We will remember them

Percy Brown

Percy (Pib) Brown, passed away on the 22nd of September 2007. He was a big character in 663 and will be sorely missed by comrades and members of the Association. His contribution to the story of the Lancastria and that forgotten tragedy is immeasurable. Rest in peace Pib.

“To quote comedian Rob Wilton, “The day war broke out” my wife and I had just celebrated two years of wedded bliss. Things were going nicely; I had been employed as an electrician for eight years and had just reached the rate for the job, top London rate, one shilling and 10 pence three farthings an hour, 9 1/2 pence in new money. Our first-born son Colin was ten days away from his first birthday and then we turned the radio on and heard that announcement by the Prime Minister “We are at war with Germany”. Within minutes the air raid sirens went for the first time, so up to the top of the garden where the Anderson shelter had been dug in ready for such an emergency, and would you believe it, it was Ml of water; but next door neighbours’ just 10 feet away was OK, but before we got in it the all clear went. “Never mind” I said to my family there’ll be other times. The next day, Monday, I went to work at Norbury; the phone kept ringing, jobs were being cancelled, no one seemed to know what was happening. I hung on for a couple of weeks and then the staff were being put off, the guv’nor said to the “I don’t know what to do about you, Percy”. I said not to bother I have a couple of jobs that I can get on with. So I got my cards with an hour’s pay in lieu of notice. My couple of jobs out of the way, I was at a loose end so I had to go down to Croydon and start to make inquiries, and the result was always the same, leave your name and address and we will be in touch.

One organisation did get in touch. These were the days when we got two postal deliveries a day, and one morning the first post at shortly after 7 o’ clock brought a reply from the Auxiliary Fire Service. Be at Park Lane, Croydon, fire station at 09.00 hours tomorrow with rations for twenty-four hours. After being greeted by an officer and getting a bit of the old blah-blah we were told to await further developments. Within the hour it was “Right, fall in outside”. We got “fell-in”, the roll was then called and when it came to fireman Brown, “Ah, fireman Brown you are wanted upstairs in the office”. Surely not promotion already; no it wasn’t that. Arrived at the office upstairs the news was, “We are sorry, you are in a reserved occupation and we are not allowed to enroll you in the AFS. Well now I have got to find a job, the rent 16/10 (84 pence new money) has to be paid so eventually I wind up with a job at Biggin Hill aerodrome. That lasts until 31st December 1939 when the job stops; I don’t think it was finished, just stopped; usual procedure for those employees; your cards and money with an hour’s pay in lieu of notice.

On the 5th January ‘401 called on my mate Steve Cummings in the next road, I had worked with him for a few years. “I’m going down to Mitcham Road barracks in the morning, do you want to come with me?” “Yes,” he said “but not to join”. “No that’s not the idea”. Anyway arrived at the barracks at 10 am, we came out at 12 am soldiers! “Can you go away today?” we were asked. “Can we go home first to tell our wives?” “Oh? alright, be here at 09.00 on the 9th”.

So on the 9th January we were again at the barracks, attestation papers, the King’s shilling and a rail warrant to Clapton-on-Sea, Butlin’s holiday camp! What a time to be at Butlin’s; we were told that it was prepared for German POWs but the few U-boat crews they had there complained that it was too cold. Believe that if you like; but there was enough barbed wire there when we arrived that I felt it could be true.

It was here that we first met CSM “Topper” Brown, an Army regular. “When you have been in the army for twenty-six years you can talk to me, and I’ll do you a favour, here’s a razor blade and for ——— sake use it”. Not really a nice man and certainly not typical of most NCOs that I came across later.

For the next seventeen days at Clapton we paraded the streets learning to drill and getting kitted out. We had a rifle and were drilled in the movement, port arms for inspection. When I carried out the movement I believe it was for friend “Topper”. He said “I cannot see down your barrel”. “Well you wouldn’t” says I, “it is full of grease”. He told me what to do about it in real Topperesque language.

