How Grandad Went to War

   Philip Brewin recalls his part in the early part of WW2

A survivor's account of the Lancastria disaster

Having narrowly missed being picked up by the Lancastria, my father was very interested in finding out more information about her sinking.
In his wartime memories folder I found the following personal account of a serviceman who survived the sinking.  I do not know the who owns the copyright of this account, although I have tried to determine to whom it belongs.  If you know then please let me know and I will acknowledge the copyright here.  Thank you, APB


On Monday afternoon, 17th June, 1940, at twelve minutes past four, the troopship "Lancastria", 17,000 tons, with 5,300 personnel on board, was dive-bombed and sank in twenty minutes in the roadstead five miles off St.  Nazaire at the mouth of the Loire estuary.  

As far as I can now gather, more than 3,000 of these Army and R.A.F.  men were killed either by the bombs, or being trapped in the warren-like ship compartments, or by drowning, or through being machine-gunned from the air while attempting to swim to safety.  I was one of the lucky ones - but that was only because the German airmen failed to set the oil on fire.  The oil from the "Lancastria's" fuel tanks.  They tried that, it was all over the sea.  Somehow, their incendiaries and tracers misfired, so that nothing (much) happened to the lucky ones.

For me the rehearsal was, I suppose, a week before, when I fell out of a dinghy into the Loiret, brandishing aloft a couple of litre bottles of that pleasant white wine which the troops went for so much in France.  Our little party from the Personnel Staff Officer's section had been going it after duty that evening, and some of the other lads thought it would be interesting to rock the boat while I was practising a Viking figurehead stance up forrard.  Anyway, I got wet.  So did they!

We were on the first stage of our elaborate "scuttle".  Our neighbours of the Advanced Air Striking Force, hitherto coded as "Panther", had unofficially renamed themselves "Rabbit".   They were running just as hard as we were.  Although we did not realise it then, it was three weeks after Dunkirk and that was why we were all "on our way".

Of course, we (those not in the know) thought it was just another of those mysterious but intriguing operational moves, and we had no idea that it would be touch and go whether we got home at all.

The Loiret is a tributary of the Loire, well inland, and for two weeks we of the Headquarters BAFF (British Air Forces in France), were located in a village called Olivet on its banks about five miles south of Orleans.

The situation was a beautiful one, something like the Thames at Goring and Streatley, with boating and swimming and a roadhouse with a funny English name just across the river.  We always went to this roadhouse in the dinghy for our meals, rather than stomach the unappetising camp fodder.  That was where we got the vin ordinaire, and that was how, after an evening out in the calm June twilight, I came to rehearse the somewhat bigger dip in the sea a week later.

The next day a movement order was issued stating that Headquarters BAFF would be up and away to the coast early on Friday morning, 14th June.  A rear party was to remain, as usual, to clear up.  It would be just my luck to be on this rear party, doing - what do you think? - letters to the Air Ministry about Honours and Awards, and then burning the carbon copies.  Grand bonfire by the Loiret!

That occupied the morning pleasantly enough, and at lunch-time, being the last of the Mohicans in my own particular section, I made a lone final trip across the Loiret for a brace of pate de foie gras sandwiches washed down by that amazingly cheap white wine.  Probably there were a few liqueurs too, at about 3d each, thrown in as makeweight.  I'm sure I can't remember.

At the roadhouse I recall meeting a charming American woman who had been a helper at the British Leave Club in the Place de la Repub­lique in Paris.  She was now going south by easy stages, not so much as a refugee as to avoid being in the thick of any war which might be around.  From her I gathered the seriousness of the situation, which most of us lesser fry had not realised before.  The Germans, she said, were already south of Paris and moving fast against little or no resistance with their forward armoured units.  The remaining British units were completely cut off in the North, and two hundred miles from the west coast.   Useless to talk of a stand by Weygand on the Loire — we were only five miles south of the Loire — and there was no evidence of any French troop movements whatsoever, unless the most superb camouflage was in being.  

