- SS Lancastria during the Second World War -
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The Lancastria was a requisitioned Cunard cruise liner, she served as a troop ship during world war two. She was sunk off St Nazire on the 17th June 1940 whilst evacuating troops from France. She received three direct hits and within 20 minutes, the 16,243-ton luxury liner sank, taking with her more than 4,000 victims. The news of her loss was not made public in Britain until 26th July, 1940.
17th Jun 1940 Ship Sunk RMS Lancastria was sunk by an air raid off the French port of St. Nazaire during Operation Ariel on the 17th of June 1940, whilst attempting to evacuate civilians and troops from France. Three direct hits at 15:48 by Junkers Ju 88 aircraft from II.KG 30, caused the ship to list first to starboard then to port, she rolled over and sank within twenty minutes. The number of fatalities will never be known, but it is estimated that around 9000 men, women and children were onboard, with between 4000 and 6000 being lost, it the biggest disaster in British history and the largest loss of life in a single incident during WW2. The ship was only fitted to carry 2000 and news of the sinking and numbers lost was suppressed.
17th Jun 1940 Ship Sunk
17th June 1940 Lancastria sunk
If you can provide any additional information, please add it here.
Those known to have sailed in
during the Second World War 1939-1945.
- Albiston Ernest.
- Anthony Robert Cummings. Private (d.17th June 1940)
- Ayears Horace Ernest. Cpl. (d.17th Jun 1940)
- Bamforth William. Corporal
- Bamforth William George. Cpl.
- Barrie George Wellesley. LAC (d.17thJune 1940)
- Blissett Norman Rees.
- Booth Thomas O.
- Braidwood George. Corporal (d.17th june 1940)
- Bridson James.
- Carter Samuel Henry.
- Catlin Herbert Edward. Pte. (d.17th July 1940)
- Corrigan Patrick Andrew. Pte.
- Derrick Alfred Alexander. L/Cpl. (d.17th June 1940)
- Dewsnap Allan. Sgm
- Dicks Leonard.
- Drabble James Alfred. Signalman (d.17th June 1940)
- Duffy Thomas.
- Gilbert Alexander George. Sergeant
- Hall Walter. Spr.
- Hicks Horace Victor. (d.17th June 1940)
- Hocking William John. Staff Sgt.
- Horne Percy Cecil. L/Cpl (d.17th June 1940)
- Humphrey Harold Richard. S/Sgt.
- Jenkins William Rees. SQMS. (d.17th June 1940)
- Jones Arthur.
- Latham Albert Ernest.
- Lea Sydney. Spr. (d.17th Jun 1940)
- Lowther Charles . L/Cpl (d.17th June 1940)
- McGowan Ernest. Sig. (d.17th June 1940)
- Pattle Charles Edward. Pte.
- Payne . Pte.
- Priddey Peter Basil. Sgt. (d.17th June 1940)
- Richardson Henry Victor.
- Shotter Ralph William John. L/Cpl. (d.17th Jun 1940)
- Singleton Geoffrey William. Sgt.
- Singleton Geoffrey William. Sgt.
- Spavins Albert Edward. SQMS
- Stokes Herbert Bland. Capt
- Sullivan William. Private (d.17 June 1940)
- Welsh Leslie.
- Willacey Robert. Pte.
- Williamson John Derek. Cpl.
The names on this list have been submitted by relatives, friends, neighbours and others who wish to remember them, if you have any names to add or any recollections or photos of those listed, please Add a Name to this List
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L/Cpl. Ralph William John Shotter Royal Army Service Corps (d.17th Jun 1940)My grandmother was romantically involved with Ralph Shotter, who was in the Royal Army Services Corps and has heard that he was on board the Lancastria when it sunk. He was 21 years old. Apparently he has no known grave, but his name appears on a war memorial in Dunkirk, France, which I would love to take her to see. Also, she would love to hear from anyone who may have known Ralph and to hear of any last memories of him or see any pictures. Please email me if you have any further information. Many thanks.Claire Wilmot
Spr. Sydney Lea 663 Artisan Works Company Royal Engineers (d.17th Jun 1940)My grandfather, Sydney Lea, also went down on the Lancastria on 17th June 1940. He died on his birthday. He was washed up in Ste Marie Sur Mer and is buried in the local cemetary there along with a few others who also lost their lives. The War Graves Commission helped me find him and arranged for his headstone to be changed to reflect this. I visit as often as I can but would like anyone who knew of him to please get in touch.Mandy Heath
Ernest AlbistonErnest Albiston was on the HMS Lancastria when it was sunk, he survived. I have a booklet written by a soilder that survived the tradgedy.linda Flett
Private William Sullivan Pioneer Corps (d.17 June 1940)My uncle was one of the servicemen who lost their life on the Lancastria. He was Private William Sullivan B1904 of the Pioneer Corps, from Sculcotes, Hull. He had 7 children at the time the oldest was just 15. God Bless all those who lost their lives.J Porter
Sergeant Alexander George Gilbert 663 Artisan Works Company Royal EngineersMy grandfather was a Lancastria survivor, his name was Sergeant Alexander George Gilbert, 663 Artisan Works Company, Royal Engineers. Does anyone have any information about him?Gary Lomas
Albert Ernest Latham 73 Company Pioneer CorpsAlbert Ernest Latham of 73 Coy, Pioneer Corps, was on the Lancastria when he sunk. He was my great grandfather; I would like to find out more about it.Kathleen Sibson
Corporal George Braidwood 75 Company Pioneer Corps (d.17th june 1940)My grandfather, Cpl George Braidwood, 75 Coy Pioneer Corps, lost his life on the Lancastria.Pauline Clare
Sgm Allan Dewsnap Royal Signals CorpsMy father, Sgm Allan Dewsnap 2586904 Royal Signals Corp, was a survivor of the sinking of the Lancastria, along with other Glossop soldiers, Thomas O. Booth (still alive), Leonard Dicks (still alive), Corporal William Bamforth (deceased), James Alfred Drabble (drowned on the ship).
