We had been on the beach all night with thousands of other troops. I had been posted to France as a member of the Royal Armoured Corps Base Depot. We were gradually being taken on to the LANCASTRIA and both on the beach and when on board we were constantly being attacked by dive bombers and fighters. It took such a long time to ferry as many soldiers as possible that we were still there in the late afternoon when the Germans launched a fierce attack and scored several direct hits. It was a terrifying experience as the ship was hit. I was very lucky as previously I had had a late meal several decks down and the lower decks were crowded with soldiers – the queue for the NAAFI was terrific. I was a bit frightened at being caught in a seething mass of people so kept to myself on the main deck. The ship immediately listed badly then seemed to stick up in the air at one end. I watched many of the ship’s lifeboats tipped into the sea with their load, one of which was loaded with women and children. At this time, men were frantically jumping overboard amidships, and those still aboard the ship were throwing huge rafts after them and many in the water were struck and killed by them. All the time this was happening, the German aircraft were zooming down, machine gunning and dropping fire bombs on the men in the water. Many of the men were courageously singing in the water. All this of course was happening very quickly and I had decided that if I was to survive (I didn’t think I would) I would have to go to the extreme end of the ship, that was sticking right up out of the water by this time, and jump from there. It seemed like jumping from a skyscraper – on striking the water I gathered my wits and looked around and swam to the only lifeboat that had been successfully launched – where there were several men hanging to ropes dangling from the side and I joined them. We were picked up by a French tug and taken to the ORONSAY. Even then I had another scare as when I was attempting to board the ORONSAY – I slipped between the tug and the ORONSAY and was lugged to safety. Thence safely to PLYMOUTH.
E.J. Allen – attached to the RAC Base Depot, 42nd Bn RTR
(Typewritten from E.J. Allen’s handwritten document)
Retreat from France and the Sinking of the Lancastria – Hazy war memories (written a number of years after the disaster)
After Geddes was posted I went back to ordinary duties but was subject to recurrent shocking migraine headaches and was downgraded to 81 and as a result posted to France with the Royal Armoured Corps Base Depot, this would have been round about May, 1940. I landed up with a very mixed bag at a place called Villeneuvre, a village quite near a small town called Bonnierre, cant remember the exact location now but it wasn’t too far from Evraux. Things were hotting up on the Continent The Camp site was pleasant and I got friendly with some nice boys. Went to Mass on Sunday in the local village. Strangely enough, we had a rather fierce sergeant-major who put us through our paces at rifle drill, RTR didn’t carry rifles, only revolvers, so we were really green much to his chagrin (or delight), his language was frightful, but I did team to handle a rifle and go through the normal drill.
After a few weeks Dunkirk happened and we had by this time moved to a lovely spot in Brittany called Pornichet, our exact location was a lovely little walled town called Gueron (all spellings are approximate) and we had acquired a new sergeant-major and he was an extremely nice fellow. In various moves I remember going to Nantes and also a barracks building near Le Mans (right on the road racing circuit) Le Mans was rather nice and I remember going to a ladies dress and outfitters and buying quite a lot of exotic items of smalls, etc. for Pauline; alas I didn’t get them home as I lost my kit bag escaping eventually from the Lancastria. There was also a lovely eating place near our camp that was frequented by soldiers where there was a huge table in the middle of the room spread with all sorts of lovely food, pastries, trifles, savouries, you just took what you wanted and paid. I can’t remember whether it was when we were marching into Le Mans or out but crowds lined the path, mostly women, many of whom in the emotion of the moment seized the soldiers and kissed them, probably relief at seeing a reassuring military force.
Dunkirk was over and the problem for the command was to get troops embarked or leave them to become prisoners so we were marching for St Nazaire to pick up a ship. We arrived at the beach and had to spend the night there amidst sporadic attacks from the air, frightening. At dawn [17th June, 1940] thousands upon thousands of troops were transported out to the Oransay and the Lancastria, this went on all day punctuated by constant attack from the air, but the morale was still good and humorous. I think I got on the Lancastria about 3 p.m. and we were on ‘pins edge’ to move off. White the ship was still anchored a meal was available several decks down, of which I partook, then there was a mad rush to spend surplus francs at the NAAFI, this was absolutely chock-a-block and I was nervous to get caught up with a mass of bodies where one wouldn’t stand an earthly of getting free tn an emergency, so I went up on deck and by this time the Luftwaffe were dive bombing and strafing continually with a relatively inadequate retaliation from guns on deck manned heroically by troops, they stuck to their posts.
Round about 4 p.m. the Germans got a couple of aerial torpedoes right into the guts of the Lancastria and all was panic immediately with the ship soon listing all over the place, an attempt was made to launch the life boats but they were alt, except one, tipped into the sea with their occupants, at least one was full of civilians, mostly women and children, but they perished. By this time the bows (or the stem) had tipped right up into the air; amidships, emergency flat rafts were being thrown overboard not very successfully because many of them were hitting people already in the water. I climbed up to where the boat was highest out of the water well away from midships and jumped, I had acquired a life jacket. I didnt rate my chances very high but after a short time in the water I spotted the single lifeboat that had been launched successfully and although it was full to overflowing there were ropes dangling all round the sides, so I caught hold of one and after a time we were taken aboard a small French vessel and then to the Oronsay, i slipped down between the two vessels and had to be lugged clear. It was an awesome sight watching the Lancastria finally go down and still lots of soldiers in the water singing and the Luftwaffe machine gunning them. The Oronsay finally moved off, with part of its superstructure demolished. More than half the chaps I left Wartingham with perished.
We finally landed at Plymouth where we were well received and soon I landed up at Tidworth, got leave home where Pauline and I were reunited, we were living at 24, Fownes Street, Battersea then (since demolished), and then posted back to 42nd Bn. RTR who were by now at the Cavalry Barracks, Aldershot.