We will remember them

Thomas Beattie

Tom_Beattie_RAF_Credenhill_1940_low_resTHE SINKING OF THE LANCASTRIA, by Connor Beattie, aged 9

Tom Beattie is my great grandfather and he was born in Edinburgh on 1st April 1920.

I asked him the following questions:

What age where you when you joined the Royal Air Force (RAF)? I joined the Royal Air force (RAF) when I was 17 years old.

PICTURED: Tom Beattie, taken between 1940 and 1942 at RAF Credenhill, Hereford

What weapons did you use? I had a Tommy Gun, a rifle, a bayonet and a revolver.

Did you get shot during the war? No

Did you like being in the war? No

Why were you in France? I was on a war expedition.

Why did you have to get out of France? I had to leave France as the Germans were closing in on us. There were thousands and thousands of soldiers and RAF personnel waiting to be taken back to England.

What date did you board the Lancastria and where? It was 17th June 1940 and I boarded in San Nazaire.  This was the only ship that I could get onto – all others had been full and had already left. There were 6,000 people on board (from the Army and RAF). There were also civilians including women and children.

What did you do when you were on board? I went below decks with my friends and we played cards. Later on I was feeling a bit sick and so I decided to go up on deck to get some fresh air.

What happened when the Lancastria was sunk? After I went up on deck, we had only gone out from land for a few miles when German planes came over and started bombing our ship. The Lancastria had funnels and one of the bombs went down the funnel and exploded.

What did you do when the bomb exploded? The ship sunk in 20 minutes, so luckily I managed to jump off the ship more or less straight away. I was wearing a life jacket, I could also swim well and tried to get as far away from the sinking ship as I could. When the ship went down anyone too near to it would have been sucked under with it.

The sea was full of fuel from the ship and the German bomber pilots were trying to set this fuel alight by firing at it and also trying to shoot the people floating and swimming in the sea.

How long were you in the sea? I was swimming in the sea for five and a half hours.

How were you rescued? A ship called the Havelock picked me up.

How many people survived out of the 6,000 on board? Only 2,000 people were saved, and all my friends I had been playing cards with died.

How did you feel after you were rescued? I felt very relieved and happy. I was very tired and felt very unwell as I had swallowed a lot of the fuel polluted water, I was also covered in oil.

Where were you taken after you were rescued? The Havelock took us to Plymouth where we were looked after and treated for any injuries etc.

What were your family told? My mother was told by the RAF that I was “missing presumed dead”. She had a telegram from the RAF stating this. So she was very, very upset.

How did she find out that you were alive? Some of her neighbours were at the cinema and during those days there was a news reel called “Pathe news” which was like the news programmes on television today. (My mother did not have a television in those days as they were very expensive and very few people had a set). Whilst her friends were watching this news reel they saw a film of soldiers leaving the Havelock in Plymouth and saw me coming down the gangplank. They rushed back to tell my mother and she went down to the cinema and the manager agreed to run the newsreel again so she could see for herself.

When I was being checked in at Plymouth they told me that I was listed as “missing presumed dead” and there was my name up on the board. They then rubbed my name off that board and told me I was now being sent to Herefordshire to Credenhill – I had never heard of the place before!

The following account was written by Tom himself:

“I joined the Royal Air Force in December 1937 at West Drayton. I did duties at various RAF stations. Then at the outbreak of war on the 3rd September 1939,1 was sitting in the NAAFI at RAF Leuchars in Scotland and listened to Mr Chamberlain saying we were at a state of war with Germany. On the 14th October the Royal Oak was sunk at Scapa Flow and on the 16th October German bombers attacked the warships HMS Southampton, Edinburgh, and Mohawk at Rosyth, by the Forth Bridge. (this attack was carried out by KG30, the same unit that later attacked the Lancastria)

Three Hurricanes belonging to 602 City of Glasgow Squadron landed on our airfield and the crews ran for shelter until our commanding officer, Group Captain Brian (Pegleg) Baker, (later Air Marshall Sir Brian Baker) [ordered them] up. They took off and one of the German planes was shot down between Dundee and Edinburgh. The German pilot was brought to our sick bay and I had the job of guarding him.

Then, taking a dun view of the raid, I volunteered for France, and in December I was posted, going from Plymouth to Cherbourg and on to HQ BAFF at Coulommiers north of Paris. I was doing escort duty to Air Marshall Sir Arthur Barrat and also to official mails at Chateau Thierry, Le Bourget, and the British Embassy in the Rue Royale; Provost Marshall at the Avenue Foch in Paris, also Villa Coubly and also the Palace of Versailles.

Then in March 1940 I had an accident with a car in the Avenue de Longchamps and spent two weeks in hospital in Vichy. Later on, after taking up duties again at the end of April, German bombers raided Le Bourget and Villa Coubly. I was detailed by Fit Sgt Drew to take a lorry and driver A/c Higgins to the air store/parts at Du Long near Arras and move air parts to Le Mans airfield. The Germans were getting close, for Field Marshall Rommel cut between us and made Abbeville and Dunkirk.

