Lancastria at War
On the 16th of April she sailed to Glasgow before heading to Reykjavik, Iceland to pick up Canadian troops. On returning from Iceland Lancastria received orders to head to Norway. Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty masterminded the Norway campaign, a campaign that proved to be a disaster. No sooner had
British Commonwealth troops been landed, than plans were being put in place for their immediate and sudden withdrawal as German forces overran the country.
Lancastria left Glasgow at midnight on the 28th of May and arrived at her anchorage in Norway at 3.00am on the 4th of June. There were over twenty liners converted into to troopships manoeuvring in the cold waters off Namsos. The accompanying destroyers did the tough job of running into the mainland and bringing off the soldiers. Canadians, Poles, French and British troops, many nationalities, all dirty and depressed and most without rifles. 2653 troops were taken on board Lancastria in difficult sea conditions. Lancastria averaged 14 1/2 knots on her return journey. On the 8th of June Lancastria arrived in Scapa Flow and off loaded some of the troops who were sent to a “secret” camp on the hill above the small Orkney town of Stromness. Large Hessian sheeting was arranged around the perimeter of the camp to prevent locals from witnessing the scale of the Norway evacuation. The next day Lancastria headed for Greenock in order to off load more troops.
During that return trip she came under attack by highflying aircraft that dropped two bombs. Both missed and no damage was done. At Greenock she loaded some 55 tons of oil fuel before being sent to Liverpool for overhauling and dry-docking, arriving on the 14th of June. Secrecy, as with all earlier military operations in which the Lancastria was involved, meant that neither the crew, nor the Captain himself, knew where the next destination would be. That being the case, Lancastria was always fuelled and supplies loaded to their maximum to cover all eventualities.
To Lancastria’s Chief Officer, Harry Grattidge, it had seemed a relief at the time. Lancastria’s crew needed a break as much as the liner needed its overhaul. In the first months of the war the losses in the Merchant Service was greater than in all other British services put together. Tension amongst the crew slackened greatly as they entered Liverpool. At 11.00am the crew were paid off. As the vessel was prepared for dry-docking in Liverpool’s Gladstone Dock, Grattidge went for lunch at the Adelphi, then strolled down to the Cunard Offices at Pier Head to pick up his rail voucher. Grattidge had planned to take three weeks leave in the Lake District.
Captain Sharp (right), Lancastria’s Master, survived the sinking and went on to Captain the Laco
nia which was torpedoed and sunk on 12th September 1942. Sharp, realising the vessel would sink and perhaps not able to take the loss of another of his ships, reportedly locked himself in his cabin and sank with around 1600 other victims.
As soon as Grattidge entered the office he knew something was wrong. Cunard’s Marine Superintendent Captain Davies was relieved to see Grattidge. The little Welshman said to Gratidge:
“Thank God you’re here, big trouble. Grab a taxi now and get to the ship and recall everyone. You haven’t much time – you’re sailing at midnight. The mission is urgent but unspecified. The ship’s needed in Plymouth.”
Grattidge returned to the ship and gave orders to Chief Engineer Dunbar to get steam up. He telephoned Captain Sharp telling him of the situation. Over the next few hours Grattidge busied himself sending out telegrams and arranging for the recall to be broadcast at railway terminals. Loudspeakers at Central and Lime Street stations boomed out across the crowded platforms.
“Any present or recent members of the crew of the Lancastria are requested to report to the station master’s office at once.”
All but three of the crew made the call and that night the Lancastria left Liverpool for the last time. The crew ranged in age from 14 year old Tom O’Conner making his first voyage as a deck boy to Don Sutherland who was aged 74.
Lancastria had left Liverpool hundreds of times before, taking with her thousands of holidaymakers and immigrants setting out for a new life and hopefully greater prosperity. Normally hundreds crowded the deck rails waving handkerchiefs to the crowds assembled on shore. Lancastria’s siren high up on her huge single funnel blew one long blast before the vessel increased speed, her bows slicing evenly through the water.
Late on the 14th of June she departed in silence and in darkness. None of those on board knew her final destination. No provision was made to off-load some of the fuel oil taken aboard Lancastria. The liner had two deep oil tanks, each capable of holding 1500 tons of oil. On Sunday morning at 07:00hrs, 16th June 1940, Lancastria dropped anchor off Plymouth.
Neither Captain Sharp nor Grattidge ventured ashore at Plymouth but before long Ministry of Shipping officials had boarded and examined the troop accommodation.
That evening they left Plymouth for Brest along with another Cunarder and Clyde built liner the 20,341-ton Franconia. Franconia had been the flagship on the earlier voyages to Norway. The voyage to the French coast was uneventful but as soon as the sun began to break over the horizon a different scene could be viewed unravelling. The crew could see nothing of Brest or indeed the adjoining coastline, due to vast columns of thick black smoke caused by demolition teams destroying the last of the oil dumps. The smoke was too heavy to be broken up by the light breeze. Captain Sharp looked at Chief Officer Grattidge and said,
“It’s no good going in there. The place is done for. We’re too late.”
An accompanying destroyer, possibly HMS Highlander, signalled to Lancastria to proceed to Quiberon Bay and so the two great liners sailed South on that Sunday afternoon, in sight of the French coastline.
At around eight o’clock in the evening they neared their destination. The Lancastria was some way astern of the Franconia. As the larger vessel passed through the first of the boom defences, in place to prevent attack by U-boat, an enemy aircraft dived out of the dark sky. Four bombs fell into the water between the Franconia and Lancastria. As the aircraft levelled out it strafed both ships with machine gun fire.
Lancastria’s carpenter, Fred Bradley was stationed by the windlass on the fore deck when the attack took place. He was perhaps the only member of crew to witness the whole thing and saw the entire stern of the Franconia lift clean out of the water by one of the exploding bombs.