The day before our departure from Clapton we were on parade and on the order “All men that can drive and hold a current license, one step forward”, I took one step forward and that’s how I did a quick change from electrician to driver, but I did keep my trade pay, and was given a 30 cwt Bedford truck. The following day we set off for Harwich, me with my truck loaded with ammunition for five companies of sappers. Loaded on to Harwich train ferry we left for France in a blizzard, accompanied by a lone Hurricane fighter; halfway across the pilot turned back and left us to it and shortly after a floating mine was sighted.

Some of the soldiers aboard -1 would later learn that they were DEMS – Defence Equipment Marine Service – opened fire on the mine with small arms fire but whether they sank it or not I wouldn’t know; it certainly didn’t explode.

Arrived at Calais we were marched into a Salvation Army hostel via the flap in the pavement -1 still ask myself, Why? – and fed with quite a reasonable meal and were bedded down for the night.

The next morning we set off for Nantes on the Loire river. Nantes is a really beautiful and historic city; in the past it had been closely associated with the slave trade, and when we, 663 Artisan Works Coy., Royal Engineers arrived they must have thought the good old times were back. We were put to work constructing camps for the multitude of service personnel that were being drafted into the area and also various building work and the RAF airfield at Bougenais which I believe is the airport which now serves Nantes.

In due course “Topper” moved on to be replaced by Sergeant-Major Miller, a different kettle offish entirely, very keen to make soldiers of us. After the day’s work was done, drill would take place and occasionally rifle practice. Five rounds grouping fire; one of my first efforts, accompanied by the CSM we marched up to the targets and arriving at mine Sergeant-Major said “I don’t know where yours went to”. “Neither do I, but they left my end alright”. “This isn’t funny” said Sergeant-Major.

Anyway the building work moved on apace and it wasn’t too long before someone realised that we needed bigger lorries, so it was maybe April when myself, sapper Brown and drivers Skeels and Springett were on route to Le Havre by train to collect three new Bedford three tonners; that’s Army rating; I often used to load seven or eight tons on mine.

Arriving back at Nantes we settled down to a steady routine of granite chippings and concrete blocks from Chateau Thebaud, a round trip of about 30 miles, sand from the Riverside in Nantes and clinker from the local sugar refinery. It was all hopper loading except of course the concrete blocks for which we each had three of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment as loading parties.

All is going swimmingly till early June when the traffic on the road suddenly begins to increase. The real army up there on the frontiers are in retreat.

Things begin to change; work ceases; Brown, Skeels and Springett with your three ton lorries proceed to Donaye, the other side of Nantes and report to some unit we had never heard of before. An officer instructed us to make ourselves comfortable but not to attempt to leave; the sentries have orders to open fire should you do so.
It is now the 15th June and we still don’t really have any idea of what is going on although we hear it on the grapevine that the Germans are at Le Mans. Anyway during the afternoon our three lorries are loaded, about 30 to each and we a ordered to drive to St Nazaire, off-load and return. This we did, at least the part about St Nazaire, then we went into a huddle and decided to return to a own unit.

Of course it is by now quite dark and we moved off, headlights blazing, and were stopped by the “red caps”. “Turn off those lights and leave them off or you will have them shot out”. Jimmy Skeels being the youngest and without doubt the most experienced driver took the lead followed by myself with Springett bringing up the rear. Myself and Springett weren’t too bad as we had our convoy light shining unto the white-painted differential of the back axle but how Jimmy led us back to the unit to arrive at about 3 am I never ceased to wonder.

About midday we get fell in again and the CO announces that we are to return to the U K. So the lorries a loaded again and we set off again to St Nazaire. I think the flood of refugees must have been well ahead of us because, if memory serves me correctly, the drive there wasn’t too bad.

We are told to drive all vehicles on to the open fields outside the town, do what we can to damage them, a pickaxe through the radiator, brick on the accelerator and leave the engine running. Then it was pick up your gear and start marching. There were a number of sporadic raids by the Luftwaffe so from time to time we had to take what cover we could. I recall that the local population were somewhat hostile but my French was not sufficiently good to know what they really thought of their allies.