On the 10th June I returned to my unit which had moved to Olivet, near Orleans. Then on the 14th we were the last vehicle to leave, with Sgt Strudwick, A/c Caan; W/c McFadyen; W/c Henderson; Cpl Cohler; Cpl Walker (RAF Police); F/Sgt Tidy, and W/O Smart. We left four hours before the Germans arrived. We made for Nantes. On arriving, a lot of looting was going on at the canteen hut. Then on Saturday night we moved to St Nazaire railway yards [where] we had to take cover from German bombs.

On the Monday morning of the 17th we moved down to the causeway. Our driver had dumped his Dodge lorry off the quay into the sea, and walking down to the point of departure, civilians and RAF in the middle, army on the left and right, I couldn’t help but hear one of the soldiers say “The Brylcream boys are going on first”.

We departed about 9 am, ferried out to the Lancastria. I was told one ship had already departed, the Duchess of York. Then the Oronsay joined us. German aircraft attacked us about 11 am. No hits. We asked why we were waiting. Captain Sharp was waiting for an escort.

I was down in No 2 hold, playing cards and drinking. I felt a bit sick so F/Sgt Tidy took my hand and I went up on deck to be collared by W/O Smart to be the ship’s runner. This really saved my life.

At 3.55 pm German bombers, about five JU87s and one Dornier, made the attack. Two or three bombs bit the middle of the ship. All of a sudden she went down on her side, then came up and went back down. I clung to the rails. We then went to get the lifeboats free. But one broke its hawser rope and fell towards the sea. I started to assist getting people off and then W/O Smart told me to follow him and we slid down the rope, but I had to let go as it was cutting into the palms of my hands. As it was so high up, I let go and grabbed my lifejacket, otherwise I would have broken my neck when I hit the water.

I was covered in oil and my hands were stinging. I did try to help people. I managed to find a bit of a plank, but it was hopeless with cork lifejackets. A lot of the troops tried to keep harmony going by singing, for we were also machine-gunned. On the side of the Lancastria some of the people couldn’t swim. I saw one of my admin W/Os, George Jordan, and I was hoping to see my other mates Charlie Haines and Dicky Burd, and also another Devon lad called Monty Jordan.

I spent most of my time shouting to survivors not to give up. I remember a soldier saying “You think we will be saved?” His name was O’ Connor. Then all of a sudden I never saw him again. A few dead bodies kept flowing past me. I tried to look for land, but no luck. My hand was giving me stick. Hours passed. I had lost my watch when I jumped. I remember a couple of airmen saying “Where is Cobber Keen?” They must have belonged to 73 Squadron, but Cobber had been killed about three or four weeks before.

Eventually a long boat from a destroyer picked me up. I asked the Navy boy what he was going to do with the two dead bodies. He said “I will take their tags and then let the bodies go”. I noticed when I boarded the ship it was H88. Later I found out it was called the Havelock.

I was brought back to Plymouth naval dock. Some of the troops had been transferred to the Oronsay. On the 19th of June I was taken to RAF Mountbatten and had a change of clothing. Next morning we went by train to RAF Locking and had to sleep on the square with a pillow and blanket. Next day we went by train to RAF

Bridgnorth, which was newly opened, then we were given a £1 note, railway warrant, and four days survivors leave.

Arriving back after leave, I found I was still on the missing list. I was told to come back in two hours and then about fifty of us were posted to RAF Credenhill, Hereford to join No 11 School of Technical Training. I was there till February 1942. Afterwards I served in North Africa, West Africa, and the Belgian Congo, and was on the way to Burma with the 82nd Division Royal West African Frontier force, on attachment from the RAF, when they dropped the atom bomb on Japan. So I was sent back to the RAF, and arrived back in Britain in December 1945 and demobbed in January 1946.”
549815, Corporal Thomas Beattie, RAF

Edinburgh Evening News piece, Jan 2008:

Mercy-dash liner that became a death trap

After years of pressure, medals will be given to Scots who lost their lives in sea tragedy kept secret from the public

A BEACON of hope to the thousands of battle-weary and injured soldiers who lined the beach, waiting patiently, the arrival of the Lancastria troop ship was heralded with a collective sigh of relief.

With the ever-increasing threat of German forces closing in, the British soldiers, many of whom had been unable to make their escape at Dunkirk, were relieved to squeeze aboard the dangerously overloaded decks.

The 16,000-ton former cruise liner had lifeboats and life jackets for 2200 people, but the orders were to cram aboard as many as possible. It was a decision that carried a high price, for the enemy was watching, and at 3.45pm on June 17, 1940 the bombs of the Luftwaffe began raining down.

In just 20 minutes, after several direct hits, the Lancastria was no more, and the churning waves claimed the lives of more than 4000. Among those on board was 19-year-old Tom Beattie, of Leith Terrace, Edinburgh, who had been sent to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force.

It is fortunate for Tom, who passed away in March, that he suffered from sea sickness and his nausea had forced him to leave the hold, where he had been playing cards, and head out on to the deck for some fresh air.

“He was lucky really,” explains his son, 62-year-old Ian Beattie. “He was a very strong swimmer and he slid down one of the ropes into the sea. His hands were burned and blistered and he swallowed a lot of oil but he somehow managed to stay afloat for more than five hours until he was rescued.