I asked the American woman why the French had appeared to give up so easily, and she told me that with the surrender of Paris — it had been a "sensible" surrender to avoid the destruction of beautiful buildings — the heart seemed to go out of the French nation.  Paris meant so much to them.

"Suppose something like that happened to London", I asked her, "do you think the heart would go out of the British in the same way?"
"I don't think the British would ever yield," she said.   "Besides, London doesn't mean to the north countryman what Paris means to every Frenchman.  If London fell — she wouldn't surrender — the British would still go on fighting in the Midlands or anywhere else."
I felt gratefully comforted for these words; it was obvious that they were sincerely meant.  Just the same, they didn't bring any closer the realisation of our personal danger.

There was a sense of timelessness about the whole atmosphere, like waiting at Crewe for a train you know isn't coming for four hours anyway.

I took my leave of the American lady, sculled back across the river, and burnt some more documents.  Then I borrowed, so to speak, a gunner's bicycle which I found leaning against the Admin.  building.  This was useful for a quick run into Olivet to pick up sundries of food and drink; but it was a risky journey, for a literal swarm of refugees was pouring down the main road, from Orleans towards Vierzon, Limoges and Toulouse.  As I braved the flood to cross Olivet's dingy main street, an overloaded, over-exuberant Tin Lizzie knocked my cycle clean from under me.   Luckily none of us (myself, my purchases, or my cycle) was seriously damaged, though the cycle almost immediately developed an old-soldierly limp.

Reaching the "Rondons", the rear-party's pre-arranged rendezvous, was therefore a little catch-as-catch-can.  But I arrived in a haze of winish geniality, to find a nondescript collection of airmen unenthusiastically eating enormous door-steppy sandwiches of corned-beef, and sharing huge mugs of super-strong scalding tea, apparently under the impression that they would not get anything more to eat for days.  With equal reluctance I joined them and later, feeling rather ill, I repaired to a French army lorry containing among other things a large armchair, which was to house me for the next thirty hours.

At a quarter to twelve that Friday night we moved, deviously away from Olivet.  At a quarter to five the next morning the advanced Panzers clattered into Orleans.

There is little I can say about the journey to Nantes, which lasted until six o'clock on Saturday evening.  It was quite uneventful.   Having heard since the horror stories of German aircraft machine-gunning refugee columns on the main roads, I wonder sometimes that our convoy was not spotted.  However, we sneaked along "B" roads, well south of the Loire, and strictly kept a quarter-mile interval between each lorry.

Little ground was covered during the night.  In fact, we did not get to Blois, which is 55 kilometres (about 35 miles) from Orleans, much before eight o'clock.  At Blois there was traffic chaos, and it took much diversionary work to get clear of the city.  Then we swung south of the river through lovely Touraine, with its spectacular Snow-White-and-the-Seven-Dwarfs chateaux and its lovely soft-rolling countryside.  We edged along through such places as Loches, Loudun and Cholet, until the approach to Nantes brought us once more beside the Loire.  Even at these far-flung places there were streams of refugees, and still that sense of timelessness hung over me.

In a chateau near Nantes, where the base area had been quartered, I found there was still duty to be done.  If these last Honours and Awards were not polished off, some very deserving airmen might never get their gongs, explained the Wing Commander.  So, after a much needed wash and shave (I repeat "wash", few have baths during retreats), we buckled down to them and finally ran the lot off at 2.15 on Sunday morning.  I took leave of my Wingco, whom I was not to see again until after leave in England, and retired for two hours sleep, alone in a bell tent: then it was time to be up and doing, or I might in very truth have missed the boat.  Solemn thought, that!

Breakfast consisted of the inevitable sausages of an army on the move, and we were away by six-thirty.  The rear party was now again together with the main stem, and twenty of our lorries went hurtling at breakneck speed for nearly forty miles from Nantes to a half-built airfield near St Nazaire.  Hurtling is the only word: at about eighty miles an hour we shot past the not-so-slow articulated-trailers smothered in airmen which less fortunate units were compelled to use.  As for the Army, we passed hundreds of platoons, in extended order — MARCHING!

Many a jeer went out from our lorries, and many a frustrated roar hurled back...