I suppose it was about nine or ten in the evening when we were invited to sleep where we were. I just dropped and was asleep before I hit the cobbles. It would seem that I must really have been dead beat because the others around me said that the had been further bombing raids during the night and wanted to know how I could have slept through them; could be that I was tired.

We continued to make our way onwards towards the docks with the OC and the SM trying to make as march as soldiers should and eventually we got to the point of embarkation. We heard afterwards that when the OC reported to the STO he was reluctant to allow us aboard claiming that there was already 7200 aboard the Lancastria, that is loading at this very moment. Apparently George Morgan, our OC, said “with that many they’ll not notice another 242”. So the embarkation proceeded and we found ourselves space on the foredeck. The ship was chock-a-block with service personnel with a sprinkling of civilians all hopefully homeward bound.

I read in a couple of books in later years how people were issued with cabin numbers and table numbers and sat down at tables laid with silver cutlery, gleaming white napery and partook of the finest meal that they had eaten in years. Personally I couldn’t even scrounge a “cuppa”. But I was quite content with my little space on the deck; in the Army all you are entitled to is two foot, in the ranks.

It would have been about 13.00 hours that the Luftwaffe paid us the first visit; I was sitting quietly on the ‘forrard’ end of the deck so I instinctively dashed ‘forrard’ and down the anchor locker. I don’t recall how the all clear was sounded under these circumstances but when there was no more ack-ack fire you were safe to crawl out of your bolt hole.

On the second visit it was the anchor locker again but on the third visit paid to us by the Luftwaffe I was amidships and made the same headlong dash ‘forrard1 then I realised I hadn’t a chance of making the locker again. By the ‘forrard1 hatch was a steel structure the size of a 6 ft wardrobe, what its purpose was I haven’t a clue, but to me it looked like a safe haven. There was a wooden bench seat the fill length of my haven and squeezed into one corner I watched a stick of bombs coming down; the first of these I watched enter the water over the starboard side and believe it or not I cannot remember whether I heard a bang or not. It could be that I was stunned for a while, but when I had shaken my head and began to take stock of things I realised that the hatch cover that was less than a yard away from my knees had gone and it could only have gone upwards. Can you imagine a hatch cover the size of the average sitting room exploding upwards like that and me sitting there without a scratch. There was a body 20 ft away minus the head but this isn’t a horror story.

I’d been a soldier for only five months but my first thought was my kit. I stood and looked at it all, my kit and rifle, L 712, a relic from the First World War plus two cartons of cigarettes picked up on the way. “You stupid bugger you won’t want that lot now,” I said aloud. I made my way amidships and was spotted by one of a sergeants, Unsworth, who I believe was a north country miner. “Get on this rope,” says Sergeant and with ten or a dozen others that he had mustered we lowered it down a couple of decks where there were literally hundreds of men struggling in a ship full of water. All the companionways had been blown away by the bombs and the only way out was upwards. I really don’t know how long this went on, I suppose we must have got a few out, but as soon as we pulled two or three up a little way another half a dozen would grab hold of them.

I have no way of knowing how long or how soon it was that I said “Come on serge, it’s nearly time we weren’t here”. “You go on sapper,” he said, “I don’t swim.” I didn’t see him again and he was a great chap.

It seemed to me that I wasn’t unduly worried, there were quite a few other vessels about and I could swim so perhaps I should do something about it. The ship was listing to port and the list was making it difficult to walk about, but before it got too bad I found myself at the starboard side where there were a number of ropes laying down the side of the ship. Grabbing one of them I walked backwards down the side of the ship – absailing now isn’t it? – and slipped into the water and struck out for the two destroyers stationary some distance away.

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Percy Brown is given a cup of hot sweet tea

With only the breast stroke at my command I was making quite slow progress, I was passed by one of the other lads from 663, Jimmy Kurd, going at a rate of knots. “You all right Brownie?” “Yes,” I said, “Where are you going?” “I’m swimming all the way,” said Jimmy. I saw him for many years after but never thought to ask did he make it or did he accept a lift from a passing boat.

