This story was submitted to the People’s War website by Sandra Beckett on behalf of Neville Chesterton, the author, and has been added to the site with his/her permission. The author fully understands the site’s terms and condition.
We had never heard about the evacuation from Dunkirk, as we were further down in S.W. France. A week or two after, as it happened, our unit was camped in a field near a village, where we were told there was a cinema. I went off with a pal and found it, there were very few people inside and nobody about outside. When we got back to camp we were told to be ready to move out early in the morning. At about five o’clock we were lined up ready, except for my pal Derek Bennet who arrived on parade half-shaved, with his pack on upside-down. Then there was a delay, as the Captain could not find his steel helmet. We did not know it then, but that delay probably saved our lives.
We marched off and soon came on some deserted trucks, which some chaps were told to get in and drive. As they were only used to driving motor-cycles, it was a very jerky journey. We were told to keep heading towards the coast. German planes flew over us in the same directions, but ignored us.
At about mid-day we arrived at the port of St Nazaire, and found the whole place in chaos, being continually bombed. On the main jetty we saw lines of soldiers’ uniform coats and jackets, which were being regularly strafed by German planes, thinking they were men. We went on and found a smaller jetty, where there was a French fishing boat, which offered to take us out to a big liner out in the bay. Bombs fell all round us, splashing into the water, but we were not hit. After a hair-raising trip, we got alongside the liner, which was called the “Lancastria”. We were just about to get on to the gangway when an officer shouted to us and keep off, as it was already overloaded, with about 9,000 people — civilians, soldiers, women and children!
With sinking hearts we pulled away, and headed for another big liner, but almost immediately four bombs fell on the “Lancastria” one going down a funnel. It began to keel over and sink, and there was not a hope for most of the people on board. There were people in the oil-covered water crying for help, it was a terrible sight. It was said afterwards that singing could be heard coming out of the hull as it sank — “Roll out the Barrel”. Over 5,000 lost their lives. It was the worst sea disaster ever known, and Churchill would not allow the news of it to come out, as there had been so many other disasters at that time. I could mention that I saw people being machine-gunned whilst in the water and drowning.
We made our way over to the “Oronsay”, a 20,000 ton liner and this had also been bombed. The bridge had been blown away, and the engines were not working. Although bombs were still falling all round, and it was still being machine-gunned, we got on board, still lucky not to be hit, it was a miracle the shop did not sink.
The wonderful crew eventually got one engine working and they rigged up manual steering from the stern, and we got moving as dusk fell. We limped away slowly across the Bay of Biscay, committing the head to the deep as we went. It was a very dangerous area for submarines and E-Boats, but we eventually got to Falmouth, with a bad list to the starboard. The wounded were put ashore on Falmouth, and then we went off to Plymouth and then to Liverpool.
In Liverpool, there were hundreds of people cheering us in at the Docks, and one man had brought a lorry full of fish and chips for us
I made my way back home to Wednesbury, Staffs, for 48 hours leave. Nobody believed what I told them because it had never been made public. France capitulated the next day, 17th June, 1940. I had just turned 20.