I have spoken to Tom Booth and Len Dicks many times about the sinking. Tom always carries a photograph of the ship going down and at the stern in the water are six figures – Tom says that one is himself and the others are Len Dicks and my father. Unfortunately I can't remember who the other three are. Nor can I remember the newspaper that carried the article and photo.
Tom is not very well at the moment so I will have to wait awhile to see him. This morning I received my father's Lancastria Commemorative Medal and a very nice letter from the First Minister of Scotland the Rt Hon Alex Salmond MSP. I will keep it with my father's other campaign medals.Michael Dewsnap
Private Robert Cummings Anthony (d.17th June 1940)My uncle was on the Lancastria although I don't know too much about him. He was only 21, just a boy as were so many others. His name was Robert Anthony, and was a baker with the Royal Army Service Corps. He was on deck when the ship was bombed, but was terrified of the water, and wouldn't jump when his pals did. They shouted for him to jump, but he was too frightened. Some of his friends survived, and it was they who came and told his mother what had happened.
Although he was an only son, and just a boy, his name was never put on the war memorial here in Ayr, which his mother never understood. But after many letters and these long years his name is now on a small plate, under the memorial, too late for his mother.
Robert Anthony is buried in the Normoutier-en-L'Ile Communal Cemetery.Fiona McClung
Pte. Payne Royal Army Service CorpsExtract from newspaper report from an Interview with Private Payne from Luton, Chatham August 1940.
With the collapse of the French army Private Payne was involved in the evacuation of the 2nd BEF and he and other troops found themselves aboard the ill fated SS Lancastria.
‘The story of the Lancastria has now been told’ he said, ’but one thing that was not sufficiently emphasised was the courage of the troops on board.
‘It has been suggested that the enemy were not aware of the Lancastria’s identity after she had sunk I think I can confirm that’ ‘A Corporal Williamson and myself, both clerks with the R.A.S.C., were manning a Bren gun on the top deck. He was firing and I was feeding the gun. We brought down the plane that bombed the boat and it therefore did not return to its base to tell the tale.
In the explosion which followed the bombing my comrade was severely injured. I think I can say that I saved his life because although he was practically unconscious I managed to dress his wounds and get him safely on a boat. I placed him on the last lifeboat to leave the ship. I tried to get into a boat myself, but overbalanced and fell into the water. I had no life belt and I could not swim, but I found an oar in the water and was able to hold myself up. I was in the water more than 2 hours. We were machine gunned during part of it, but I came through okay and was finally picked up by a French trawler.
When I got aboard I found my comrade was there too. He was lying unconscious on the deck and although I was terribly wet and weary I made a pillow for him out of some wet clothing and stayed with him until we were transferred to a bigger ship. Here he was operated on and is, I believe, now in hospital in England.
I think his feat in shooting down the German plane is deserving of some recognition.
Private Payne added that his experience had somewhat affected his help and that he has now been graded B.1.
Corporal Williamson was my father John Derek Williamson, who died when he was 68 years old in 1988.Ann Parker
Cpl. John Derek Williamson Royal Army Service CorpsAnn Parker
L/Cpl Charles Lowther Pioneer Corps (d.17th June 1940)For years when my father was alive, he told us how at the age of twelve he had to take over the roll of his father as he was killed off the coast of St Nazaire, France in the evacuation on the ss Lancastria. He also told us that his grave was somewhere on the cost of St Nazaire. About ten years ago my eldest brother went on the search to France to see if he could find his grave, to no avail, he searched for almost a week hunting around all the war cemeteries.
I served 12 years with the army and each year I don my blazer with badge on my pocket, poppy tucked into my epaulette to attend the annual remembrance parade where I live. On returning from the ceremony this year I decided to try my luck with the war graves commission and low and behold up pops my grandfather's grave. I was sickened to read about the awful way the ss Lancastria was overloaded and sunk so quickly and of how the survivors were in the water still been shot at.
My grandfather was 42 when he died and what I'm after is his history before that. My father died 17 years ago and my mother died last year, there are no more survivors of my father's family to retrieve information about my Grandfather so I'm asking in hope that someone reading this might just spark a memory of him whether in the forces or out. Thank you for reading this and I hope some one could fill this little gap I have for my very respected grandfather. I remain in your debt Granddad, God bless.Robert Lowther
Staff Sgt. William John Hocking Royal Army Ordnance CorpsWilliam John Hocking was a staff sergeant on the Lancastria at that time and survived. He continued in the army until his retirement in 1975 as a Lt. Colonel. He will be 90 on March 16th 2010.R Richards
Cpl. Horace Ernest Ayears 579 Field Coy. Royal Engineers (d.17th Jun 1940)My father, Cpl H E Ayears of Kent Fortress Royal Engineers TA, died on the Lancastria. He should have returned on the Duchess Of York but he volunteered to return to Honfleur with Captain T Goodwin (who survived) and party to destroy oil storage depot there. When they returned to the docks the Duchess Of York had sailed, so they boarded Lancastria.
I have been told he was asleep in No 1 hold at time of bomb. I have obtained a lot of information from C.C. Brazier's book "XD Operations". It also contains a Roll Of Honour from his party from Kent Fortress Royal Engineers who died with him.
- Sapper H.W.Blackman.
- Lance Cpl.E.G.Brown.
- Lance Cpl.E.E.Plummer
- Lance Cpl.Shute.