After some while I thought I’d be better off minus my shirt and trousers; the shirt I managed alright, but when it came to trousers that was a problem. Round my waist I had a lanyard, on the end of which was a jack knife – soldiers for the use of. I opened the knife and cut the lanyard, let it drop so down there somewhere I now have a rifle and a knife. I had no luck getting the trousers off, so had to carry on with my plod.

I suppose I was swimming for perhaps one and a half hours towards the destroyers when I saw one get under way, the other lowered a life boat so I gave them a shout “Over here.” Whether or not they heard I don’t know, but before too long I felt hands clasp the seat of my trousers and someone say “Can you get your leg over” – the gunwale that was. I then passed out completely and the next thing I knew someone was shaking me. The boat seemed to be fall of drowned rats and a voice was saying “Can you make it up the rope ladder.” I could and was never more thankful for a ladder in my life.”

As soon as we were aboard and below decks the Navy were dishing out pint pots of steaming hot tea and never before or since has a pint of tea tasted so good, as long as you could hold the pot still enough to drink. In due course the Navy transferred us to the Oronsay, herself damaged previously to the Lancastria being hit and around 19.00 we were homeward bound unaccompanied. Our rescuers, HMS Havelock, presumably had to remain at St Nazaire to look after the other merchant ships still at anchor offshore.

We made it safely back to Plymouth and spent the next couple of days at the Royal Marines HQ, Storehouse Barracks. We were given all the unoccupied beds in their dormitories and when I got up in the morning and wrapped the blanket that was my sole article of apparel around my waist, one of the Marines asked “Is that all you have to wear?” And when I told him “Yes,” he said to hold on a moment and went to his locker and came up with a battle dress. “Put that on,” says he. Of course one always says “Is that alright”. He replied that of course it was, it is only my third best. The beauty of it was the battle dress was exactly my size.

The one thing that sticks in my mind was walking across the parade ground and hearing a voice screaming “Soldier!” I looked around and I appeared to be the only person faintly answering that, so I said to the only other best in view, a Regimental Sergeant Major, “Sir?” “You do not walk on my parade ground you march, left, right, left, right.”

After Plymouth we were on a train to Ludgershall and then to Tidworth on Salisbury plain where we finished kitting out and once that was done we were on another train, this time to Leeds in Yorkshire. It began to look as though the powers that be didn’t quite know what to do with us but they sorted things out and put as all into civilian billets which was quite a change from roughing it army style. The people we were billeted with did their utmost to make our stay enjoyable and arranged outings and theatre trips for us. One family were in transport and coach trips. One trip was to Harrogate and we stepped at a pub, the Green Man. After we were seated and had got through our first drink one of the customers came up to me and said “Would it be alright if I bought you a drink?” “There are fourteen of us” says I. “That’s OK” and in due course fourteen pints were forthcoming. That’s Yorkshire for you.

It wasn’t too long before we were being told by the people that we were billeted with that we were moving to Launceston in Cornwall, and sure enough we made our next move in quite unique fashion; two of the Leeds trams arrived and we piled on them and they drove us to the city station, thence on to a train and away to Cornwall. Of course we had suffered 95 casualties coming out of France and we had only the clothes we stood up in plus a few items of toilet kit.

At Launceston we were really down to earth with a bump, from civilian billets, good food and comfortable beds we were under canvas and hard lying. But it wasn’t to last long, maybe two or three weeks and back by train to the Clyde. Greenock, Gourock, and Glasgow, I have sailed from all three; I cannot be sure which one it was this time but Thorshaven in the Faroe Islands was the destination aboard the Ulster Monarch.

