We will remember them

Walter Hirst

walter_colour_sat1Mr Walter Hirst, 663 Artisan Works Coy,

Royal Engineers, 1913393

Account as relayed to his son, John Hirst:-

‘…I became an enlisted man in December 1939 before being sent to Clackton-on-Sea for basic training with the Royal Engineers. We were billeted in chalet accommodation at the Butlins Holiday camp in Clackton. The winter was bitter. We [663] had two weeks basic training with 1914 armaments before embarkation to France on or around the 26th of January 1940. Prior to leaving we were described by an officer in the Duke of Wellington’s regiment as “civilians in soldiers clothing.”

Once in France we were quickly put to work on a variety of construction jobs at an airfield just outside Nantes. Around the middle of June we were assembled and informed of the pending embarkation to England. Our commanding officer, Major Morgan, indicated that those lucky enough to reach home may have to fight once we got there, indeed we thought we may have had to fight our way to the French coast. It was a long, hot march. Eventually we reached St. Nazaire around the 15th/16th of June amidst an air raid alert. That night I spent sheltering under a stairway with another member of 663 whom I was teamed with, Charles “Chick” Napier. Myself and Chick were from the same county in Scotland, Coupar Angus.

On the 17th we boarded the Lancastria late in the afternoon. We immediately grabbed a couple of life jackets which I thought would make ideal pillows. We were ordered below and shortly after witnessed, through a porthole, the Oronsay being hit. Both myself and another Sapper decided then, that it would be healthier if we were topside and so decided to climb the stairs, against orders.

Soon after the Lancastria was hit. It was a massive explosion. There was total panic and chaos. Soldiers, including some from 663, positioned at either end of the ship began to open up with Bren guns at the circling enemy aircraft. I managed to get myself into a lifeboat but as it was being lowered the ropes on one end became jammed in the davit. A panicked sailor suddenly jumped up and started to hack away at the ropes with a knife. Myself and others yelled at him to stop, but immediately we were all thrown into the sea.

Although I had a lifejacket on, I still had my doubts about being in the water as I was a non-swimmer. We were all saturated with oil. I kicked off from the side of the Lancastria on my back. I kept thinking “got to escape the suction of the ship”.

The Lancastria continued to roll over to port. Hundreds of men were now clinging to the upturned hull. Some of those standing on the turning hull started to sing “Roll out the Barrel”. Then one tenor voice began with “There’ll always be an England”.

During this time the enemy continued to strafe the men on the ship and in the water. They also began dropping incendiaries in an attempt to light the leaking oil. At some point a seemingly crazed man tried to remove my life jacket, but I managed to fight him off. Even with the jacket on I stayed as still as possible in the water hoping this would improve my buoyancy. I believe I was in the water for around two hours. At one point a large dog swam by.

Eventually I was picked up by a French fishing boat which turned and headed for St. Nazaire. On seeing the Oronsay however the skipper decided to drop us off. After boarding the Oronsay we then departed around 1900 hrs. The Oronsay had a heavy list due to the earlier damage inflicted on her by the Luftwaffe. We finally arrived in Plymouth the next day. Our confidence was partly restored on hearing the Band of the Royal Marines play on the parade ground, playing “Roll out the Barrel”! After leaving the Oronsay we were billeted in the Stonehouse barracks which were primarily Royal Marine accommodation. Despite the fact that we were still drenched in oil we were ordered into beds with clean white sheets! From there we were sent to Netley Hospital, Southampton and eventually the unit was finally posted to Leeds, Yorkshire, Company HQ was 21 Allerton Grange Way. We were forbidden under “Kings Regulations” to mention any word of the Lancastria.’

Only a few days after the sinking and after Walter finally got back to Dundee, his home town, he was married to Annie Miller. Still suffering from painful injuries to the back of his legs his war was almost over. He like many others had gone to France supposedly to finish the job of their fathers who had fought the Germans in the first war. For Walter and others like him they came back battered and bruised by the experience – but at least they made it back.

Some of the relatives of those who did not survive would not hear anything for nearly 18 months, before receiving a War Office telegram stating that their husband, father or son was lost in action in France, presumed dead aboard HMT Lancastria.