From a conversation with my father and when I visited him on 20th August 2005. At times he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry telling us this. He died on 18th June 2009, 69 years and one day after he could so nearly have lost his life in 1940. Although he had often referred in passing to his experience this was the first time I had heard him recount the events so clearly, and I set them down later that evening.
“I was an Irish soldier fighting for the allies in France in the East Kent Regiment, known as ‘the Buffs’. Three weeks after D Day I was still there and I was evacuated on the ‘Lancastria’. About five thousand soldiers and others were put on there.
When I was marching with my platoon across France to get to St Nazaire, where the ship was waiting, we were frequently ordered to ‘Halt and fall out!’ to make way for others to go past. At the time I was really worried that the ship would be full up by the time we got there, and I kept wondering why are they letting them go ahead of us?
However when I got to the ship I was really glad as they had all had to go deep below decks. The sergeant majors were saying things like ‘It’s safer the lower down you go, down you go!’ Nobody believed them. When I boarded a soldier said to me ‘We’re going to sail at four o’clock’. I didn’t believe him, but he said ‘No it’s true – I bet you twenty Players we are!’
I found a space on the deck. Then the German bombers began attacking the ship. One bomb went down the funnel and the ship started listing very quickly – and started sinking. I took off my heavy army boots and some other garments because I knew I would have to jump into the sea. You have to remember the Lancastria was a very big ship, and when a ship like that sinks, so quickly, there is an awful lot of panic and chaos. I took off my tin hat, but then the German planes were gunning the ship as well as the men who were already in the water, so I put it back on. I could hear the bullets ‘zinging’ past me and hitting the metal of the ship.
As the ship was beginning to sink and people were shouting and panicking, me and another soldier noticed that one of the lifeboats was tangled up. But we realised that as the ship listed over the lifeboat would get nearer and nearer the water. So we cut the ropes to release the lifeboat and it dropped into the water. Then we had a problem. Although we had climbed into the boat to cut the ropes and let it fall, when it hit the water there were so many people already in the sea, and they all tried to clamber on board and the thing capsized. Those of us that could climbed on the upturned hull. Then we thought that if it did right itself it would fill with water and sink, so we kept having to move this way and that, all together, to stop the boat turning over again.
While I was on the boat I saw the man who had said the ship was going to sail at four o’clock. He was covered in oil and soot – hardly recognisable, and he was waving at me, shouting across the water, ‘I owe you twenty Players mate!’.
Meanwhile the German planes were shooting machine guns all around. Eventually the lifeboat was towed back to St Nazaire harbour. I was naked and cold and they found me some clothes. I walked along the harbour looking for a boat that could take me back to England. Most of them were full but I found one that had some room. It was an old pleasure steamer commissioned to help with the evacuation. All I remember is going to sit by the engine to warm up. It did set sail, but then went back to join a convoy where it would get some protection from allied airplanes. I was so tired that once I had warmed up I just lay on the deck while the German planes were everywhere. I could see the tracer bullets. But by this stage I almost didn’t care any more and I just lay there and fell asleep. When I woke up it was daytime. Sometimes I think I’m the luckiest man alive.
We got back to England and I went to a camp in Wiltshire. I remember finding some new uniform to wear from piles of clothes. They told us just to help ourselves and I ended up with a pair of RAF trousers, and a big trench coat. Then we went to London to be registered, counted and sent back to where we belonged. I remember they let us sleep to 11 o’clock the next morning which was pretty unusual in the Army.
In London I met up with two other soldiers, one was Welsh and one was Scottish, that’s it, an Irishman, a Welshman and a Scotsman! We all said we were in the Fusiliers, which meant they let us leave, and I went to stay with my sister in Hounslow for one night. Technically I was AWOL but I went back the next day and got sent back to my Regiment.
The sinking was covered up; Churchill didn’t want it coming out.”