Although none of the bombs actually hit either vessel the proximity of the explosions to the Franconia shattered and sprung her plates and put out of action one of her engines. Franconia’s Master had no option but to drop anchor and tend to the ship’s wounds. As Lancastria steamed past the crippled vessel and into Quiberon Bay to await orders the Franconia signalled “Good luck”.
Shortly after Lancastria dropped anchor, a French trawler came alongside and notified Captain Sharp that the Bay was not safe and advised him that he should make for St. Nazaire. Sharp took the advice and within a short period was underway, alone, heading to the mouth of the Loire River and St. Nazaire.
Lancastria drops anchor:
In the early hours of Monday, the 17th of June 1940 the Lancastria eased her way towards the coast of France, a few miles from the port of St. Nazaire, escorted by a French pilot boat. One of its crewmen boarded Lancastria and made his way to the bridge where he advised Captain Sharp in perfect English that it would be wiser not to continue. He warned Sharp that anchoring the Lancastria so close to shore would be like putting “your head into a noose… when they see you anchored outside, a sitting target…”
Sharp shrugged his shoulders. “What alternative have I got?”
The Loading Begins
Lancastria dropped anchor around six in the morning, approximately three miles from the coast and in 72 feet of water. The area is known as the Carpenter Sea Roads. Her draft would not allow her to proceed any further and the French coastline was only faintly visible. 150 miles East, Nazi Germany’s entire 31st Infantry Division was crossing the Loire River at Orleans. In front of it were the remnants of the British Expeditionary Force, more than 150,000 men. However unlike many of the units that managed to escape through Dunkirk two weeks earlier, the remaining troops were generally support and logistical units with little or no combat experience. During the six week German offensive which they codenamed “case yellow” the British Army had been completely routed by the faster and better equipped Germans who had spent years preparing for this invasion.
For the Lancastria it was a cool and brightening start to the day. Lancastria’s crew could not hear the gunfire of the advance units of the German army, which were only 25 miles from the port of St. Nazaire. For the last few months Fifth Column units had been active in the region, known to the British forces as “Number 2 base, Sub-area, Nantes”.
As Lancastria’s anchor splashed into the brown, silt-laden waters only one other vessel was visible, the hospital ship, Somersetshire. She had lain there all night receiving evacuated patients from Number 4 Army Hospital. As daylight shimmered over the still sea the Somersetshire got underway.
The fateful order:
Suddenly three Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) Transport Officers appeared on the Lancastria’s bridge. One of them, a Naval Lieutenant, approached Captain Sharp.
“How many can you hold?” asked the fresh-faced Officer.
“About three thousand, at a pinch.” replied Sharp.
“You’ll have to take as many as you possibly can, without regard to the limits of International Law.” came the reply.
Chief Officer Grattidge realised the magnitude of this order and what dangers it represented. They were being asked to embark as many men as possible. They had lifeboats and life jackets for 2,200 people. Chief Officer Grattidge looked at the Naval Officer and said:
“What’s going on? Is this capitulation?”
“Good God! Don’t say that!” protested one of the Reserve Officers, and at that they left. There was no time to question the order.
Grattidge quickly rehearsed a boat drill and between seven and eight o’clock in the morning the first boats had started to make their way out to the Lancastria. Every inch of the boats making their way out to the Lancastria were crammed full of troops. One of the first and largest units to come alongside the liner belonged to the RAF, numbering two hundred men and eight officers. Wing Commander Douglas Macfadyen was in charge and shown to a cabin.
His contingent was led into Numbers 1 and 2 holds. Subsequent RAF units, mainly ground crew from 73 Squadron, were directed towards these two holds and by mid-afternoon Number 2 hold had more than 800 RAF service personnel crowded inside.
This was the very bowel of the ship. Great warehouses, lit only by dim electric light bulbs, set flush into the walls and surrounded by thick glass covers. Mattresses and palisades lay all over the floor space and effectively formed a thick carpet. One of the men, Leading Aircraftsman Ivor Jenkins shivered, “It’s like a ruddy morgue”, and risking a possible court martial decided to make his way to more ‘homely’ surroundings.
As more RAF personnel boarded some made their way down to “D” deck only to find it already fully occupied.
Captain Griggs of the Royal Armoured Medical Corps was seconded as the ship’s adjutant. He had boarded at eight o’clock and along with Colonel Wilson of the R.A.M.C. were provided an office and started to get some organisation in place by collecting a nominal roll and visiting every part of the ship to obtain from N.C.O’s (Non-Commissioned Officers) or officers in charge details of their contingent.
Whilst the other ranks were directed to the ship’s decks and holds the commissioned officers and senior N.C.O’s were allotted cabins.
Chief Steward and Purser Fred Beattie moved swiftly with Captain Griggs on the nominal rolls but took little heed of the smaller units that were boarding from the variety of craft which was ferrying men out to the Lancastria. Fred Beattie would later that day earn himself the British Empire Medal for meritorious service.
As some of the N.C.O’s boarded they were handed a small card like a bus ticket. One R.A.F. Sergeant Harry Strudwick was given a card on which was printed ‘Cabin 118. B Deck.’ After weaving his way through the maze of corridors and companionways he eventually found Cabin 118. Inside the three-berth room was packed eight senior N.C.O’s. After a few moments a couple of the N.C.O’s decided to make their way outside whilst the remaining two or three decided to take advantage of the wash basin for a much needed wash and shave. Sergeant Strudwick never saw his fellow passengers again. He never knew what became of them or ever learnt their names.