At the aerodrome, it was like going in to a Cup Final, with the officials unsure which was the best entrance.  There was much pedestrian shunting back and forth, and we had our nominal-roll checked at least six times.

For food, one of our squadron-leaders had a brilliant brain wave.  He caused all the corned-beef, and all the potatoes, and all the baked beans, and all the cheese, and all the other sundries, to be dumped into one massive cauldron, the whole being covered with water and condiments, and stirred and boiled furiously for about an hour.  Curiously, it was not such a bad mess, and everybody had some! We must have had stomach-linings of gutta-percha.

Shortly afterwards there came an order to pack into a very small space only the things we simply couldn't do without - otherwise we might not be allowed on the ship.  This was going to be awful - I had with me just about everything one is not allowed on Active Service, including things picked up in France.  I had a rare old sort-out, and regretfully jettisoned some nice and risqué Parisian magazines.  I managed to hang on to my Kobbe Opera Book - of all things to have in France! - and several other tomes, and shoved them with my pyjamas and socks in my suitcase.

There were several alerts while we were packing in our half-built hangar, and we had perforce to drop everything and disperse into the much-beditched airfield.  A huge cheer went up when we saw one enemy aircraft shooting earthwards with smoke-belching tail.  This was right on the west coast, on Biscay Bay, so you can imagine how close the Jerries were.

Eventually, at six o'clock on Sunday evening, we were on the move after three false alarms.  This time on foot the Headquarters BAFF crowd swung out of the airfield gates and down the road to St.  Nazaire and the docks.  Now that march really was a purgatory.

We had been up at four-thirty, had been most active all day, and now we had five miles of overladen marching to do.  The things we threw away are beyond belief.  I myself dumped my suitcase (Kobbe and all!), because my pack and all my equipment and my overcoat were cutting me in pieces.  It was perishingly hot, and the road was kicked-up and dusty.  We mooched wearily along, but somehow kept formation - to outward view, anyway.   Inside the ranks there seemed to be a good deal of "changing over", and one man who had started off in the leading file soon mysteriously found himself at the rear.

There was considerable camaraderie, too.  Known martinets among the sergeants and the service policemen revealed themselves as human beings with hearts, and here and there a willingness to carry something for the exhausted straggler.  Passing through the streets of St. Nazaire, rather a Plymouthy little town, we found the French, with disaster staring them in the face, still with enormous sympathy for us footsore ones.  "Pauvres enfants", we heard on every hand.

At one point we heard a dim hum, and looked up to see a Dornier Flying Pencil directly above us, sculling along through wispy clouds.  The alert immediately shrieked right in our ears, and a heavy-calibre Ack-Ack went off deafeningly close, like a bomb.  Did we dive for shelter, or did we dive for shelter? (Answer adjudged correct: we dived for shelter).

It must have been a recce plane, but that did not make matters any pleasanter.  Added to this, we now began a series of "waits", en masse. In your hundreds, you wait for half-an-hour, then there is a stir, and you move on fifty yards, and then you wait for another half-hour.  Taking hours in this manner, we gradually shuffled into dockland.  The long twilight came and went, darkness fell, and the moon rose.  We had almost reached the jetties when we heard that the French port admiral would allow no further embarking that night.  Subsequently we felt the port admiral might have been a Fifth Columnist: the moon was brilliant enough to permit the entire "Lancastria" complement to embark without a trace of exterior light, and we could have got away that night instead of waiting for things to happen to us on Monday afternoon.

As it was, being philosophical was the only course left to us.  We were told to bed down as well as we could in an open square full of cobble-stones.  Now, those cobbles, with a blanket on top of them, were the softest things I've ever slept on, barring nothing.  For five hours, with my pack for a pillow, I slept like a dog, except for one alert which made us all jump.  The alert was an interesting affair, however, well worth waking up for.