We were still at half company strength and the job in hand turned out to be the installation of four 4.5 guns that had been removed from HMS Hood during a refit. Two were sited at Thorshaven and two across the fjord at Tofte. It was an interesting, if unusual job; the guns had been stripped down as they weighed a total of thirteen tons, carriage six tons, barrel seven tons. We hired a barge and a towing vessel to transport the two for Tofte to the other side of the fjord, and during the unloading procedure the lifting tackle broke, and that’s one barrel, all 236 inches and 7 tons in 10 fathoms of water, and you don’t back off until that barrel is back on dry land.

The job proceeded without hitch once we employed some local labour to dig and blast holes twelve feet deep to accommodate the ten foot long anchorage bolts. Then it was up anchor and away again.

We sailed up the Mersey; the only time I got to see the famous Liver Birds and whilst we were marching to whatever billets had been allocated to us the air raid sirens went. The fine body of men looked at one another – what do we do now; realising that the kids in the street were still playing, we bravely marched on to the railway station where there was a train to take us to Scarborough, on the east coast, where our new billets turned out to be the skating rink belonging to the Grand Hotel. We had the Skaters’ Waltz for reveille but we still had hard lying and that doesn’t come any harder than oak on concrete.

I seem to recall that we got Christmas leave from Scarborough, so a shore spell back in Surrey, Redhill to be precise, where my wife and my son had moved in with my parents during the Battle of Britain which had been waged in the skies over the southern counties of England. Those precious few days in the bosom of my family passed so quickly, and in no time at all we are back in Scarborough preparing for yet another move. The move this time takes us to East Hampstead park in Wokingham, Berks; we are back to Nissen huts of World War two. 663 must have built hundreds of them around Europe.

We are driven daily to Bramley in Hampshire for works; some of it undoubtedly involved Nissen huts – you can’t have too many Nissen huts. This wasn’t too bad a period; we had a liberty truck into Reading and back every Saturday and Sunday, and on one particular Sunday Jimmy Skeels was duty driver, and he says to me “You are on detachment to Reigate tomorrow.” I didn’t know whether to believe him or not, but back in camp, with a borrowed torch, there it was on the notice board… The following personnel on detachment to Reigate. The list of names included 1902670 Spr. Brown

The following day CSM Mellor said to me “This is alright for you, isn’t it Brown, you live here don’t you.” “No,” says I, “I live in Redhill.” He didn’t know it but as soon as he had gone I set off home to visit my wife and son. I borrowed my wife’s cycle and for the next three months I cycled to and fro between home and the NAAFI that we were building on the slopes of Reigate Hill.

Field Marshall Montgomery is the boss of South Eastern Command at this time and as was well known he was a strict disciplinarian so all personnel had to do a cross country run every Wednesday afternoon, and that means everyone, NCOs, other ranks, cooks, drivers, the lot, “Oh except 663 AW Coy, RE, they are building the NAAFI.”

Published with permission of Mr Percy Brown

Percy Brown – Eulogy

Given at the Surrey and Sussex Crematorium service of committal, 3rd October 2007

“My name is Mark Hirst and I am Secretary of the Lancastria Archive and the grandson of a survivor of the Lancastria disaster, an event which remains the worst single maritime disaster in British history and which claimed an estimated 4000 lives.

“I would like to thank the family for asking me to say a few words today and would, on behalf of the Association extend my deepest sympathies. It is clear from the many discussions and letters I exchanged with your father that he made a significant contribution in terms of understanding what happened that day and he not only helped in the research I have undertaken on behalf of the Association but also contributed to Brian Crabb’s excellent book, the Forgotten Tragedy.

“I first contacted Pib more than 10 years ago now, trying to seek information about my grandfather, Walter, who was in the same company as Pib, which was 663 Artisan Works Company, Royal Engineers.

“As most of you will know Pib joined up in January 1940, along with hundreds and thousands of other men. 663 Company was drawn from every corner of the UK and Ireland.

“They were sent initially to the old historic French city of Nantes, situated on the Loire. The city had a long history associated with the African slave trade and as Pib so aptly described, the locals must have thought it was a return to the “good old days” when 663 arrived.