The Loading Continues
As Major Scott-Bowden of the 53rd Company Auxiliary Pioneer Corps boarded with his men from the destroyer HMS Havelock it was apparent that Lancastria was becoming overcrowded with men. Once on board he was instructed by the ship’s purser to proceed to a second-class cabin that had four bunk beds. Once inside he discovered that seven other Officers were meant to be in the same accommodation. He quickly returned to the Purser who replied:
“Sorry Sir, but that’s the best I can do. You’re lucky to get a bunk at all. Three men will have to sleep on the floor and two of those are Colonels!”
Meanwhile breakfast was being served in the dining saloon. Bread, baked on the journey down from Plymouth was laid on each white-covered table. The menu included grapefruit, porridge, bacon and eggs, toast, marmalade and coffee.
The barber’s shop was doing roaring business with men whose hair had not seen a ‘real’ barber for more than six months, cueing up.
Hurricane fighters were seen overhead patrolling the skies. The cloud ceiling was approximately 1500 feet and 7/10ths overcast.
As Squadron Leader Shipp and fellow officer Bob Doig crossed the deck on their way down to the dining saloon they each picked up a lifejacket. As they left the saloon, carrying their other belongings they put on the jackets to avoid carrying them.
“All dressed up and nowhere to go.” Rang out a sarcastic voice. “They may come in handy!” replied Shipp, not easily perturbed.
One of Lancastria’s crew did not regard the sight of men wearing lifejackets as being over cautious. Hugh Johnston had been an Ordinary Seaman aboard the Lusitania when she was sunk off the Irish coast in 1915, but what was about to happen to Lancastria would overshadow that maritime tragedy several times over.
Ordering the Captain to disregard international law on passenger limits is of crucial importance when considering the story of the Lancastria disaster. The scale of the disaster hinges on this order and the implications it had on 4000 or so lives which were lost shortly after it was made. Many have argued that the order was reasonable given the urgency of the situation and that “this was wartime”.
In some respects the very fact that it was wartime should have placed a greater onus upon those making such orders to ensure that all necessary precautions were taken in the likely event the ship came under attack. Deliberately loading twice as many people that could be reasonably saved should the vessel come under attack and then sink seems reckless. Some have argued that the silence brought about by the British government’s initial D-notice and their apparent ongoing silence on the matter is an admission of their liability and their responsibility.
It is highly unlikely that any of the relatives of victims of the Lancastria would sue the government, but Whitehall officials are a paranoid and secretive bunch and are certain to have given the matter some consideration.
Official responses from them recently state only that “almost all the documents related to the sinking of the Lancastria have been released”. “Almost all” is not the same as “all”. As to the official report of the sinking, well it’s simply disappeared. Some commentators have said that it was to be held under the Official Secrets Act until 2040, but in fact there are no known documents related to the disaster listed as being held under this Act.
An exhausted Percy Brown of 663 Company receives a welcome cup of tea aboard HMS Highlander after being plucked from the water
So where is the official report? That is one document that has eluded even the most dogged of researchers and authors. If you discount the government conspiracy of silence theory then what you are left with is the fact that the British government has misplaced or lost the official report into Britain’s worst ever maritime disaster. If its not conspiracy then it must be incompetence.
Of course hindsight is a perfect vision. Would those Naval Officers give the same order if they had known for certain that Lancastria would receive three direct hits and sink in 20 minutes? Probably not. However the order, which incidentally they would only be passing on from their chiefs at the Admiralty or War Office, should surely have taken account of the likely chances of the vessel coming under attack. Other merchant ships had been attacked and sunk in the days leading up to the 17th of June. Captain Sharp himself was reluctant to depart unaccompanied without a Destroyer escort for fear Lancastria would come under attack from U-boats.
The full picture of events that day has not yet been properly exposed. A combination of actions and pure bad luck resulted in both the scale of the disaster and subsequent silence. The silence and apparent loss of such crucial and historically important documents such as the official report, even if its loss is “accidental”, is all very useful for the British government.
Captain Sharp’s Account
This story was first published in the Shetland Times in June 2005
Captain Sharp was master of the Lancastria when German bombers sank her in June 1940, with the heaviest loss of life in British maritime history. Mark Hirst picks up the remarkable story of this naval officer with family links to Shetland.
Captain Rudolph Sharp was five feet eleven inches tall, stout in build and looked older than his age. He came from a seagoing family from Shetland, with a rich experience and tradition of the seas. His grandfather and uncle had both served with the Cunard Line. Some said their first impressions of the man apparently revealed a serious nature to his personality and that his expression took on a certain weariness when faced with unexpected aggravation. A typical Shetlander older family members said. Yet all that was before Sharp became destined to be associated with the two of the most infamous and heavy naval losses of World War 2.
He had certainly served an interesting naval career and had held various positions on such luxury liners as the Mauretania, Olympic, Franconia, Lusitania and even the Queen Mary but in March 1940 he rejoined the Lancastria, a 16,242 ton Cunard liner which had been in service with Cunard’s White Star line since 1922. Lancastria, like the Queen Mary, had been built on the River Clyde the heart of global shipbuilding.
Britain had been at war since the previous September. Lancastria, had been on a cruise in the Bahamas at the outbreak of war when orders from the Admiralty in London arrived and she was immediately requisitioned as a troop transport and sent to New York to be fitted out. Her standard Cunard red, white and black paint was replaced with battleship grey and a 4″ gun mounted on the stern deck where normally wealthy cruise passengers took a dip in the pool.
One of Lancastria’s first missions in the war was to transport troops from Greenock to Norway as part of the attempt to stem the Nazi invasion of that country. The then First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, had been behind the plan to supply British troops to Norway, but the plan was doomed from the outset and the Norway campaign ended in failure. Less than a month after disembarking troops, Lancastria was sent back to pick them up after the Germans overran the country.
