I had the good fortune to have survived the greatest sea disaster of the World War 2 (1939-45) and also in the history of the British Merchant Marine when the ship in which I was a crewmember of was bombed and sunk, with the loss of over 5,000 casualties. Death and destruction came crashing down from the sky from enemy dive-bombers during the evacuation of France, June 17,1940.
I do not wish to elaborate at this time, as it is quite a long story, so I will try and be brief: During the months of May and June 1940, the whole of Europe and Britain was in turmoil. The situation was looking grim in Britain and there was a strange atmosphere with lots of excitement and activity going on when Churchill announced over the Radio that all British citizens and armed forces where to be evacuated from France. In order to accomplish this, every ship and seaman available was needed.
I had only been paid-off from my last ship in Avonmouth the day before after a trip from Montreal. I had arrived back in Liverpool with the intention of joining all of the C.P’s on the same run when the Cunard Shipping Master arrived in the pub looking all excited asking for crew to join the Lancastria. I agreed without hesitation. I signed on, as quartermaster as my gear was still packed it did not take me any time before I was down on the Sandon Lock scrambling aboard. I had not been aboard more than 10 minutes when I was detailed to the middle watch, the 12 noon to 4 PM. As it was 2 PM I had to relieve my watch mate at the wheel. It seemed that everyone was in a hurry rushing around. Before I realized it we were out of the lock and heading down the River Mersey to the Bar lightship, then on to the Port of Plymouth on the south coast for orders.
Little did I realize at the time, that I was about to do the shortest voyage of my sea going career and within a couple of days, I would be experiencing the longest day of my life.
On arriving in Plymouth, we dropped anchor. Within an hour we were hauling up the hook with orders to proceed to the port of Brest, France. We were to evacuate as many of our people as possible. On arriving late at night, we found the enemy had captured the town of Brest, so we did a quick turn around with orders to proceed to the port of St. Nazaire, in the Bay of Biscay. While steaming down the coast in the company of two other ships, the Franconia and the Oronsay, a P.O. ship, having just finished my 4 a.m. watch, daylight was breaking. I was admiring the dawn with the sun coming up; when out of the east came this flight of dive-bombers, dropping their bombs between the three ships. They missed the Oronsay, our sister ship, the Franconia was not so lucky, she was damaged and she had to stop. The Franconia managed to make it back to England. We took a couple of near misses, which shook us up, but no damage, and carried on. We anchored about 5 miles off the port of St. Nazaire, around 7 a.m. and immediately began taking every person we could. Our passengers were women, children, army and air force personnel, including our allies due to the emergency.
There was no such an option as off watch, so sleep was out of the question, helping out wherever we could was essential. While the embarkation was going on enemy planes were still attacking us. Around 3 p.m. I was back up on the bridge on watch. The captain told me to go down and check with the 2nd mate on the gangway of the number of people who had boarded. His estimate was over 7,000 not including the crewmembers, which totalled 450.
On the bridge at that time was Captain Sharp. The Chief Officer Mr. Grattidge, 1st Officer, Mr. Roberts and myself, standing by the wheel believing that we were about to get underway. However, the Captain was waiting for an escort, as not only had we been under attack most of the day but had also been advised that there were German U-boats in the area.
At 3:30 PM the 1st Officer believing that it would be some time before our escort would arrive for me to call our relief the 4 to 8 watch. This is a normal ship’s routine. I was no sooner down in the crew quarters when the first bomb struck crashing down number 2 hatch, were over a 1,000 air force people had been stationed, I doubt if any survived.
The explosion threw me away up the far end of the working alleyway, landing a short distance from the forward scuttle, which leads on to the fore deck. This was blocked by one of our crewmembers that had been wounded. I helped him on to the fore deck as people where scrambling all over him.
I got back to the bridge where the Chief Officer was giving the bosun the order to clear away the lifeboats and have them swung out. The deck gang was already working on the starboard boats. When the next attack struck machine gunning the bridge, killing the 1st Officer and the bosun. The Chief Officer and I ducked behind the forward part of the bridge rail; the next strike came almost immediately.
A dive-bomber flying just above the fore mast dropping three huge bombs. The first seemed to have gone down the funnel, the second amidships, and the third one on the after deck. These bombs no doubt blew out the ship’s side and ruptured the fuel tanks, which released the bunker oil.
The ship took a sharp list to the starboard, making almost impossible to keep our feet. The Chief Officer and I had to hold on to the bridge rail and it was an almost impossibility for the deck crew to lower the boats as the boats fall where jammed. But they did manage to get 2 away. The ship was sinking fast (in fact she sank within 20 minutes). And had turned over on to her port side. The Captain gave the order to abandon ship, the Chief Officer and I was still holding on to the bridge rail, he turned to me, telling me, “she is going quartermaster and you had better go.”