“The company worked hard during those early months, many miles from the frontline up in the North of the country. Pib had, as you know, moved from electrician to driver along with his pals Jimmy Skeels and Freddie Springlett, and was soon transporting the men of the company to the numerous building works that were springing up around the city, notably the airfield at Bougenais which now serves as the main airport for Nantes.

“They were a good natured bunch of lads and soon Pib along with some of the other drivers in 663 had penned a company song, which unfortunately is too risqué for me to sing today.

“Pib had many adventures and many near scrapes whilst in France, almost getting falsely arrested at one point after a young boy ran out in front of his Bedford lorry whilst he was returning to the billets. Fellow Sapper, Reg Brown, who was not related, used his fluent French to persuade the Gen-darmerie that it was a genuine accident. The boy was not badly hurt, just a few bruises and thankfully Pib was eventually allowed to go on his way.

“Some weeks later, long before boy racers became the phenomenon they are now, Pib and Jimmy were racing each other along the back roads in when their two trucks collided. They had some difficulty explaining the crash to Major Morgan, the Company’s CO, but once again he got away with it.

“But his closest shave came when he, along with 242 other men from 663 boarded the Clyde built Lancastria on the 17th of June 1940.

“Lancastria was a huge vessel, a converted cruise liner which was acting that day as a troopship to take the men safely home to Britain.

“663 were one of the last companies to board the ship which was still anchored in the Loire estuary. 663’s Charlie Napier, who is still alive and who knew Pib very well told me that he spoke with the Chief Purser about 30 minutes before the bombs fell. According to Charlie the purser claimed there were upwards of 9000 people aboard, mostly exhausted troops of the BEF.

“Pib, or Brownie, as some of the other sappers referred to him, managed to find a place on the forrad starboard side of the ship, next to the anchor locker. It was here he took shelter as the first air raid swept in and attacked another vessel, the Oronsay, lying less than a mile from Lancastria.

“At about quarter to 4 the air raid sirens at the harbour at St Nazaire signalled another attack was incoming. Pib had in fact walked some distance down the length of the ship and when he heard the diving bombers soaring in he tried desperately to dash towards the safety of the anchor locker. He realised he wasn’t going to make it and so dived into another wardrobe shaped steel box and sat on a small bench and watched as the bombs struck the ship, one of them very close to where he sat.

“The carnage and horror remains truly unimaginable to those who did not witness it themselves. After heroically passing his own lifebelt to another soldier who could not swim Pib climbed over the side and slid down a rope and into the water. He began to swim away from the sinking vessel and towards a nearby destroyer the HMS Highlander. He was in the water for 3 hours.

“There he was wrapped in a white blanket and given hot sweet tea by one of Highlander’s crewmen. Off to his right a young Frank Clements snapped one of a series of remarkable photographs which chronicle the events of that day. In one of the pictures you can see Pib, covered in oil from Lancastria’s ruptured tanks and looking exhausted.

“Of the 242 men from 663 who boarded Lancastria that day, 92 were killed, a third of the company.

“After finally returning to the UK the company continued to fight on, first being sent to the Faroes, then the Isle of Wight, which years later served as the focus of the many company reunions which 663 held and which Pib attended.

“What struck me most in my talks with Pib and the other men in the company, was the matter of fact manner in which they accepted the events which happened to them and just simply struggled on. I think its fair to say that the Lancastria disaster left its mark, the most evident sign of which was the 2-day voyage the company took to the Faroe Islands, just a few weeks after the Lancastria had gone down. One member of 663 said, “you could spot the Lancastria survivors straight away. They never took their lifebelts off the whole trip and remained on deck for most of the time.”

“Later he took part in the Top Secret mission operation PLUTO which ensured oil supplies fed the advancing allied armies after the landings on D-Day, one of the great engineering feats of World War 2.

“Pib was a remarkable man, who lived through remarkable times, and his contribution, both to the war effort and to building greater awareness of the sacrifice which occurred aboard Lancastria, will never be forgotten.”