As they returned to Namsos to pick up the men, Harry Grattidge, the Chief Officer of the Lancastria, and Sharp’s number 2, said: “the men were dirty and depressed, most of them without rifles”.
The Norway campaign had been a disaster in its own right, yet Churchill escaped blame despite being the man ultimately responsible for the Norweigan plan. Just weeks later he became Prime Minister.
As they sailed south, passing Shetland, to Orkney to secretly off-load the men from the Norway campaign, Sharp looked out from the bridge. In the distance he could just make out the rugged features of the islands and pondered what his life may have held if his family had remained there.
By the 14th of June Lancastria was back in her homeport of Liverpool for a major refit. The men of the Lancastria needed an overhaul as much as their ship. However no sooner had the men been given leave than Cunard’s head office issued orders for all men to return to the ship and prepare to set sail that evening. Captain Sharp in his interview to the shipping causalities section later that month clinically noted:
“We left Liverpool on the 14th of June at 17.00, arriving at Plymouth on the 15th. We left Plymouth at midnight and arrived at the Charpentier Sea Roads, Saint Nazaire at 04.00 on the 17th of June”.
Soon after two Royal Navy officers on orders from the Admiralty boarded Lancastria and instructed Captain Sharp to load as many men as possible, “without regard to the limits laid down by international law”.
It would prove to be a fateful decision for the thousands of souls who later boarded the ship. Chief Officer Grattidge, who later went on to become Commodore of the Cunard Line looked at the two fresh faced naval officers and with bitter memories of Norway in his mind said: “Is this another capitulation?” “
Don’t even mention that word” came the terse response.
Earlier a local French pilot skipper had warned Captain Sharp that to be anchored in the Charpentier Roads during daylight was like “putting your head in the noose”. But what choice did Sharp truly have?
As Captain Sharp stood on the bridge and watched the endless stream of vessels taking troops of the British Expeditionary Force out to Lancastria he quickly glanced upwards. Every now and then he could see aircraft high up in the sky, the sun catching their wings in a fine flash of scintillating light, “like dragonflies” Sharp thought.
Finally an attack came, but the target appeared to be another liner, the Two funnelled Oronsay. According to Sharp’s log the Oronsay was hit at 13:48 and her bridge section blown away. Miraculously none of her crew were killed in this attack although she began to list heavily to port.
Immediately after the attack and with Lancastria’s decks heaving with soldiers and refugees Sharp discussed the options with Grattidge. Should they leave now or wait until they had proper escort. Two Royal Navy destroyers were moving about at this time, HMS Havelock and HMS Highlander. Sharp ordered that one of them should be signalled to see if they could offer escort for the Lancastria back to Plymouth. U-boats were known to be lurking in the Bay of Biscay and Sharp knew that there was not enough lifeboats or lifejackets for all those aboard and so Sharp did not feel secure in setting sail alone.
A signal man repeatedly signalled one of the nearby destroyers, but was met with only a discreet silence. “I think” said Sharp at last, “that we’ll do better to wait for the Oronsay and go together.” and looking at Grattidge said: “What do you think?” Grattidge agreed. Soon after the sky seemed to clear of aircraft and both Grattidge and Sharp headed for their cabins, both exhausted and drained. Sleep did not come easy and both men remained restless.
At 3.45 pm on the afternoon of 17th June 1940 the sirens on the harbour at St. Nazaire sounded. Flying at over 250 mph a stream of German bombers, Junkers 88, from the German squadron Kampfgeschweder I/30 swarmed overhead. This unit was a specialised in anti-shipping.
On the 13th of November 1939 this very same unit became the first bombers to target British soil when they attacked the flying boat base at Sullom Voe. All four bombs dropped harmlessly into an open field, but Shetland humour being as it is someone placed a dead rabbit (which had actually been bought from a local butcher) in one of the bomb craters. The national press were quick to exploit the opportunity and used the “slain” bunny for propaganda purposes.
As one of the Junkers swooped low over the water aiming at Lancastria’s stern it suddenly released four 500kg bombs. Grattidge later described the sound of the falling bombs as the “longest and most fearful silence I have ever heard.”
By the time Grattidge had reached the bridge Captain Sharp was already there.
“By heaven, sir, this is really bad”
Sharp shouted to one of the other officers on the bridge “How many down
No. 2 hold?”
“About 800 RAF, Sir. Why?”
Sharp replied staring out over the blown hatch cover, below the bridge “I think that first one struck there and blew away their exist. My god, look at those flames.”
All four bombs had struck the Lancas tria and caused utter devast ation.
It quickly became clear Lancastria was doomed. “Clear away the life boats”. Sharp said suddenly realising the scale of the developing situation. Grattidge grabbed a megaphone and bellowed: “Clear away the boats now, your attention please, clear away the boats now.”
Each lifeboat held about 100 people. Slowly, some of these started to be lowered into the sea, as Lancastria quivered and shaked beneath the feet of Captain Sharp. He knew they did not have long. Oil from Lancastria ruptured fuel tanks were spreading quickly around the sinking liner. Finally, after several chaotic minutes that witnessed the full range of human emotion, Sharp turned to Grattidge and said: “It’s time now, Harry. I’m going to swim for the after-end.” Grattidge looked at his watch: 4.08pm. Knowing Sharp was a poor swimmer he made him take the only lifebelt on the bridge. “Good luck, Sir”. They both stepped off the bridge and into the oil-soaked sea 9 miles from the harbour at St. Nazaire.
Thousands of men now clambered onto the turning hulk as Lancastria headed for the bottom. Some started to sing, in defiance to the still swooping enemy aircraft, “Roll out the barrel”. As they sang German aircraft flying over the wreck started machine gunning men in the water and on the turning hull. One seem to drop an incendiary in attempt to light the 1400 tons of fuel oil which was escaping from Lancastria. It was a truly macabre spectacle.
