldiers.
The next time the vehicle pulled up, all those capable of using their legs had to get out and transfer into another ambulance alongside ours. While we piled in, the first one sped off towards the hospital, where French doctors would certainly be doing their best for the seriously wounded. Our ambulance started up a little while later, but we didn’t know where it was heading. When it finally stopped, the doors opened wide and we saw a ship’s gangway. Calmly but quickly, we went down on to a collier, which this time was carrying human cargo. The troops on board were like herrings in a barrel; it was standing room only.
I gradually eased my way to a staircase, where a kind chap gave me his place in the well behind the steps. I curled up there immediately, and within a few seconds I was resting in the arms of Morpheus. Of course the hubbub going on around me woke me up from time to time, but generally I went straight back to sleep. However I heard someone whisper “Do you want some tea?”, and I must have nodded, because a mug of steaming, strong, sweet, British military style tea was put down beside me; it certainly did me good. Later on, I heard shouts which betrayed sudden panic, and got to my feet. Some soldiers were loading their rifles and others were already ready to fire; others seemed not to know where they were, completely disoriented. “What’s up?”, I asked someone near to me. “There’s a submarine surfaced ahead”. A few minutes passed and then the word spread that it was not a U-boat, and the anxiety passed. An hour later, our craft overtook the submarine, and I got up to have a look. It seemed longer than our collier, and was in fact the Surcouf, which at that time was the largest submarine in the world.
At dusk, it became too cold for me under these stairs, so I edged through the throng of people, who were very sympathetic, to the narrow corridor off which were the officers’ quarters. In fact the officers had given their rooms to women and children rescued from the wreck. Those who had not managed to find space in the bunks stood in the corridor. I could not find enough room to lie down, so I too stood, and without much trouble fell asleep upright.
The next day we saw Plymouth Sound, and the excitement on board spread quickly through the boat. While we approached Davenport, we each tried as hard as we could to get to the port side. I squeezed through, saying “Excuse me!” a thousand times. In the end I found a little alcove just beside the bridge, where I could even see the captain and a few officers. Some women and children had reached the same viewpoint; they were a mixture of French, English and even Anglo-French. Gradually the dock got bigger and bigger, and the excitement became palpable. On the quay we could see lines of ambulances, tables groaning with food and drink (non-alcoholic), as well as an army of volunteers ready to give us a hand. In the background was an enormous crowd of civilians clapping for all they were worth and cheering with amazing enthusiasm. A Royal Marine Band, in full ceremonial dress, was energetically playing popular tunes. Everybody was joining in. At one point, as I was exchanging comments with the ladies around me, the band struck up a rather cheeky military song, and some troopers, carried away by their emotions, did not hold back, and gave full voice to the soldiers’ version. Poor Joseph! I felt very embarrassed, because I had the distinct impression that the rather straight-laced French woman beside me understood the English words well enough, and I moved away as quickly as I could.
The wounded lying on stretchers were the first to be taken off. Then they called those who could walk, including the people rescued from the Lancastria. I went down several flights of stairs, where others moved over to let me pass, and reached the top of the gangplank. I hesitated, realising how ridiculous I looked in my tight and torn civilian clothes. Then there was a sudden loud cheer from the quayside, and everyone was laughing and clapping. I looked around to see what was so funny, and quickly understood that I was the cause of all this hilarity. I blushed for the second time in a few minutes. When the laughter had subsided, I thought to myself in all seriousness “Joseph, you have escaped from the deep, and now you are plunging once more into the unknown.”
Since that day, many years have passed. I have traveled through many countries and crossed several oceans. Yet every morning, when I wake up, I smile, whisper a prayer to the Lord, offering my thanks – sincere thanks for the magnificent gift of life. Then I am ready to face the unknown hazards of the next day once again.
Since 1940, I have been back to France several times, but it was not until 1984 that I returned to Saint-Nazaire. I learnt that I was the first French-speaking survivor to revisit the town, and it was suggested that I wrote down my memories. I was told that, what is more, the Nazairiens were in the process of organising a service of commemoration for 1985, and was asked if I could possibly attend, in spite of the fact that I lived so far away, in British Columbia. Unfortunately, the two prime movers, on both sides of the Channel, died at the beginning of 1985. Without having been informed that the service had been put back until 1986, I turned up in Saint-Nazaire. There I met three other survivors; a Belgian, who was only eleven years old in 1940, a British veteran soldier, who had saved the Belgian’s mother, and a comrade of that soldier. With the help of several Nazariens, we were able to throw a wreath into the sea near the buoy marking the location of the wreck.
In 1986, all the survivors who were still able-bodied, as well as friends and relatives, set off and gathered in Saint-Nazaire. At the church of Notre Dame d’Esperance (Our Lady of Hope), we sang a requiem mass. Later on three French boats took us to the buoy, where both French and British threw garlands of flowers into the water. During the remainder of our stay, we visited several cemeteries, where they held brief but moving services. There were two sisters looking for their father’s grave; their mother, aged ninety-one, was awaiting news of her husband, who had been a steward and was sixty in 1940. There was a widow who found her husband’s grave. There were many other heart-rending moments in the cemeteries. Even though 46 years had elapsed, the dead of the Lancastria have not been forgotten by the British, nor by the people of Saint-Nazaire.