Incidentally my mothers wedding ring fell off at 4 pm on the 17th of June 1940 into a bowl of water.Allan Ayears
Sgt. Geoffrey William Singleton Navy Army & Air Force InstitutesMy father, Geoffrey Singleton, aged 25, was in the NAAFI with the British Expeditionary Forces when they were returning to the UK in June 1940. Together with thousands of others he joined the ship "RMS Lancastria" which was heavily laden. It left port and he went up on deck to get a cup of tea, this probably saved his life as the ship came under heavy bombardment and sank with thousands of lost lives. He was able to jump into the sea and swim for his life, eventually being picked up by a French fishing vessel and then was brought back to the UK on the "The John Holt". He lost many friends and saw many terrible atrocities. My mother's uncle saw him on the quay and then they became separated. He returned on a different ship and watched "The Lancastria" sink. When he arrived back in the UK he had no idea if my Dad had survived or not. I imagine that my father is now one of the oldest survivors of this tragedy being in his 96th year.Diane Clarke
L/Cpl Percy Cecil Horne 4/5th Batt. The Buffs (Royal East Kent Regiment) (d.17th June 1940)My step brother, Percy Horne aged 19, was on the Lancastria when it was sunk but did not survive.Douglas Turner
SQMS Albert Edward "Spav" Spavins Royal Army Service CorpsMy father, SQMS Spavins, was a Lancastria survivor. He told me that as he was one of the last people aboard ship he had to go to the boat deck because there was no room below. As the ship began to sink he tried to persuade one of his friends to jump with him. However, his friend could not swim. Dad jumped and as he looked up his friend lit a cigarette and waved him goodbye. He does not remember how long he spent in the water but eventually a mine sweeper, very overloaded, passed by and someone threw him a lifebelt and along with many others was towed home to England. He was wearing only a shirt when he got home. When he finally got a new uniform and equipment he came home on leave. He was in a bad way and told me that the Stuka dive bombers had somewhat un-nerved him.
Dad recovered and some years later volunteered once again with RASC/EFI to go to Korea. It so happened that I was with The Somaliland Scouts at the time and when Dad returned from Korea I flew over to Aden and met the ship where I met my father and some of his friends.Albert Spavins
Sgt. Geoffrey William SingletonMy father, Geoffrey Singleton is a survivor of The Lancastria Disaster.Aged 25,He was on the deck when the ship was hit and managed to dive and swim, he was picked up by a French fishing vessel and then the Sir John Holt. In the thousands thronging on the quay he managed to see my mother's uncle, who got on the Oronsay and watched in horror as the Lancastria was sunk, he sailed back to England with no idea what to tell the family about my Dad. A lifelong member of the Lancastria Assosciation, my Dad used to attend Cenotaph meetings in June, and now 96 and in very failing health he still remembers the ship and those terrible experiences.Diane Clarke
Sig. Ernest McGowan Royal Signals (d.17th June 1940)My uncle, Ernest McGowan from Glossop in Derbyshire, he was a signalman with the Royal Corps of Signals. Service Number 2587688.
He was aged 26 when he died, presumed drowned aboard the SS Lancastria on 17th June 1940. I suppose it would be too much to hope that anyone reading this would have any memories of him.Rita Porter
Horace Victor Hicks Pioneer Corps (d.17th June 1940)I have a friend who lives in Australia and whose father, Horace Victor Hicks died on the Lancastria on 17th June 1940. My friend is hoping to visit England some time next year and would like to go to Dunkirk to visit the spot where his father died when he was a young boy. He would like to find out if there is any memorial or if, in fact, there may be a named burial site to the soldiers who died on the Lancastria. Can anyone help?Therese Hayes.
James BridsonThe photo of a blanketed survivor of the Lancastria, taking tea is my Grandfather James Bridson. I have tried to obtain a copy of this photo as our copy is long lost. Grandad died in 1972 and never fully recovered from ingesting the fuel oil from Lancastria, which left him with weakened respiratory.Steve Christopher
Pte. Robert WillaceyMy Dad Robert Willacey, survived the Lancastria sinking. His story is slightly different from other versions. He was above sea level with mates and saw the German plane approaching. He realised they had no chance and jumped off the ship. He said one of the bombs went down the funnel which presumably explains all the oil in the water. Some was ignited so being a good swimmer he dived and swimming towards shore he came up for air when he saw no flames above him. Some people sadly came up into the flames.He swam all the way to the coast and was later sent back to England.
He became a desert rat fighting Rommel in Africa where he was a tank driver and had some horrendous experiences. Moving on to Sicily he became a POW but escaped and finished the war in Naples.He had shrapnel injuries and spent a year in an Italian hospital. He helped to evacuate locals from the erupting Vesuvius just after the war in 1945.
My parents had married Xmas Eve 1939 in Manchester Cathedral. Mum didn't see him when his leave ended after returning from France in 1940 until 1945. He died at the age of 84 in 2003.Robert Anthony Willacey
L/Cpl. Alfred Alexander Derrick Royal Engineers (d.17th June 1940)My grandfather, Alfred Derrick, died on HMS Lancastria. Apparently when the ship was bombed he was thrown into the sea and covered in oil. I am actually wondering a. if anyone knew of him or b. how I would go about obtaining a photograph of him in his uniform. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.Christina Derrick
Pte. Herbert Edward Catlin Pioneer Corps (d.17th July 1940)Whilst researching my family tree I discovered that my great great uncle, Herbert Edward Catlin, died upon the Lancastria, I was just wondering if anybody had any information on him. He was in the Pioneer Corps.Claire
Arthur JonesMy dad, Arthur Jones was a survivor of the Lancastria. A telegram was sent to his mother saying missing presumed dead, which she gave my dad when eventually he reached home. To my annoyance he remarried as my mum had died & my stepmother got rid of his possessions when he passed away.Margaret Beryl Pendlebury
Leslie WelshMy Great Uncle, Leslie Welsh, served with the Merchant Navy in WW2. He was a crew member of the Lancastria on the fateful day it sunk. He was extremely lucky enough to survive although he could not swim, he had a life jacket and clung on to a plank of wood.Louise Hewett
Thomas DuffyMy father's name was Thomas Duffy. He was born in 1918 in Moyglass, Ireland. I know from what he said, and a letter received from his brother after his death, that he was a survivor of the Lancastria. I do not know his regiment or service number. We only knew prior to his death of the disaster because he broke down one day when a film of Dunkirk came on the TV. He was not allowed to talk about it and his behaviour deteriorated greatly after this TV programme. He suffered shell shock and was under mental health treatment until he died in 1978.