Only a handful of Lancastria’s lifeboats could be lowered in time. Some lay in the water upturned, with dozens of men desperately trying to clamber on top of them. All were black, covered in oil and exhausted. One officer standing on what was once the side of Lancastria calmly pulled out his revolver and shot the man in front of him, before turning the gun on himself, his lifeless body tumbling down the side of the ship and into the water. As Lancastria slowly began to disappear the sound of singing was replaced by the screams and shouts of thousands in the water, most without lifebelts and with no hope of rescue. Some, in sheer panic began to attack those survivors who had lifebelts. It was a desperate and horrific sight which changed the lives of all those who witnessed it and survived that day.
After hours in the water and witnessing many men dying in front of him, Sharp was picked up and finally transferred back to Plymouth. Later that week he met with Grattidge in a pub in Liverpool and prepared the official report of how Lancastria had gone to her death. “Latitude 47.09. Longitude 2.20” Sharp said as he wrote quickly in his notebook. He would never forget that position. It marked the graves of more than 4000 men, women and children. He was still weak and light headed with oil poisoning from Lancastria’s ruptured tanks which he had swallowed whilst in the sea..
Sharp had lost more people under his command than any other naval Captain in British history. A tragedy worse than the combined loss of life in both the Titanic and Lusitania disasters. But for Sharp the war was not over.
After a short period of rest he was back as master of a number of merchant vessels. By 1942 he was Master of the Laconia as she sailed south off the Ivory Coast with 1800 Italian PoWs on board. Suddenly the 20,000 ton vessel was hit by a single torpedo, one of two, fired from U-156. Laconia stopped dead in the water and the submarine surfaced. Eyewitness accounts say that as the last lifeboat was lowered away Captain Sharp stood on the deck, smoking a cigarette, the glow from the end visible after the survivors entered the water. Other reports say that once he realised the ship was doomed he could not face losing another vessel and so locked himself in his cabin and awaited his fate. He went down with the Laconia along with 1600 other victims.
Afterward a number of U-boats descended on the scene to pick up survivors. As they sailed to the nearest port with survivors towed behind in lifeboats the U-Boats came under attack from US fighter bombers and suffered casualties. In response Admiral Dornitz, the German naval commander issued the infamous “Laconia Order” which forbid German naval vessels from assisting in the rescue of survivors. After Lancastria, the sinking of the Laconia became the 2nd worst naval loss of life in the war.
On learning of the sinking of Lancastria Winston Churchill banned all news from reaching the British public, fearing it would demoralise them yet further.
On the 17th of June 2005 the remaining survivors of Lancastria sailed out to the wreck site for the last time and to remember the forgotten dead of the Lancastria and a Captain who lived and died for the sea.
Laconia Sinking Account
Courtesy of the Merchant Navy Association
The following account was written by Albert Goode, Merchant Navy
Naval Sea Cadet
I was born in Bristol, at Horfield in the year 1926 and was about 10 years old when I became the first boy to join the newly formed Bristol Sea Cadets. In December, 1941, aged 15, I joined the Cunard ship Laconia and on my first trip spent my 16th birthday in Capetown.
My second trip was very different. We sailed from Liverpool on the 28 May 1942, joining a big convoy containing the famous liners, Britannic, Aquitania, Mauretania, Orcades, Oranto, Viceroy of India and the Empress of Canada protected by the battleships HMS Nelson and HMS Renown together with three destroyer escorts.
The outward-bound trip was uneventful and we departed Port Tewfik, homeward bound, on the 29 July, 1942, calling at Aden, Mombassa, Durban and Capetown. When we left Capetown on the 1 September, 1942, we had a total of 2,732 people on board, made up of 463 crew, 286 military personnel, 87 civilians (mainly women and children), 1,793 Italian prisoners of war and 103 Polish guards.
At about 20:10 on 12 September and with darkness having just fallen, the first torpedo hit us followed a few seconds later by the second. The smell of cordite became very strong and the ship listed to starboard. Myself and a shipmate tried to make our way to a companionway, but we were unable to proceed as our way was blocked by the Italian prisoners who had escaped and were being fired at by the guards.
We then went below deck making for our quarters to retrieve our lifejackets, passing on the way three dead bodies. They’d been killed by rivets from the hull, which must have come out with the force of a rifle bullet when the ship was struck. Having got my lifejacket I then headed for the boat deck and now alone I found that all the lifeboats were gone except two, which were hanging useless, supported by one fall.
Then I spotted lifelines hanging down the side of the ship, I took a run and jumped for one but missed, and flew out into space, hitting the water and for a moment thinking that I was never going to come up again. Luck was with me though and when I surfaced I was near a Carley Float, which I grabbed hold of.
There were terrible cries and screams from the people in the water as I drifted away from the doomed ship, and it was not long before she stood almost vertical in the water, then slid below the surface, bow first. A few seconds later we heard an underwater detonation as her boilers or the depth charges, which we carried, exploded. After all of this there was no sound in the pitch darkness and it was an eerie lonely feeling until dawn broke and I saw that I was not far away from a lifeboat, which was very full.
I let go of the float and swam to the lifeboat. I was pulled aboard and then for the first time saw sharks and shivered – whilst I was in the water the last thing I had thought about was fish.