“He always said he was lucky to be alive. If he’d stayed down in the hold there’s no way he would have survived. He lost a lot of friends that day.”

The scenes in the water were horrific with dozens of men, blackened with oil, desperately clinging to a few upturned lifeboats.

It is said that one officer standing on the Lancastria pulled out his revolver and shot the man in front of him before turning the gun on himself.

No-one is certain of the exact number of soldiers and civilians who died that day, but is thought that between 4000 and 6000 lost their lives – twice the total killed in the Titanic and Lusitania disasters combined.

The sinking is the worst single disaster in British maritime history. In the aftermath, Prime Minister Winston Churchill issued an order banning publicity of the incident for fear it would damage public morale.

Even after the Second World War ended, no moves were made to recognise the loss of those on board, or to designate the wreck as an official war grave.

In recent weeks – and following increasing pressure by the Lancastria Archive – the Scottish Government announced it would issue a commemorative medal for Scots who were aboard.

But this move does not have the backing of the Defence Secretary, Des Browne, who has said that medals can only be issued for individual acts of gallantry.

“The medal represents official recognition for those who endured and those who paid the ultimate sacrifice,” says Mark Hirst, secretary of the Lancastria Association, whose grandfather Walter survived the sinking.

“But we still have a lot of work to do in terms of putting together the various aspects which led to the disaster. We are helping families understand what part their relatives played and for those who were lost, understanding how they met their deaths. The nature and circumstances surrounding the event makes that a challenging prospect – which is not helped by the MoD’s ongoing refusal to release all of the relevant papers related to the sinking. But we are determined to fight on and help bring proper closure for families and survivors alike.”

Later this year, Robert Cruickshank, 44, of Linlithgow, plans to remember his grandfather Alexander by visiting the site of the Lancastria. Robert will be accompanied by his brother Sandy.

“I think it’s to the British Government’s shame that they have taken so long to recognise the sacrifice that these men made,” says Robert, a prison officer. “To issue a medal to commemorate everyone aboard is the right and proper thing to do.”

His grandfather, private Alexander Cruickshank, was 38 when he boarded the Lancastria and had been serving as a baker with the Royal Army Service Corps.

He had assisted at the evacuation of Dunkirk but, unable to find passage home found himself at the port of Saint Nazaire, among those attempting to escape the ill-fated Cunard liner Lancastria.

“When she was sinking, he was about to jump overboard. He was a strong swimmer so he prepared by taking his soldier’s kit off – but an officer put a gun to his head and told him to put it all back on,” says Robert. “He jumped overboard as the ship was sinking but the Germans were strafing the water which was all alight. My dad was only 12 when his father died – it was very tragic.”

His mother clung on to the hope Robert would return home

THE secrecy that has shrouded the sinking of the Lancastria has undoubtedly cast a shadow over the families of those who lost their lives in the tragedy.

Relatives were sent telegrams telling them their loved ones were “missing, presumed dead” but they were given no official explanation of why the men would not return home.

The family of Robert Jamieson, who was just 24 when he boarded the Lancastria, never forgot the talented and fun-loving young man.

Indeed, his mother Margaret was unable to accept that the painter and decorator might not return to their home in Leith.

Today he is remembered by his nephew Robert Train and his wife Doreen.

The couple have attended the annual memorial service at St George’s Church West in Edinburgh, organised by the Lancastria Association, since the ceremony began in 2006.

“Because Robert was listed as missing, I don’t think his mother ever gave up hope that he might one day walk through the door,” says Doreen, 67, of Mountcastle Crescent, Edinburgh.

“He told his mother he was in the RAF police and wouldn’t have to fly airplanes and wouldn’t have to fight, but I think that’s what a lot of the soldiers told their mothers so they wouldn’t worry.”

The last time anyone saw Robert, a keen artist, was in October 1939, shortly after the birth of his nephew, who was named after him.

When Robert boarded the Lancastria, his family believes he joined the thousands of men in the ship’s hold – a place where his body is thought to remain. “It must have been awful down there because it was so crowded,” adds Doreen.

Over the years, Robert’s mother spoke little of her son but, as a regular churchgoer, Margaret always attended services for Remembrance Sunday.

“She would sit with her hands clasped tightly and just one tear would fall into her hand,” says Doreen.

“All along she kept thinking maybe he’d just lost his memory and would suddenly appear. She always clung to that hope that maybe there

had been some mistake and he had been somewhere else. I don’t think she ever really let go of that.”


THE Lancastria Archive was formed in August 2005 with the aim of raising awareness of the sacrifice made by those who lost their lives in what was Britain’s worst ever maritime disaster.

Campaigners are pressing for the maximum protection possible to be given to the site of the Lancastria and have it designated as an official maritime war grave under UK law.

While the Scottish Government has agreed that a medal should be awarded in recognition of the “unique scale and enormity” of the Lancastria disaster, the UK government has no plans to commemorate veterans or victims.

The Association is also in talks with the Scottish Government to establish a permanent memorial to those who lost their lives almost 68 years ago.