He met and married my mother in 1966, they separated when I was 4 years old due to his behaviour. After the war he worked on the Snowy Mountain tunneling project in Australia before coming back to the UK to settle in Manchester. I belive he settled in Manchester as the family of a man he befriended on the Lancastria lived there and he felt guilty for taking the last place in a rescue boat. He died on a visit to his sisters in Strokestown, Ireland in 1978.Miriam Newbury
Henry Victor "Twink" RichardsonHarry Richardson was my dad, and was aged only 14 yrs and 9 months when the Lancastria was hit. He passed me a piece of paper one day with writing on (SS Lancastria) and said one day I would understand it but at the time he was forbidden to speak about the circumstances. The only other thing I remember was the date, 17th June 1940, also my sisters birthday. We knew that at some point in the war Dad heard angels singing (he was drowning), he mentioned that often. According to other family members he was washed ashore and revived. When I think about this, he was just a boy, not an easy man to live with as a father, the war destroyed his legs (shrapnel), and tormented his mind. I am in the process of applying for his records, although because he was a Royal Marine Commando, I may have to wait a while.
He served in Malaysia and Burma. He was also very artistic and would draw pictures for his mates to send home. I remember him mentioning that his unit had to line the steps to the building for the Japanese surrender. He would also sometimes have to be driver for Mountbatten (who liked the gin). I wonder if anyone remembers him?Annie Platt
Norman Rees Blissett Military PoliceMy Grandfather, Norman Blissett from Merthyr Tydfil, survived the bombing of the Lancastria ship in 1940. It was amazing as he could not swim. He was a military policeman in the Army. He would never go on holidays with the family after the war, as he said that he was fed up with traveling during the war.
Unfortunatly, I never met him as I was born 5 years after he suddenly passed away in 1974. He sounded a very interesting man.celia blissett
Pte. Patrick Andrew Corrigan East Kent RegimentThis is Pat Corrigan's account of his surviving the sinking of the Lancastria, from a conversation with my father when I visited him on 20th August 2005 with my daughter, then aged 8. At times he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry telling us this.Pat was an Irish citizen who had signed up to the British Army.
Pat was born 8th December 1917 and died on 18th June 2009, aged 91: 69 years and one day after he could so nearly have lost his life off St Nazaire in 1940. Although he had often referred in passing to his experience this was the first time I had heard him recount the events so clearly, he seemed inspired to tell the story to his grandaughter and I set it down later that evening:
“I was an Irish soldier fighting for the allies in France in the East Kent Regiment, known as ‘the Buffs’. Three weeks after the evacuation from Dunkirk I was still there and I was evacuated on the ‘Lancastria’. About five thousand soldiers and others were put on there. When I was marching with my platoon across France to get to St Nazaire, where the ship was waiting, we were frequently ordered to ‘Halt and fall out!’ to make way for others to go past. At the time I was really worried that the ship would be full up by the time we got there, and I kept wondering why are they letting them go ahead of us?
However when I got to the ship I was really glad as they had all had to go deep below decks. The sergeant majors were saying things like ‘It’s safer the lower down you go, down you go!’ Nobody believed them. When I boarded a soldier said to me ‘We’re going to sail at four o’clock’. I didn’t believe him, but he said ‘No it’s true – I bet you twenty Players we are!’ I found a space on the deck. Then the German bombers began attacking the ship. One bomb went down the funnel and the ship started listing very quickly – and started sinking. I took off my heavy army boots and some other garments because I knew I would have to jump into the sea. You have to remember the Lancastria was a very big ship, and when a ship like that sinks, so quickly, there is an awful lot of panic and chaos. I took off my tin hat, but then the German planes were gunning the ship as well as the men who were already in the water, so I put it back on. I could hear the bullets ‘zinging’ past me and hitting the metal of the ship.
As the ship was beginning to sink and people were shouting and panicking, me and another soldier noticed that one of the lifeboats was tangled up. But we realised that as the ship listed over the lifeboat would get nearer and nearer the water. So we cut the ropes to release the lifeboat and it dropped into the water. Then we had a problem. Although we had climbed into the boat to cut the ropes and let it fall, when it hit the water there were so many people already in the sea, and they all tried to clamber on board and the thing capsized. Those of us that could climbed on the upturned hull. Then we thought that if it did right itself it would fill with water and sink, so we kept having to move this way and that, all together, to stop the boat turning over again.
While I was on the boat I saw the man who had said the ship was going to sail at four o’clock. He was covered in oil and soot – hardly recognisable, and he was waving at me, shouting across the water, ‘I owe you twenty Players mate!’. Meanwhile the German planes were shooting machine guns all around. Eventually the lifeboat was towed back to St Nazaire harbour. I was naked and cold and they found me some clothes. I walked along the harbour looking for a boat that could take me back to England. Most of them were full but I found one that had some room. It was an old pleasure steamer commissioned to help with the evacuation. All I remember is going to sit by the engine to warm up. It did set sail, but then went back to join a convoy where it would get some protection from allied airplanes. I was so tired that once I had warmed up I just lay on the deck while the German planes were everywhere. I could see the tracer bullets. But by this stage I almost didn’t care any more and I just lay there and fell asleep. When I woke up it was daytime. Sometimes I think I’m the luckiest man alive.