In the lifeboat we had a daily ration in the morning of one Horlicks tablet – in the late afternoon one teaspoonful of Bovril Pemmican and at nightfall one dip of rusty water. On the 15 September we saw something on the horizon and thought that rescue was near, then it became clear that the vessel was in fact a U-boat and was towing three lifeboats. he U-boat crew gave us some water and then released the lifeboats and told us to stay together as they had used their radio to inform a rescue ship of our position. This U-boat was later identified as U-156, the one which had sunk us and was commanded by Werner Hartenstein
The submarine left us and headed off with a lot of survivors on the deck as all the lifeboats were full. We saw the U-boat again later that day, now towing a further two lifeboats but this was some distance away. We learnt subsequently that the U-boat Captain had sent a plain message in English to the effect that ‘If any ships will assist the shipwrecked crew of the Laconia I will not attack her, providing that I am not attacked by ships or aircraft. I have 193 survivors on board.’
On 16 September U-506 and U-507, together with the Italian submarine Cappellini joined in the rescue operation. The U-156 had 260 men, plus those in the three lifeboats she was now towing, and a white sheet painted with the Red Cross was also displayed. Despite this US aircraft came over and bombed the submarine, killing some of the survivors. U-156 then cut the tow and submerged slowly to give those still on the deck a chance to get into the water. Later on we heard that U-507 had also been bombed and the captain put as many of the 142 survivors into lifeboats as he could.
On 17 September a ship approached. She turned out to be the Vichy French cruiser Gloire; manned by German officers and accompanied by two other ships – Annamite and Dumont d`Urville. At last we were picked up, taken to Casablanca and there handed over to the Germans as prisoners of war.
Taken then to a place called Mediouna, we awaited transport to a prison camp in Germany. Luckily for us the Allied invasion of North Africa was mounted and we were liberated and then taken aboard the invasion ship Anton, bound for the United States, from where I returned to the UK. I worked as an Able Seaman aboard the Dutch ship Westernland (owned by the Holland-America Line).
The saying that ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ has often struck me when thinking about the 1,600, who perished by explosion, sharks and drowning, together with the four U-boats, three enemy warships searching for survivors while our own allies bombed us!
The commander of U-156, Werner Hartenstein was in command of this boat from September 1941 until 8 March 1943 when she was sunk with the loss of all 53 crew by depth charges dropped by a US Catalina aircraft east of Barbados. During his service Hartenstein sank 19 ships for a total of 92,000 tons and was awarded the Knights’ Cross.
Captain Sharp, who was lost with this ship, was also the Master of the Lancastria which was sunk in June 1940 with the loss of over 3,000 servicemen and crew. She was bombed off Saint Nazaire while evacuating troops from France.
Scottish Priest’s Heroism
In July 1940 the story of one man’s heroism on the day Lancastria sank was highlighted in The Scotsman newspaper. The text of Father Charles McMenemy’s heroic effort is carried below. Father McMenemy passed away in 1976. – Additional photographs and background courtesy of Siobhan Daly and the Edmundian Association.
July 1940 – Courtesy of The Scotsman newspaper
SCOTTISH PRIEST’S HEROISM
ASSISTED SOLDIERS ON LANCASTRIA
The heroism of a Scottish Roman Catholic chaplain during the sinking of the Lancastria in mid-June was described yesterday by a fellow priest in London.
He is 35-year-old Father Charles McMenemy, who was for seven years curate at the Blessed Sacrament Church, West Islington, under Dean William Attree.
The Dean said to a reporter yesterday:
“Father McMenemy helped in getting the men onto the tugs and French lighters when the Lancastria was bombed and sunk off the coast of Brittany. He led men through the bottom of the ship to some kind of exit at the side about six feet above the water and made them remove their heavy clothing before they jumped. To one Sergeant Major who could not swim he gave his own lifebelt. The Sergeant Major was saved.
“Father McMenemy was one of four or five Catholic chaplains on board. He is a very strong swimmer and was picked up after three quarters of an hour in the water.”
Son of Mrs McMenemy and of the late Mr Thomas McMenemy a Glasgow merchant, Father McMenemy was ordained at St. Edmund’s College, Ware, 11 years ago. He was Chaplain to Wormwood Scrubs Prison for four years until his appointment as a chaplain to the forces. He is now with an anti-aircraft unit in Northern England.
Charles Edward McMenemy wrote the following letter from France, in World War II, to his sister Aileen and her husband Ernest.
November 16th 1939
Dear Aileen and Ernie
This, with reasonable luck, ought to reach you within four or five days, so I will wish you, Aileen, all good wishes for your birthday, and many happy returns of the day. I’m afraid I’m rather late in writing, but there has not been very much opportunity. First there was the long journey to get here, and now I find my day pretty well filled up. But I’d better start from the beginning. There was some delay in leaving England owing to getting our transport away before getting on board ourselves. Then when we arrived in France there was a long road journey, broken constantly for further instructions. Finally we reached our destination and we are now “somewhere”. Just where I’m afraid I can’t tell you for obvious reasons. All I can say is that things are very quiet. There has been practically nothing in the way of excitement.
We had a most wonderful journey through France. Scenery varied considerably, but everywhere we saw the really wonderful colouring of autumn. I don’t know whether it is my imagination or not but everything seems much later here. It is still a joy to see the countryside. The weather has been very strange. At first it was horribly cold, then it started raining, and then there came a very warm period with lots of sunshine. Now, unfortunately, it has turned very cold again with continuous rain. There is also plenty of mud of a peculiarly sticky nature. Than goodness I bought some gum boots before leaving England.
My main job is a most peculiar one. I have men scattered all over the countryside. Three here, ten there, thirty in another place. As a result I am out every morning until the evening visiting them, arranging for them to get to mass – there we are fortunate for we use the French churches – and dealing with all the little problems that come into a chaplain’s day. My “parish” is about a hundred miles long and eighty miles wide. The result is – I now drive a car. I began to learn about three weeks ago, and already I have covered great distances under my own steam! There have been no accidents yet, though occasionally I stop on the way up hills and going round corners!