I scrambled down on to the boat deck with the intention of helping clear the fall on one of the boats, but it was a hopeless situation. I then took out my sheath knife and cut away my clothes and boots and jumped over the side.
I had spotted ships hatch board some distance away and I managed to grab hold of it. Two soldiers had the same idea and we all held on to it, just to keep afloat. We were pushing and struggling to get away from the ship and the suction was strong, with the ship going down fast. Also, the bunker oil was spreading all over, which we could not escape.
At the same time the German b******s were machine gunning and dropping incendiary bombs, trying to set the oil on fire, which caused many more casualties. Our only defence was the gunfire from the destroyers and other ships until a squadron of our fighter planes came on the scene. Unfortunately, my 2 soldier companions on the hatch were hit during these attacks and drifted away. By this time, I was beginning to feel exhausted and very cold. The struggling was taking its toll. I was finding it hard to hold on to the hatch board and prayed. I firmly believe that the Good Lord answered my prayers, which gave me the energy to hold on. I was losing track of time although there were ships running back and forth picking up survivors.
Along came a lovely sight the destroyer, H.M.S. Highlander, who had been doing a tremendous job not only putting a strong defence but also picking up survivors. They had spotted me and before I knew it I was being hauled aboard. It was hard to express my relief; one of the crew wrapped me in a naval blanket, which helped to stop the shaking with relief and the drink he gave me, sure put life back into me!
After a short period of time they transferred many of us survivors on to a trawler H.M.S. Cambridgeshire. We were in turn transferred on to a cargo ship, S.S. John Holt, which was already loaded down with hundreds of survivors and many badly wounded. Unfortunately, many did not make it back to England.
We arrived back in Plymouth late at night. The whole town seemed to be out to meet us. They did a wonderful job of cleaning and patching us up, etc.
The following day, the Cunard staff took over gathering together what remained of the crew, put us on a train to Liverpool, where we had signed on. The management had asked me many questions and I gave them a statement. A week later, I was heading back home to Montreal, I had signed on the Duchess of Atholl, as crew, it was another evacuation job, taking children from Liverpool to Canada. On my second voyage arriving back in Montreal, there was a telegram waiting for me from the Canadian Navy, asking me to report in uniform which I did, that was August 19, 1940.
Over the next 5 years of the war, I had lots of experiences, but nothing compared to the close call and the awful tragedy of June 17, 1940. This was without a doubt the longest day of my life and I am still living it sixty years later.
A FEW NOTES:
These pictures which were taken by Frank Clements, a crewmember of the H.M.S. Highlander, was the person who wrapped me in a blanket, this was the only picture taken of the Lancastria disaster.
There has been the question of numbers of people who perished in the tragedy. There have been various numbers published. I believe that the number given to me to pass on to the captain by the 2nd mate is reliable. As stated there were over 7,000, plus 450 crew. As for the number of survivors, I would not know, and I do not suppose anyone will ever know.
The present day survivors still around the last number given to me was 125, ex army and air force and I was advised some time ago that I am the last surviving crew member.
Editors Note: Two crewman Bill Hughes from Derbyshire and Andrew Lockett from Liverpool thankfully remain alive.
Mick Sheehan, A Conversation
by Sarah Irwin, Mick’s niece, who gave Mick’s eulogy in September 2007
Driving over to Canada on a Saturday afternoon, you’d hear Uncle Mick greet you at the door, “Hello Dear.” You’d walk in, pass off a case of Labatt’s Blue, and settle down for a drink and a chat. In the summer, it would be out on the porch- in the winter – beside the warmth of his stovetop fire. But, ultimately, once the events of the week had been discussed, the conversation would take on a familiar cadence. Uncle Mick would sit back and start to talk, and soon you’d slip into — a conversation. It would be about his memories and his experiences.. and you’d find yourself walking right into his past. Whether it’d be stories of sailing all the way around the world, the Old Country, his family and friends or his famed days during world war 2, quickly and vividly these chapters of Uncle Mick’s unique and unmatched life became real as you sat and you listened to him… on Ramlee Road.
His native port of Liverpool with its hustle and bustle was the backdrop for Uncle Mick’s earliest years. The image of a young man – aged 13 – running off to sea was painted through his words. He’d say, “those were hard days…” “…we had a hard life”.. but then, he’d smile. He’d recall finding oranges on the ships that had returned from Africa’s furthest reaches or standing out on the deck and being guided by just the stars of the night. He’d tell you about how although he’d have worked all day cleaning the deck or scrubbing the hull, he’d then sit up at night and learn to read and write from those older than him on the ship. He’d speak with such remembrance and detail that you could see him…young, and tired and trying…and at home on the sea.
