We will remember them

John Haldenby



We have received the following extremely interesting letter from Driver J. T. Haldenby, R.A.S.C., of 151, Healds Road, Dewsbury, giving an account of the sinking of the troopship “Lancastria” on Monday, June l7th, in connection with the Dunkirk evacuation:
No doubt you will have seen in the daily papers a short account of the sinking of the troopship, “Lancastria,” on Monday, June l7th. As one of the many survivors from this ship, I have written a short account of my experiences, and I am forwarding same to you through the medium of my mother
On Sunday, June l6th, my unit left its base, and proceeded to St. Nazaire for embarkation to England. We arrived at St. Nazaire at 7p.m and had our dinner. We stayed just outside the docks until early on Monday morning (3 a.m.), and then proceeded to the docks and embarked on board the “Lancastria” at 8a.m. I had breakfast, and then went to bed to rest until dinner-time. At 1 p.m., I had dinner, and then returned to my deck. About 3 p.m. we had an air-raid warning, but soon the “all clear” had been given. One ship had been hit on the bridge by a bomb.

After this air-raid, I went and had a bath. I was just returning to my bed when the air-raid alarm was sounded again, the time being about 3.50. I was just putting on my life-belt when I heard a terrific explosion, and someone shouted “She’s hit.” A few minutes later, we beard another explosion, and the ship took on a steep angle at the bows. I went on deck, and there I saw that the ship had. been hit by two bombs, one wrecking the bridge, and the other having exploded in the engine room. I now saw men going over the side, so I undid my boots, and made ready to jump for it.
The “Lancastria” had now started to heel over, and in a minute the angle became steeper. I made three attempts to reach the ship’s side, and at the third attempt I was able to catch hold of a piece of rope and pull myself up. As I reached the rails, the ship was almost on its side, and I had to cling to the rails, or I should have been thrown back to the deck below. I now jumped into the sea, and swam away from the doomed ship.
Everywhere were men swimming for their lives, and, worst of all, was the thick oil which floated on top of the sea, which concealed many things, pieces of equipment, clothing, and once I collided with a floating soldier, who looked as . though he had been blown off the ship by the explosion. After swimming for about fifteen minutes, I heard the sound of a plane diving and its tar get was one of our destroyers. The plane dropped a salvo of bombs, which missed their target, and soon after exploded in the sea about 200 yards away from me. The concussion of the bombs travelling through the water just felt like some-one giving me a good punch in the stomach. The explosion sent up a great wave of water, which. eventually covered me with oil, some of which I was forced to swallow. The various ships had opened fire long before this, and the noise of A.A. guns, machine guns, and pom-pom guns was deafening.

The Nazi plane now turned and attacked a ship’s lifeboat with its machine guns, and completely wiped out the whole boat load of rescued. Next, it turned its attention to those swimming in the water. I could heal the bullets as they struck the water, but fortunately none hit me. The most pathetic sight I saw was one of a baby, about two years old, strapped to a raft to prevent it from falling into the sea. The baby’s mother had been killed a short while before by machine gun fire.
I now saw a small French boat picking up survivors about 50 to 100 yards away. I swam to it. and was pulled aboard. Then I was put aboard a small naval vessel. I took off my wet uniform and dried myself as best I could – the thick oil having soaked through my uniform, and I just looked like a black man. However, I managed to save a few of my personal things, which I later dried. The plane which attacked us in the water was brought down soon afterwards.
About 6p.m. I was put aboard another ship and on this ship I eventually reached England. I had a good hot bath on this ship to clean all the oil off myself and afterwards I went to sleep while morning. During the morning there was a roll call, and after that we were served with some hot soup, and ship’s biscuits and cigarettes were given to us.

The pluck and grit of the men was splendid. Here is one instance of many. When the ship turned on her side, there were scores of men standing up on the rails. They now climbed down the ship’s side and commenced to sing “Roll Out the Barrel.” and other popular songs. Many of them were not able to swim. Some of them being from my own unit.
As I write this account of my experience in my diary, away in the distance I can see land. The time now is 9-30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 18th, and we are about to enter a famous south coast port, and I, along with hundreds more, are glad to see the shores of England again, and thankful to be alive after having such a rough time in the past 36 hours.
I have been home twice since landing in England, but I have refrained from sending you my story, as the news had not been officially published. Now that it has been, I thought perhaps you may like to hear a personal account of the sinking of the “Lancastria.”