We got back to England and I went to a camp in Wiltshire. I remember finding some new uniform to wear from piles of clothes. They told us just to help ourselves and I ended up with a pair of RAF trousers, and a big trench coat. Then we went to London to be registered, counted and sent back to where we belonged. I remember they let us sleep to 11 o’clock the next morning which was pretty unusual in the Army.
In London I met up with two other soldiers, one was Welsh and one was Scottish, that’s it, an Irishman, a Welshman and a Scotsman! We all said we were in the Fusiliers, which meant they let us leave, and I went to stay with my sister in Hounslow for one night. Technically I was AWOL but I went back the next day and got sent back to my Regiment.
The sinking was covered up; Churchill didn’t want it coming out.”Kieron Corrigan
Capt Herbert Bland Stokes MBE. Quartermaster General Royal Iniskilling FusiliersMy grandfather, Herbert Stokes, was among the number still stuck in France two weeks after Dunkirk was all over, while the Nazis were already strutting about in Paris. Many of these troops left behind were sadly killed or taken prisoner, but a large number of Army units were ordered to evacuate from other ports further west. Unlike at Dunkirk they were not at immediate risk from land attack by the Germans, who had not yet penetrated that far west on the ground, but they certainly were at risk from the air.
One of those ports, St Nazaire, became the scene the worst loss of life that Britain has ever suffered from one vessel. This was the sinking of one of the ships involved in the rescue, the Lancastria, and my grandfather was on it. For the sake of morale the whole episode was so completely hushed up at the time that few now have ever heard of it.
When the defeated French asked the Germans for an armistice on June 16, time had nearly run out for the British troops still in France further west of Dunkirk. Frantic evacuations began at several ports in Brittany. Let us not forget the big ships operating from these ports, under fierce air-attack, for another two whole weeks after the Dunkirk show was over. Manned by merchant seamen and fisher¬men, they had names like Sobieski, Ulster Prince, Oronsay and, of course, the ill-fated Lancastria. The Lancastria, originally the Tyrrhenia (because of this name it was called the Old Soup Tureen by its sailors) had been re-named in 1924, despite a naval superstition that it is very unlucky to re-name a ship. In this case the superstition was to prove ominously correct. My father, Adrian Stokes, has written the following account of what happened to his father, Herbert Stokes, during the first months of World War II. (Adrian was twelve years old when these events took place.)
‘A definitely unpleasant show’ After Dunkirk: The last out of France
"My father, Herbert Stokes, was a great survivor. Blown up by a shell on the Somme in 1916, he was on light duties till the end of the First War; I still have the silver badge awarded to those who had been so severely wounded that they were exempted from further military service. However, despite being exempt, he insisted on rejoining the Army in his old rank of Captain, at the age of 45, on September 2nd 1939. On 16th September, Herbert left for France with the British Expeditionary Force. Officially his Regiment was the Royal Iniskilling Fusiliers, but in WW2 the Army recognised his experience as the Chief Executive of Queen Charlotte's Hospital in London, and based him in Dieppe organising medical supplies, which came under the general heading of the Quartermaster General.
Herbert's letters were hardly a record of light duties. They were usually scribbled at the end of an 18-hour day, and reveal the strange unreality of the so-called Phoney War. Work was often interrupted, not by air raids, but by visiting ‘Brass Hats’ or by the lavish entertainment of, or by, local French digni¬taries. Few military matters could be mentioned in letters, but in February 1940 the censor passed an account of grave discussions with a very senior officer from the A.T.S. as to whether her women soldiers should have Army Issue Pots, Chamber, with or without handles. These deliberations seem to have borne fruit, because later, when Rheims was occupied by a special contingent of the SS, sent ahead of the main German force to secure the Champagne stocks for their officers' messes, they found a mysterious crate painted with the words ‘Security - Only to be opened in the presence of a senior officer.’ It contained 144 enamel chamberpots, female staff for the use of, with handles.
Comments on the progress of the war would have been deleted by the censor's blue indelible pencil. How much the combatants themselves knew is uncertain; in April 1940 writing at 10.20 p.m. after escaping from an official reception for the ‘King-pin of the Parsons and his satellite curates’, Herbert says, ‘Every day brings the end of this most stupid war nearer, and the more immediate prospect of leave more delight¬ful.’
Within days all leave was cancelled. Despite his disappointment, Herbert's letters remain optimistic, reflecting ‘stirring times’ and looking forward to being ‘really on the job of smashing this mad swine and keeping him away from our folks and families.’ The reality was very different. By mid-May Hitler's Blitzkrieg was sweeping through Belgium, and Herbert's letters indicate evacuation of medical staff from Dieppe to points further west; the last letter he wrote from France, nearly a week after Dunkirk, describes ‘a wonderful old watering-place’ - probably Deauville.
Herbert was now in the rear party, charged with seeing all medical personnel and patients across the Channel. Around the 7th June, his camp moved to Nantes, a town some 30 miles inland from the port of St Nazaire. On Saturday 15 June the two other officers in his camp were away reconnoitring for a new site. Herbert was left behind because, as he told his family afterwards, he was so dead-beat. Meanwhile the order came through that the camp was to be evacuated within seven hours. Herbert got them all safely away, and waited behind for the other two officers to return, which they did to find the evacuation all done.