It was John F. Kennedy who once wrote — “We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch it we are going back from whence we came.” For Uncle Mick, the sea was always in his soul and whether it be his early days on the trawlers, his days at war or working for the shipman’s union, the sea never really left him. Now, we celebrate Uncle Mick’s final voyage and we remember a much loved father, friend, brother and uncle as he sets sail towards heaven…
We remember Michael Joseph Sheehan, born on March 1st, 1915, in Liverpool, England, as a man of conviction, character, faith to the Church and devotion to his family and his friends. He was man of perseverance and endurance – he never backed away from a challenge and instead chose to live life to its fullest each and every day of his 92 years. And anyone who knew Mick – or even just encountered him – would agree, he lived those 92 years with a style that was utterly unto his own.
As a man of conviction, Mick stood up for what he believed in. In recent years, this meant knocking on the doors of his local MP’s to inform them that the rights of seniors were being ignored – or as Mick would say, “the b******s are on the take.” Needless to say, after several of Mick’s visits, the MPs could do anything but ignore him.
It was in his earlier days though, that Mick’s drive to fight for what he believed in led him to the Supreme Court – as he would tell you, “I went to the Supreme Court of Canada,” he’d say, “…more than anyone else,” he’d say “and… I… won.” Uncle Mick, one of the founders of the seaman’s union here in Canada, fought for seamen’s rights and against discrimination in the courts. Spending years on what he believed, he showed how to never back down from a fight and that there is something such as a personal conviction. Uncle Mick knew he could and should bring about change and that’s what he did.
Mick was also a man of unfaltering faith. A member of St. Alfred’s Church, he never missed mass. He’d drive himself, walk right up to the front of the Church- and was never late… His faith was a constant, guiding force in his life, and he used it to help chart his course…
And over his life, he cherished and possessed a great sense of pride for his family and friends. Mick was a loyal and devoted father, grandfather, friend, brother and uncle. Evident of this and ever the imminent storyteller, Mick would fondly tell stories about his family- be it family in Canada, the U.S. or the U.K. – just like he would tell tales of his early days on the high seas. Mick’s stories showed how much his children- Jimmy, Tommy and Eileen meant to him… as well as his grandchildren and late wife, Grace. He’d talk about all his extended family in England and the days with his sisters Mary, Sally and Nellie and his brother Jimmy…and he’d remember all the friends he had — and stayed in touch with –who spread around the world – from here in St. Catharines—to England and Scotland—all the way to Australia, New Zealand, and beyond.
And so we reflect on the unique story of Michael Sheehan’s life.
But in this reflection, another deep and defining chapter in the story of Mick’s remarkable life arises. It was the chapter that I believed solidified his very character- for through his innate conviction, faith and sense of family and friends– he was able to endure and survive… and go on to inspire us all …with his story of that fateful day of June 17th, 1940.
Uncle Mick would take you back with his words like you were there in the middle of World War 2 with him. He’d say, how calm the water was off the coast of St. Nazaire, France that day…and how there were thousands and thousands of people loaded on his ship, the lancastria.
Mick, the Lancastria’s quartermaster, had quickly realized her demise. They had been bombed by the Germans and as he put it they “were going down fast.” He’d worked to save souls, he saw the brutality and hatred of war…but he persevered as the Germans continued to attack.
He finally ended up in the water and kicked for his life. And at this moment his showed his utter commitment to his faith. He always said “I prayed to the Virgin Mary” and as the 2 soldiers on either side of him were killed, he kept on kicking…
Uncle Mick always maintained that more than 5000 souls perished on that terrible day—and he never forgot the sacrifice of his comrades who didn’t return with him home.
And yet- Uncle Mick took even more from this experience… He never forgot how lucky he was to have a full and much lived life…—he never forgot how lucky he was to have his strong faith and the ability to tell others about his witness to history…and he never forgot how lucky he was to have his family and friends.
So, it is with this same sense of gratefulness and gratitude that we are brought here now to celebrate Michael Sheehan’s much lived and much appreciated life.
We cherish the love and the wisdom that he gave us.
We remember how lucky we are to have had Michael Sheehan in our lives–as our family, our friend, our storyteller, our lifelong Liverpool supporter.
And, we say, Uncle Mick, we will miss you so very dearly, but we will never forget…
You taught us so much.
So, as you make your last, long journey, we can be confident…confident that you now rejoin all your family and friends who meant so much to you and have gone before us…and… You’ll never walk alone.