There are other jobs which have fallen to my lot. I am doing the censoring of letter here at Headquarters and I am also looking after the Officer’s Mess. I don’t think I shall really develop into a first class housekeeper. Each morning is a horror. I arrange meals – and foods – in French is an absolute nightmare. My French at its best is sketchy. When technical terms creep in it’s just hopeless! Still it’s not bad fun.
Last week we succeeded in getting a wireless set, so now we listen in to England. This brings a little touch of home into our lives, and altogether we are not at all badly off. The only discomfort is the lack of news about things and people we know. There is an appalling delay in the arrival of letters from home. I had one from Fr. Altree which took just on three weeks to arrive, and one from Mother which took just over a week. Do write when you get this. I shall try to write regularly now that the “settling-in” stage has passed.
We are only a small part here. There is the Brigadier, an awfully decent fellow, the Brigade Major and the Staff Captain, both good fellows. These two and I are beginning to be called the Three Musketeers. There are two other officers also billeted with us – both sound lads.
Our billet is very comfortable. A large private house which has central heating and constant hot water, one does not appreciate that fully until one has sampled the mud of France. I got stuck in it the other day, and when I went in search of help – the first three Frenchmen I met were Poles – all my good French sentences so carefully prepared were quite wasted! To-day I quite frankly gave up. I set off this morning meaning to do a big round, but only managed two places. Then the rain got so thick and the roads so bad that I came back while I could.
This is a most scrappy letter, I’m afraid, but it really is awfully difficult to write coherently. I can’t tell you where we are, or in what part of the country or anything or anything at all interesting. It is a perfect waste of splendid material! So I have just have to put down anything that comes into my head – after censoring it mentally first!
There have been one or two strange meetings. On my way through France I met Fr. Savage who lives next door to me in London and who was at school with me. I also met a man whom I last saw in Inverness three years ago, a young Airman to whom I taught Catechism ten years ago, and a lad who left St Edmund’s in 1937. As time goes on I suppose I shall meet more.
I’m not going to ask you to send anything out to me. We get 50 cigarettes every week, and in any case they are very plentiful and very cheap. As for the other comforts of life – well I seem to have provided myself with them before starting. Literature is rather a problem, but we share what novels we have and there isn’t a lot of time yet for reading.
Now I am really stuck for something to write about. I won’t ask you any questions about London. You will probably give me all the news when you write.
Good-bye for the time being. My love to you both.
Your affectionate brother
Born in 1904 Charles Edward was always know in the family as Teddie. He was quite young when he left the family home to study at St Edmund’s.
He was ordained at St Edmund’s College, Ware on June 29th, 1929.
Father Teddie served as an army chaplain during the Second World War. Soon after the outbreak of hostilities he was serving in the thick mud of France, thankful for his recent purchase of gumboots. He was not the prolific writer that his father was
His “parish” was spread along a front of about one hundred miles, and was eighty miles deep. Visiting his flock forced him to learn how to drive.
He was billeted in a large private house with central heating and hot and cold running water which he obviously appreciated against the backdrop of cold, wet mud
In 1940 the troop ship Lancastria was bombed and sunk. The newspapers of the time picked up the story.
Extract from William Hickey column in the “Daily Express” (Thursday, August 15th 1940):
Hero in Orders
“Lists of those missing from the Lancastria have not yet been issued- 2 months after the sinking; I am sorry that I cannot check, from the War Office or the Red Cross, the name of the hero of the following episode, or if he survived.
Miss J Harding of Bromley, Kent, tells me the story thus:-
“… My brother, an RAF sergeant, was one of the airmen at the bottom of the ship when she was hit. The companionways were crammed with troops, and it seemed as though the men down below were doomed.
A sergeant-major, my brother and several others standing together were approached by an Army chaplain, who quietly told them to put their faith in God and follow him. He led them through the bottom of the ship to some kind of exit in the side, about 6 ft. above the water. Then he made them remove their heavy clothing before they jumped.”
The sergeant-major could not swim, so the chaplain took off his own lifebelt and handed it to him with the words that he would not need it, for if God willed he could come through alive.
They jumped, and that was the last my brother saw of the chaplain. The sergeant-major was rescued with my brother… My brother joins with me in the heartfelt prayer that the chaplain was among the rescued.”
Extract from William Hickey column in the “Daily Express” (Monday, August 19th 1940):
The chaplain whose heroism aboard the sinking Lancastria I described the other day has been Identified.
He is Fr. Charles McMenemy formerly Roman Catholic chaplain at Wormwood Scrubs prison.
He is a fine athlete, a rugger-player and swimmer. The man he gave his lifebelt to was a non-swimmer. “I knew I should be good for an hour in the water,” he says. A boat picked him up when he had been swimming for about three-quarters of an hour.
He is now with an AA regiment in the North of England
After the war he continued his pastoral work. In 1946 he became parish priest at the Church of the English Martyrs at Wembley Park. It was a small parish and he built it up to the point that the old wooden church was no longer adequate for the needs of the rapidly growing community. In 1963 it was decided that a new church should be built, however it was 1969 before the construction started. On July 8th, 1970 the first Mass was concelebrated in the new Church by Father Teddie and all the priests who had been ordained with him at St Edmund’s College back in 1929. In May the following year Cardinal Heenan formerly opened and blessed the church.
The years of hard work and worries of running a parish took their toll. Father Teddie was unwell. On January 21st 1976, he collapsed and died while going on holiday to Edinburgh. When the news reached London, the parish was stunned. His funeral was held at his parish, concelebrated by more than a dozen priests and with the church full to overflowing.