Herbert's last two days in France are vividly recalled by his water-stained movement orders, immaculately typed, detailing the move from Nantes to St Nazaire. For instance the order for 15/6/1940 includes:4. Transport: One 25 h.p. Vauxhall will remain with Rear Party. Capt. Webster will retain motor cycle.
5. Rations:. Two days hard rations will be carried. Water bottles will be carried filled.
These orders, with a bunch of receipts for meals and rooms in anonymous French hotels (the Army was scrupulous about paying its way) were stuffed into Herbert's battledress pocket as he scrambled aboard HMT Lancastria at 10 a.m. on Monday, 17th June.
What happened next was that at 3:50 pm the Luftwaffe bombed her, holing her below the waterline, causing her to list rapidly and discharge 1400 tons of oil into the sea. Hundreds of men who had not eaten for days were making their way below decks to the restaurant areas. Moments later, a second bomb penetrated a forward hatch and exploded. Some men died in the water, burning in the oil-slick onto which the Germans had dropped incendiaries; others broke their necks jumping from the ship. Within 25 minutes the Lancastria, listing ever more steeply, turned completely upside down with men still clinging to her hull, and sunk with at least 5,000 casualties, possibly many more. The Luftwaffe continued attacking even after that, so that other vessels were unable to go to her immediate aid - Herbert estimated that it was one and a half hours before he was picked up, and some survivors were in the water even longer.
Herbert's next letter home came from ‘an appropriate address’: Stokes and Military Hospital, Devonport, Plymouth, dated June 17th. With typical under¬statement he wrote: ‘There is very little wrong with me except some twisting of the back and the effect of an hour and a half's swim after the Boche had got our ship with a couple of eggs. Thank Heaven I saw all the hospitals and personnel in our charge away without being bombed on the 15th. I and the others, very few left, got on board on the 17th, but we did not have the luck, as ours was the only boat they got. A definitely unpleasant show.’
As for the Lancastria, a brief note among Herbert's papers reads: SS Lancastria: 5500 Troops (incl. ship's complement) Survivors: 2100 Casualties: 3400
This calculation was optimistic. It is now known that by noon on the 17th June, the Lancastria was crammed with between 7,500 to 9,000 people, grossly overloading her. Of this number, exactly 2,447 survived. Simple subtraction shows that the dead therefore numbered between 5,000 and 6,500, but no one will ever know for sure as no one knows exactly how many men had gone aboard. There were only 2,000 lifejackets. Herbert had no lifejacket but found something even better: a lifebelt which was able to support four men.
Despite the overall success of Operation Aerial, the losses caused Churchill to order the news to be suppressed, so the story is in danger of remaining a forgotten footnote. Churchill wanted nobody to talk about it, so nobody did. My only memory is of my father showing me a gleaming pair of shoes, polished ready for his return to duty. ‘Not bad,’ he said, ‘considering they spent some time in the sea.’"
My grandfather Herbert Stokes, like many of his generation, found it almost impossible to speak of his wartime experiences. A kind and loving, but very shy man whose mother had died when he was only three, it is often only in the letters he has left behind that you can get some idea of what was in his heart. Anyway, the survivors of the Lancastria were all ordered to stay silent on their return to Britain. Even if he had been allowed to talk about the horrors he had been through, the stiff upper lip tradition of the British gentleman in those days meant that they were not given to discussing their "feelings".
The following extracts from other family letters tell more of what happened to him that fateful day. Herbert's eldest daughter, my aunt Audrey, then a 19-year-old Oxford undergraduate, wrote to her fiancé (Hugh Verity) on Friday June 21st, whilst sitting on her father's bed at the military hospital: "The ship hadn't got underway when the Boche dropped two eggs. A re¬con-naissance plane came first and then the squadron (Dad only saw two aircraft). They got the ship with their third shot and the ship sank in twenty minutes. It is incredible luck that Dad got away all right. The bomb fell hardly any distance away from his cabin. In the water, I gather, he had a few other men hanging onto him. He was afterwards picked up by a minesweeper and then he got into another boat and was landed here. His ears are a bit injured and he got rather a bang when he swung against the ship's side in getting away. Otherwise I think he must be terribly tired and stiff. It must have been frightful in France with air raids and all the work he had to do and then he didn't have anything to eat from Sunday night till Tuesday morning. I think about 3,000 men were saved. Most of his kit, of course, is at the bottom of the sea. He is getting a discharge and I expect he will be going home today ...." Herbert did indeed go home later that day because the entire hospital was evacuated.
This extract from a letter which my grandmother, Enid, wrote to her brother, the Daily Mirror press baron Cecil King, tells more of what happened to her husband Herbert. Enid’s letter is also dated Friday 21st June – the longest day of the year for the Stokes family in more ways than one - and she had just brought Herbert back to their home in the Cotswolds: "Just a note while Herbs is asleep. I arrived in Plymouth at 3 o'clock this morning and was allowed to see him at 8 - only an hour or two before the whole hospital was ordered to be evacuated. I might so easily have missed him. He looks very ill indeed, but as he is only suffering from shock and extreme exhaustion I have been allowed to break every known rule and to bring him home. He had been bombed incessantly for 5 weeks without the protection of a single anti aircraft gun. He says Dieppe is completely wrecked. Among many other escapes he met 4 German tanks at a hundred yards while he was helping the A.M.P.S. to put up some sort of defence and even then wasn't hit. He was so done-in when he had moved everything over to the west that his two senior officers left him to rest while they went off to prospect a new site further south in the belief that we would stand on the Loire. In the meanwhile he got orders to pack up the whole base for England within 7 hours. He was single-handed but it was done and he saw them safely off on the 15th and boarded the Lancastria on the 17th with his two senior officers returned by that time. The ship's usual compliment is 1200 and it filled up to 6000 and was kept waiting from 11 till 4.30 with German planes circling round and round practising till at last of course they got a direct hit. The idea was to wait till another transport was over loaded before setting forth. Herbs was in his cabin where he found a life-belt which made it possible for him to keep 3 other men afloat for one and a half hours. He says he never will forget seeing the troops linking arms and walking down the sloping sinking side of the ship singing ‘Roll out the Barrel’. He thinks about half, about 3000, were saved. I only think all the time how unbelievable it is that he is here and for the moment safe. He never thought he had a chance of seeing us again and doesn't seem to want me to leave him for a single second.
