This is a transcript of the account written by my father, John Mansfield. He was 21 at the time, and had joined the Army, in the R.A.S.C., in Manchester just prior to the War. Mr Mansfield died peacefully in his sleep in 2008.
His daughter, Carol Steele said in 2016, “I should like to record my gratitude to the Petty Officer who gave him his life jacket. Without his amazing generosity, neither I nor my wonderful family would be here.”
“We were put on board a destroyer in St Nazaire dock area and taken out to HMT “LANCASTRIA”. Our destroyer transferred us to “Lancastria” via a sally-port in the starboard side of the liner, and as we went in a man told us to “follow the man in front of you.” This we did; along corridors up staircases, along corridors, up staircases, etc, until we found we were on the open deck at the front of the ship. We had passed cabins full of personnel on our way to this point, and were a bit put out to see where we were, but we didn’t know what the rest of the day would bring. This was about 10.00 a.m. No lifejackets were issued.
Our belongings on the deck were comfortable to rest against, and I was doing this when I heard an aeroplane. Sitting up I could see a ‘plane, about one hundred yards on our starboard, little more than mast high, streaking past us. Another ship, the “ORONSAY”, still on the move, was just coming in, (or so it appeared) and, as the ‘plane passed over her , head-on, a gaggle of bombs hit the bridge of the “Oronsay”, and the ‘plane curved away out of sight. This was about 12.00 noon. Sure that the pilot would have a try for us as well, it brought up the question of lifejackets, and my pal and I began looking around for them.We went below in our search, but no luck here until, after a while, we turned the corner where two corridors met, and came upon a scene where what looked like a Petty Officer was holding out a lifejacket from a partly open cabin door and saying to a couple of lads in uniform standing in the corridor, “Here you are lads, I won’t be needing this!” They refused to accept it, and I moved forward and took it from him, saying, “Thanks mate! I’ll have it.” I can’t swim, whereas Frank, my pal, always said he could.
We returned to our places on the open deck. Round about 2.00 p.m. action started up once more, with more aircraft on the go this time, or so it seemed. A couple of bombs narrowly missed the ship at different times. A call then came for us to hand over any ammunition we had as the Bren gun, which had sustained Anti-Aircraft fire for quite a long period from the prow of the ship, was now running low on ammunition and needed more. I was down at my kit on my knees taking clips of ammunition from the pouches when a rush of people, for whatever cover there might be, signalled another attack, and I went with the push and threw myself flat on the deck. The same thing happened to Frank.
A split second later hell broke loose as the bomb hit us, only yards away. A fiery cloud of red-hot flame engulfed us, the deck below us shuddered and bumped as if in an earthquake, and there was a feeling as though red-hot ashes were being scattered across us from some gigantic furnace door. This, with the thunder of the explosion, seemed to go on for some moments, and finally I opened my eyes, (yes, they had been closed) to see blackness. I thought I was buried under something, but when I took another look the blackness was going grey in one spot, and I realised it was black fumes from the explosion that enveloped us. I turned my head towards Frank and yelled above the noise “Are you alright,Spooner?” and was pleased to hear, “Yes, are you alright, Mansfield?”
We got to our feet and weighed things up. Because of the number of people crowding to the ship’s rail to get off, (the ship was sinking) we were on the starboard side, so I looked across to the port side and saw no one going off there, and decided to investigate. I crossed the deck diagonally because the deck house covering the top of the stairs was in the way. A look over the port side and I saw the gaping hole in the port side taking in water so fast it was no wonder nobody was going over that side. I turned away to go back the way I had come, but a movement under my feet, and a definite tilt of the deck to port told me not much time was left, and I went straight across to the starboard rail, (not diagonally as I had come) and found room to go over,and a rope hanging from above for good measure. I had taken off my steel helmet and boots just after the explosion, when it became obvious we would have to go into the water. I went halfway down the rope and then dropped the rest of the distance, holding the lifejacket away from my chin as I did so. After trying for a while to distance myself from the ship unsuccessfully, I saw a lifeboat further along the ship turning away, and I saw a chance of grabbing an oar. This I did, pulled myself along it, and hooked my right arm over the side of the lifeboat and held on to the ratlines with my left hand. I stayed in the water like this until we were picked up by a small ship, that later transferred us to “JOHN HOLT”, who brought us home to Plymouth. Looking back when I was in the water I saw the stern rising with people still jumping, and heard the singing by very brave people of “Roll out the barrel” as they looked death in the face. God bless them.
No 1 Base Supply Depot, R.A.S.C.