We will remember them

Joseph Heath Sherlock

Born in 1896, Private Joseph Heath Sherlock was the youngest of 4 children who grew up in Bolton, Lancashire. His own father, Joseph Snr was a carpenter and it was a trade that he would follow. In World War I, Joe joined up like so many other young men of his generation. They were to become the list generation as that conflict took its bloody and relentless toll. Somehow young Joe Sherlock survived it and returned home.
It was meant to be a homecoming fit for heroes but like thousands of others only struggle and hardship were there to greet the veterans of the Great War.
In the early 1930s Joe, by this time married with a young family decided to immigrate to Canada to try establishing a better standard of living and hoping for a brighter future for his young family. Soon after however the great depression hit North America hard and he was forced to return to Bolton. Once home he secured work at Hick Hargreaves as a joiner.
As a former veteran he also enlisted in the local reserve unit and four days after the start of World War 2 he was called up full time, with the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) and began making preparations to be sent to France.
Shortly after Private Sherlock left the UK for France as part of the British Expeditionary Force. Once the massive German attack came in April/May 1940 Sherlock and his unit did in fact cross at another French port and safety, but soon after received orders to return to France to assist other Royal Army Service Corps units who were struggling to escape. They needed experienced Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) such as Joe to help organise the evacuation of the remaining men. So back to France he went and within a short period of time found himself, along with dozens of RASC companies converging on St. Nazaire.
Joe’s unit most likely boarded Lancastria early in the morning. He would have been familiar with the sea having crossed the Atlantic trying for a new life in Canada. Most likely he may have cast his mind back to the rough North Atlantic seas, knowing it was easier on the stomach and the head to be as low down in the vessel as possible to negate the worst effects of sea sickness. Like many other army units he was probably ordered well below decks as no one could have predicted her fate in just a few short hours.
At 44, Joe was no fresh-faced idealist. He would have seen at first hand the horrific result of war. Other men in the unit would have looked to him for guidance and reassurance. But nothing could have prepared the men for the forthcoming attack and the speed at which Lancastria would sink. With every deck crammed full of men, each with one objective in mind once they felt the Lancastria shudder and drop beneath their feet, it would have been impossible to maintain order and quell panic as everyone made a chaotic rush for the exits.
We will never know of Joe made it to the top deck and ended up being one of hundreds left on the turning hull sinking defiantly as the German bombers continued the attack. What we do know is that his body was never found and most likely he remained below decks urging and pushing the men in his company up the tight stairwells, the unit he had been sent back to return to the UK.
Two months later and his family have still not heard any word. Then finally news arrives in late August. Private Joseph Heath Sherlock is missing in action believed killed aboard the troopship Lancastria. News of the sinking is suppressed by the British media and although it finally does break, only after an American newspaper releases details, the British press run the story for little more than 2 days, before it becomes buried by other events.
Joe’s family, his wife Annie and their children Theresa, Edna, Joseph and Frances are left devastated by the news. There is no state support for the families of veterans and they struggle on the best they can with the only reminder of their father, a few photographs, a scroll commemorating his life and his medals.
In 1986 Joe’s widow passed away and with her, mysteriously, the scroll and the medals. 20 years later however and they resurface again from an anonymous seller during an online auction. The Lancastria Archive, eager to ensure they are not lost to someone with no direct connection to the disaster, bought the medals and appealed through a newspaper in Bolton for information about Joe.
Joe’s son, also called Joseph, comes forward, “I was so proud of my father and he was a real hero. It was terrible when we received the letter saying he was missing in action.
“It was very hard for my mother because there was no body, and the medals were something we had to remind us of him.”
The Association is now making arrangements to return the medals and scroll to the Sherlock family.