"There wasn't a bed to be got in Plymouth which is crammed with B.E.F., an odd assortment of allies and the population of Guernsey. I was cheered to see hundreds of French sailors, a train-load of men I took to be Poles, and 6 fat French seaplanes floating in the harbour.
"H. says the French defeat was due to the absolute panic of the people and a lot of the troops, there is no other word for it ...."
Herbert was awarded the M.B.E. in July 1940. He had sick leave until he was posted to 213th Infantry Brigade on 16th August and then as Deputy Adjutant and Quartermaster General with Headquarters South Eastern Command. Here he found a new General, one Bernard Montgomery, who instructed his staff to go on daily early morning runs. Characteristically, Herbert, who was after all forty-six years old and had probably done no such thing since he was at school, took a dim view of this and was not to be ordered about in this way. He ignored Monty's demand.
Herbert remained in England for the rest of the war and was rapidly promoted to Major and then Lieutenant Colonel. On 1st October 1943 he was appointed Colonel in charge of Administration in the South Midland District. He was able to visit his home in Gloucestershire from time to time. In the services, no one ever mentioned what they were doing or where they were stationed so we can only guess that Herbert was very much involved in the planning of the Arnhem operation and in the invasion of Normandy on 6th June 1944. He was demobilised on 24 August 1945; at the age of 51 he was in the first category of service personnel to be demobilised. Subsequently he was granted the rank of Honorary Colonel. He spent his gratuity on a beautiful diamond bracelet for his wife.
On the BBC in February 2004 a number of programmes about Dunkirk were broadcast, and on the BBC's teletext pages appeared a paragraph which stated that the evacuation "officially began at 18:57 on 26 May 1940. The signal announcing that the British Expeditionary Force had been evacuated was sent at 23:30 one week later." The false impression given by this assertion, and by all of the various Dunkirk documentaries, is that all of the BEF was rescued at Dunkirk whereas in fact it was only about two thirds of them. 366,162 troops were brought out of Dunkirk but over 150,000 were not recovered there because they were trapped further west. The little-known rescue of these other troops was begun immediately after Dunkirk ended. This second rescue was codenamed Operation Aerial, and although 163,000 people were freed during it, a scale comparable to the Dunkirk evacuation, most people seem never to have heard about it. The inaccuracy of the impression given by the BBC prompted me to put together this account.
Churchill condemned to official secrecy the story of what remains Britain's worst ever maritime tragedy. ‘The newspapers have got quite enough disaster for today,’ he wrote. Also he did not want to take the edge off the ‘Finest Hour’ broadcast speech which he was preparing. The occasional newspaper article appears: Evening Standard 30 May 2000 and The Times shortly after, around the time of the 60th anniversary. As if it wasn’t enough to bomb the ship, the Germans next dropped incendiary bombs on the sea, which was by now covered in a film of oil, to ensure that many of the floating soldiers burned to death before they could be rescued. Veteran soldier George Crew, interviewed by the Standard, corroborated this terrible memory of my grand¬father's: ‘The young private heard a sound that haunts him still. "I looked back and I could hear people still on the sinking boat singing Roll Out The Barrel. I can never hear that song without remembering those who sang it as they died."’ The headline of that piece in the Standard was entitled "The day the dying sang." The BBC transmitted one documentary about the Lancastria disaster on 19th of July 2001 entitled "A Secret Sacrifice". And that's about it. We have a mission in my family to try and dispel this secret, and bring to public knowledge this little-known episode in the war, which is in danger of remaining a forgotten footnote. This is why I put this account on the BBC People's War website, and am now adding it to the Wartime Memories Project Website. An excellent article in The Times on Saturday 13 June 2015 makes me hope that there will be some mention of it in the press or TV on the 17th in two days’ time. We’ll see.Teresas Stokes
SQMS. William Rees Jenkins Royal Army Service Corps (d.17th June 1940)At the time of his death on board SS Lancastria, my Uncle William Jenkins was 24 years of age. Unknown to him at the time, his brother, Ivor Jenkins of the RAF was also on board the ship. While W.R. Jenkins lost his life, Ivor Jenkins survived and served for 22 years in the RAF. He is still alive today.D.A. Nesbitt
S/Sgt. Harold Richard "Harry" Humphrey Royal Army Ordnance CorpsExtract from a letter dated 1st August 1940 that my late Father sent to his civilian employer, Caffyns Ltd. Haywards Heath, Sussex, following his evacuation from Nantes, via St Nazaire:
"We went back to the harbour next morning and after hanging around for what seemed an eternity and having to dive for cover every few minutes, when Jerry broke through our cordon of fighter planes and attacked us with machine guns (it was rather amazing really, but I don't think anyone was hit, although several received slight cuts from flying glass and debris,including myself)...we were then taken off by a destroyer.