Geoffrey Bond in his book “Lancastria” writes of Father McMenemy:
Captain Charles McMenemy, an army padre aboard the Lancastria had a certain cherished possession which he had succeeded in carrying through the French campaign. It was with him in his cabin, two decks down and second from the barbers shop. This was a pale blue Li-Lo, the epitome of comfort on a summers afternoon, basking on the beach or floating leisurely across a private swimming pool. But it was not destined for any such use on that June day. At the hour when Kensington dowagers were beginning to think, not of war, but of their afternoon cups of tea the padre picked his Li-Lo off the cabin floor, where it had been laid in readiness for a nap after a much needed shave.
At first it felt as if a heavy gun in the stern had fired twice, but when a strong smell of explosive pervaded the cabin and the ship rolled clumsily it was apparent what had happened.
The padre made his way through the corridor. Here the situation was amazingly calm, in direct contrast to what was happening elsewhere at the time. About three hundred troops packed the alleyway. They were cool and unruffled, though every man must have realised the threat of those bone-shaking thuds. Marshalled by an officer the men filed quietly up a companionway and on to the deck; each one waiting his turn as if in a rush-hour bus queue.
Soon the corridor was almost clear. One soldier had become hysterical and been bundled into a cabin in order to stop the mental infection spreading and developing into a disastrous stampede. But the youth soon recovered and was helped by understanding companions up to the deck. On the way McMenemy saw two men without lifebelts. The padre himself had not claimed an ordinary issue one, for he was a strong swimmer and now as he saw the pair hesitating he crossed to speak to them.
‘Can you chaps swim?’ he asked. They glanced uneasily at the water and shook their heads. ‘Take this then,’ the padre held out the incongruous, pale blue Li-Lo. ‘Get into the sea and climb on it. You’ll be all right.’
‘Oh thank you sir. But what about you?’
‘Don’t worry about me. I’ll be safe enough. If God wills many others will be too.’
In his quiet, sincere way he gave them a blessing, watched them go, then turned to move on along the crowded deck. McMenemy saw a strange sight. A solitary figure dressed in full service marching order was standing rigidly to attention in all that mob of jostling, half clad figures. The padre came up to the man and recognised him as a private in the Pioneer Corps. The soldier saluted and then his homely face broke into a broad grin, bewilderment giving way to confidence at sight of the officers cloth.
‘Thank God you’re here sir,’ the voice was rich with the brogue of Southern Ireland. ‘What shall I do now?’
McMenemy looked at the man, quite unable, despite a straight face, to keep his eyes from twinkling with amusement. ‘Can you swim?’ he asked for the second time in five minutes. The private nodded and his helmet tipped at a rakish angle over his freckled snub nose.
‘Then get into the water and swim clear of the ship before she finally goes under, advised the padre, ‘But if I were you I’d take my boots off first!’
The deck was ankle deep in water and listing badly to port. Padre McMenemy joined a member of the ships crew and another soldier in trying to free one of the rafts which was still secured. However the wooden structure was cluttered up with sundry equipment piled high upon it and this had to be slung off before the mooring ropes could be reached and loosened. Although the trio worked hard and fast the water was soon rippling over their hands, swelling the knots until they were impossible to unravel. The sailor was the first to go, making for the side and disappearing into the crowded sea. The other two exchanged a glance. There would be no getting the raft away now. The water had won. Together they walked to the side. There was no need to jump. They stepped over and began to swim. The padre survived.
later again in the book, no mention of Father McMenemy, but this extract reads:
“Four soldiers, each holding one corner of a pale-blue Li-Lo were paddling away nearby. On the inflated rubber cushion lay a wounded sergeant major. The dark stains on the pale-blue rubber were not those of oil.”
There is another unnamed reference to a padre, which may or may not be Father McMenemy:
Company Quartermaster Sergeant Johnson, of 663 Artisan Works Company Royal Engineers had slid down the side of the Lancastria and was soon clinging to a baulk of timber, on the other end of which there chanced to be an army padre, still wearing his traditional dog-collar. The pair hung on, not speaking, and drifted with the tide, until a German plane swept low overhead, machine guns blazing.
The Chaplin ducked, then looked up, cursing quietly towards a rear gunner who was easily visible in his turret. ‘You bastards!’ the padre remarked with feeling. ‘Thank God you’re human, sir’ Johnson said and, comrades in the face of adversity, they drifted on.
Captain Charles McMenemy had succeeded in reaching a French tug and on it spent the remainder of the evening helping to pull people from the sea as the boat cruised slowly backwards and forwards, finally dropping off the survivors alongside the destroyer Highlander. One survivor he recognised immediately despite the oil which coated the body. Gunner Tindall (left) and the padre had originally gone to the same school, then lost touch with one another. Neither were they to re-establish contact, for the private was very seriously wounded and died that same night.”
The tug must have picked up five or six hundred but it was grisly work with less than an even chance of survival for so many. The toll rose even higher. Drowned, shot choked by oil. McMenemy happened to look down and saw another familiar face in the water. It had been his duty to read so many letters, censoring them for any incautious statements. Sergeant Burke’s letters had never presented any problem, but it would be no pleasant task to write to his widow, or call later to see the children.
Finally they are transported to the Oronsay from the highlander:
Late that evening, Padre Charles McMenemy came aboard. One of the first people to speak to him on deck was the Irishman who, several hours ago, had dived into the sea full kit. The man was still completely dressed and equipped save for his helmet. There was no mistaking that snub nose and caricature of a long upper lip. ‘So you made it, Mike?’ smiled the padre. ‘Good for you’. Then he turned in mock severity. ‘But whatever happened to your tin hat?’
‘Well now father,’ the Irishman responded warmly ‘Was like this. It must have fallen into the water when I jumped overboard. Should be in South America by now. But I’ll not let it happen again!’