We will remember them

Reg Brown

“I was working in Cornwall before I joined up, I’m a Cornishman. I was an apprentice carpenter at the time. I left Cornwall and travelled to Plymouth where we picked up 4 other people before heading to Clacton. Of the 5 there is only two of us left now.

“My father was a Sergeant Major in the Royal Artillery during the first war. He said to me the day war broke out “Right-o lad, away you go tomorrow to Truro and you can volunteer for the Royal Engineers because I’m bloody sure you don’t want to join the Cornwall Light Infantry.” I said “no I don’t”, so he said “away you go then”.

“So I went with the Truro volunteers and travelled to Plymouth for a training test and then they sent me on the 8th of January 1940 and I ended up in Clacton-on-sea.

“I joined 663 on January the 8th 1940 at Butlins Holiday Camp on Clacton on Sea. I was placed into Section 2. We remained at Butlins for 2 or 3 weeks and then we went south and got a ship to Le Havre. We were then marched up to the YMCA building to be fed but there was no food at all. We then caught a train and I swear to this day that that train had square wheels on it because I never felt so uncomfortable in all my life. The train took a long time to get to Nantes and we were hungry, very, very hungry. Nearly every time the train stopped, we stopped in the countryside, and soldiers used to get out and eat cabbages and cauliflowers from people’s gardens. Major Morgan did have bully beef (corn beef) on board the train but he would not release it. He had apparently been told not to release it.

“Then we arrived at Nantes and went to a garage, a big multi garage I think. It had a big concrete floor and palliases full of straw. The garage was large enough to hold the whole company. The ebullitions were outside and I didn’t know what the word meant in those days, but it was a place to wash and shave in the morning. We went outside and there was these benches with taps on but no hot water, so we shaved in our hot tea. We would save some hot tea after we drank some to allow us to shave. It was really cold in those early months.

“We had some good food when we finally made it to Nantes. I loved the streaky bacon and onions and tomatoes for my breakfast. It was beautiful although all in a tin of course.

“Nantes was full of troops, there were lots from the Service Corps. After the days work had finished we were given plenty of time to ourselves. We would walk around and go to the cafés and have a glass of wine.

“We were sent on jobs occasionally to Bougenais airport. We were all tradesmen in the company, I was a carpenter. We were at the airport to build the various buildings that were needed by the air force. We were building timber buildings as opposed to brick. Obviously timber buildings don’t last that long so have probably now been replaced by brick buildings.

“As far as what was happening in the war elsewhere Reg knew little – “We didn’t know anything that was going on. There wasn’t much news or much post. The first we knew was when they came to us one day at Bougenais airport and they said “come on lads we’re moving, we’re going back home. We didn’t know where we were going. The on the radio we heard about the Lancastria and she was docking at St. Nazaire. So obviously we made for there. There hadn’t been much post in the last few weeks and as far as my mum and dad were concerned I had been missing for 6 weeks. They thought, because Dunkirk had finished by then of course on the 28th of May, they thought the worst.

“I arrived into St. Nazaire with my mates on the Sunday. We stayed around the docks all night and we were being bombed all night long. In fact at one point I went to one building and a Frenchman said to me “get under there”. He was sitting on a what looked like a bench with a lid on the top, all ventilated fortunately. That is where I ended up sleeping.

“Finally we made our way out to the Lancastria. Fortunately we were about the last to get onto the ship. We didn’t have any choice on where to go. Burt Harris from Leicester and I went two flights down to the dining room to have a meal. We were dirty and we were hungry. We had towels around our necks and as we were standing there a quarter of the dining room caved in. The bomb had hit us. We ran for it and the first stairs collapsed. Fortunately we had pumps on and people were walking over me and I was walking over them to survive and we got to the second set of stairs and out.

“We got to the top of the ship and Burt said to me “come on we’re going over the side”. I said “OK Burt”. So we stripped off but kept on our socks, underpants and vest. There was a lifeboat missing all smashed up with machine gun fire, but ropes hanging down from the davits and we caught hold of the rope. We didn’t say “after one, two, three,” we said “after one”. We then flung ourselves into the sea.

“There were hundreds of dead people floating around in the sea many the old Mae West lifejackets on. It was a terrible, terrible sight. Captain Holloway, Major Morgan, Percy Brown and other men from the company were in the water near to us.

“I was picked up by a French minesweeper which transferred me to the John Holt. The John Holt then took us to Plymouth. Like the others all I had was a blanket, no shoes, nothing, apart from black feet.”

The survivors of 663, taken at a Company reunion in the Isle of Wight

The survivors of 663, taken at a Company reunion in the Isle of Wight

 

UPDATE:

Wartime survivor of Lancastria sinking relives rescue on TV
From Coventry News, 9th March 2010

ONE of the last survivors of a Second World War sea disaster which killed as many as 7,000 people is reliving his story for a television documentary.

Bedworth old soldier Reg Brown, 90, was on the Lancastria when it was bombed and sunk by the Germans on June 17, 1940 as it tried to carry up to 9,000 people away from France.

This year marks the 70th anniversary since the tragedy, which was covered up at the time by the Government for the sake of the British public’s morale. It is still not clear exactly how many people were on the ship nor how many died.

ITN is making a new documentary to mark the anniversary which will be shown later this year and sent a camera crew to Reg’s Gainsborough Drive home this week to film him.

He said: “They were here from about 10am until 4pm. I was shattered by the end. But I’m the only one left who’s fit enough to do this.

He said: “By the time we got on board it was like sardines. They’d stopped counting once they got to 6,000 people. We decided to go two decks down for a meal or a wash but we didn’t get either.

“I saw the corner of the ceiling coming through in the dining room. The Germans had started the attack. We had no choice but to jump off the side.

“We stripped off down to just our socks, vest and underpants and jumped in.

“I had tears in my eyes when I saw what was around us. There were hundreds of bodies in the sea. Everything was covered in oil and machine guns were firing at us.”

Reg was trapped in the sea for two and half hours and admits he had all but given up hope by the time he spotted an approaching boat on the horizon.

While in the water he saw a baby being rescued by another man. Much to Reg’s amazement, he met the baby girl – now a 72-year-old woman – at a memorial service to mark the tragedy two years ago.