We had to back out of the harbour and had hardly got clear when there was a dickens of a commotion and we found we had run foul of a buoy anchor cable which had obligingly wrapped itself round our propeller and, of course, put the boat out of action. After a few minutes a French tug came along and took us in tow, but soon gave up that idea and we transferred on to the tug and left the destroyer to look after itself. It was while we were doing this that the Lancastria was sunk! I didn't realise at once what had happened as I was on the opposite side of the boat, and as bombs were dropping fairly consistently one bang more or less didn't make much difference. The Lancastria was about half a mile away but the Skipper had spotted it and as soon as we were all on board we made for it as fast as possible. The crew did their utmost in picking up as many as possible while we concentrated on keeping Jerry off with rifles and a Lewis gun we had managed to salve. But the Germans seemed to derive fiendish delight in harassing the poor devils in the water and kept diving and machine gunning them the whole time.
The Lancastria very quickly went under, in about twenty three minutes as near as I could judge, it was a wonder it stayed up as long as that though, for the bombs appeared to have fallen right down the forward hatch and had blown a large section of the side out."Mike Humphrey
Sgt. Peter Basil Priddey Royal Army Ordnance Corps (d.17th June 1940)My uncle, Sgt Peter Priddey of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps was on board in Lancastria at the time of the sinking. Unfortunately he did not survive. He is buried in a multiple grave at St Marie Sur Mer, along with a few others from this disaster. The grave has a military headstone.Mary Jenner
Cpl. William George Bamforth 14th Line Section, No.2 Coy Royal Corps of SignalsIn May 1939 my father, William Bamforth, joined the local Territorial Army, 14th Line Section, 2nd North Midland Group, Royal Corps of Signals. On Sunday morning 3rd of September 1939, I came down to breakfast only to find that my dad was not there. Mum told me that he had been called at 5am to the TA camp in Glossop. He came home during the week, but only to pick up some personal items. Later that week, together with my Mum and several hundred other people, we watched the Royal Signals march to the market square and there load up onto army trucks. At that time we were not, could not be told were they were going. In point of fact they went first to Bakewell and then a few weeks later on to Chesterfield where they joined with other units. We did not hear from my Dad for some time and eventually we received his limited address: Cpl. Bamforth, WG, 14th Line Section, No 2 Company, 2nd Air Formation Signals, Advanced, Air Strike Force, British Expeditionary Force. Somewhere in France.
The next time I saw my Dad was quite a surprise. During the week I was living with my Maternal Grandparents, one street away from home as my Mum was working in a local cotton mill, engaged in some sort of war work. On the Sunday I went home and there was my Dad, sitting at the table, on leave from France. My birthday had just passed but he had a present for me, Dinky Toy Aeroplanes, one box of British and one box of French, six aircraft to a box. He had returned to France before Christmas, but “Father Christmas” had brought me a box of Dinky Army trucks – one search light lorry with anti-aircraft gun, one covered lorry towing a field kitchen and water bowser, one Dragon bren gun carrier towing an ammunition cart and a field gun. I also got a French howitzer which actually fired shells, propelled by a spring. Christmas day saw Mum and me with my paternal Grandparents and we all listened to Gracie Fields 'Somewhere in France' and we were all hoping that my Dad was in that audience.
In the New Year letters were sparse, and when we heard the news that the Germans had attacked we received even less, in fact none at all for several weeks. I was only 6 years old but everyone knew about Dunkirk and there was no news of my Dad. My Granddad Farrell, mum's dad, used to cheer me up by saying that “no news is good news”. It was obviously a terrible time for my mother, but I cannot remember her being a crying wreck and my memory of those days is clear.
In June, Mum received a notification that my dad was in a military hospital in Basingstoke, he had been in hospital in Plymouth and it was hoped that he would soon be moved to a military hospital nearer our home. He was, to Wharncliffe (Temporary) Military Hospital in Sheffield.
Eventually we learned that my Dad had been on the Lancastria, sunk by German bombs at St Nazaire on the 17th of June 1940. There had been over 6000 aboard, British, French and Belgian Military, as well as British Fairey Avaition workers and their families who had been employed by Fairey Aviation in Belgium. It was the greatest British Maritime disaster, in excess of 4250 lives were lost that day.
My father's AB64
Dad was discharged from the Army in December 1940 as medically unfit. He had not recovered from the injuries received when the Lancastria was sunk. He received a lapel badge, which had been instituted by King George VI, the badge showed the cypher of the king and the words around the perimeter read “For Loyal Service”. I believe this badge was to show that the wearer was not a shirker who was ducking serving his country.
Once he could, Dad returned to work, he joined the ARP and the British Legion. My mum also returned to work in the mill, she was also a Fire Watcher. She didn't watch fires, but was on the look out for incendiary bombs – fire bombs.Brian Bamforth
Pte. Charles Edward "Jack" Pattle Royal EngineersMy father Charles Pattle survived the sinking of the Lancastria. He didn't talk about it much but did say that he helped a friend who couldn't swim by pushing him in and making sure he held onto some driftwood. He spoke about the Germans shooting at them as they swam to safety. It was obviously too painful a memory to discuss at length. I wish I had a photo of my father in uniform, so if anyone's relative knew my father and has a photo I would love them to get in touch.
Samuel Henry CarterMy grandfather survived three days at sea after the sinking of the Lancastria in June 1940. Any information or photos (there is a possible photo which appeared in the News of the World) on his return to England would be welcome.Amy Carter
Spr. Walter Hall Royal EngineersMy father, Sapper Walter Hall (born 8th December 1918), survived the Lancastria disaster.Keith Hall
LAC George Wellesley Barrie 98 Sqdn. (d.17thJune 1940)My uncle, George Wellesley Barrie, was last seen swimming away from SS Lancastria. Does anyone remember what happened to him?
According to the CWG site, LAC Barrie, 98 Sqdn, RAF is recorded as "lost on SS Lancastria". He is commemorated on Panel 122 at Runnymede.Joyce Grant
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