At around 4pm the ship was hit by three bombs and sank off the coast of St Nazaire.
The disaster claimed more victims than the sinking of the Titanic and Lusitania, yet details were hushed up by the British Government fearful of the impact it may have had on an already demoralised British public. It wasn’t until six weeks later The New York Times, then The Scotsman broke the story. Walter Rushton is one of the lucky survivors who can still tell his tale of the tragedy today.
The 89-year-old former bus conductor was sent to France with the British Expeditionary Force to work with the First Army Tank Brigade Field Workshops aged 20.
He said: “At that time Britain wouldn’t let people know about the ship. It was the biggest single loss of the whole war and with there being so many that went down, they were frightened it would upset the British people.
“It would have been a good boost for the Germans so it was kept quiet.”
For survivors and victims’ families, a commemorative medal which is now being issued by the Scottish Government is a welcome recognition of their wartime sacrifice.
Mr Rushton, from Layton, said: “It’s the only recognition that’s been given. I’m right pleased with it.
“I was a lucky one. I was on that ship and I got off. I was on the beach at Dunkirk with a lot more, the ship came along, it was anchored up. They sent a boat up to the beach but it couldn’t get right to the beach for the depth of water.
“Some naval types came on the beach, holding revolvers to stop the panic and made us line up. We had to wade waste deep to get in the boat which took us to the ship and climb up scramble nets.”
From Dunkirk, the vessel picked more men up at St Nazaire and shortly afterwards, as it was waiting for a naval escort, it was hit by three bombs.
Mr Rushton’s sodden wet clothes from wading through the sea would prove to be a lifesaving factor.
He added: “With me being wet through, I wouldn’t go down below, I stopped on the deck. If I hadn’t have done, I wouldn’t be talking to you now.
“A cargo boat was coming in and saw what happened and put bow to bow. Naval chaps lined us all up and made us climb over on to this cargo boat. With me having stopped on deck I managed to get off. The captain took as many he could but he had to come away and left some on board.
“He could only take so many because it was fully laden – it was up to the brim with four gallon drums of petrol. As the captain pulled away, he said: ‘right lads, no smoking!'”
One of the bombs hit the engine room and within 20 minutes the vessel rolled on to her port side and disappeared, bow first, to the bottom of the ocean.
Mr Rushton added: “All of a sudden we saw the ship tip up and go down. It waggled a bit and then it just went.
“To say I was supposed to be a soldier, tough and all that, I started crying. I thought ‘you idiot, you’re a soldier, you’re supposed to see it’ but I looked round and I wasn’t the only one.
“I just said a little prayer to myself and thought ‘thank God I’m not on that’. They estimate around 4,000 went down with it.”
It was only when the surviving troops returned home that the full extent of the disaster was revealed.
Mr Rushton’s wife, Muriel, 86, said: “We didn’t know about it until he came home. He’d send little letter cards but they were always three quarters scribbled out with anything the enemy could get hold of.
“He was away for four years. Our young life was spoilt because he was away but we had a make do and mend attitude.”
Now, the great-grandparents hope this commemorative medal will keep the memory of their wartime sacrifices alive.
Mr Rushton said: “It’s taken a Scotsman all this time to do anything for us. It’s getting forgotten. A lot of the survivors have passed on and the younger end don’t know a lot about it, unless grandparents have told them.
“It’s one of those things that’s there and it won’t go away.”