We heard no aircraft, but off went the siren, and the sky was immediately lit with as pretty a pyrotechnic display as you could ever have desired at Crystal Palace in the old days.  Little triple-firing tic-a-toe guns sent up red, white and green tracers, flaring up and out like irises, huge green gusts of light billowed out from a heavier Ack­ Ack, and a continuous machine-gun, with a curious cavernous wong­-wong-wong-wong-wong echo in those empty streets, emitted another endless stream of tracers. Pretty!

Meanwhile, we crouched against old market buildings, hoping it wouldn't happen!

At four o'clock on Monday morning - this was to be the great day, 17th June - we began some of our Time-Marches-On shuffling.   Undeniably people were starting to get cross, but in due time, after shifting from one foot to the other and easing our hip-bones like the crowd at a Promenade Concert, we reached the jetty.   Surprisingly quickly we were hustled aboard tenders, hundreds at a time.  With great expedition these tenders cleared the jetty to make room for others, and we scuttled out into the roads, tired but not unhopeful.

A shattering downpour, of almost tropical intensity, greeted us in the open sea beyond the mole, and some of us became very wet.  It is no joke being on an open deck in something which approaches a cloud­ burst.  We could not see a thing until suddenly over to port loomed a large and unprepossessing ship.  We had to move right round its stern, and came in on the starboard.   The ship was painted an unappetising dull yellow, with a broad black frieze just below the deck-rail.

Numbers of small boats were disgorging their cargoes into the ship's side, and in the cold wet air we had to wait our turn.  When it came, we filed up a steep gang-plank, to find the words "S.S.  Lancastria" inconspicuously stencilled in odd corners.

The civilian stewards were still on the ship, and were serving break­fasts - sausages, need I say - to the hundreds descending upon them.  And after breakfast, the time being nine o'clock, it was just a question of waiting and waiting and waiting; waiting in a compartment, lying on a floor carpetted with mattresses; waiting in a gangway; wait­ing on a companionway; waiting on a deck watching hundreds more people filing up the gangplanks and moving into the very bowels of the ship.  A large destroyer, heavily camouflaged, was helping with the ferrying.

I ate a lot of chocolate and dropped off into several fitful slumbers on my mattress.  I only really came to when the buzzers started their jerky warning.  They were like the signal bells one hears in railway­ stations, and their message was urgent.

Distant thuds were heard, and a comrade in my compartment rushed in to say that a couple of bombs had fallen to port only fifty yards away.  We all started putting on our life-jackets then, and it was lucky we did so, for all at once a terrifying grrrrrumph! shook the whole ship.  I thought it must have been the aft gun firing, because in some way it did not seem as if it could have been a bomb ....

Now there is a slight settling sensation, and we hear a scraping noise overhead, as if something heavy were sliding.  Immediately there is a rush towards the gangway.

"Don't PANIC!" roars someone, terrifically, and at once the rush subsides.  The men start back to their places, looking a little shame­ faced.

But now there is a heavy rolling list.  It makes people fall over, and mattresses slide about.  Without more ado the members of my com­partment begin to move, quietly but quickly, up above.   There is no panic, and I don't think the people even feel afraid.  It is queer, but 1 don't.

We have been hit, badly hit, I realise- that.  But in some way a kind of imperviousness comes to help me, and I don't even have to be afraid of appearing afraid.  It is too easy!

Up the companionway we go..  A steward offers me a cigarette, has one himself, and we both light up.  A kind of last act of bravado!

But when a huge billow of smoke comes up the main passage, I realise it is time I wasn't here.  The decks are at an angle of forty-five degrees, so pedestrian progress is not easy.  In fact, it is dam' difficult.  However, I manage to cling to bad-sailors' rails, and like a monkey I go out to "E" Deck, hand-over-hand.

As I pass a transverse bay, a mass of humanity, overcome by gravita­tion, slides past me towards the deck-rails.

I negotiate the bay successfully, swing like my ancestors a little more, and then I come opposite a stanchion supporting the deck above.  I still have this wonderful feeling of not caring a damn.  So I relinquish hold on my precious rail and with one dive reach the stanchion.  To this I convulsively cling, and then make another swoop towards the deck-rails.

"E" Deck is normally about sixty feet above the water line, but now, at the slant, it is barely twenty feet.

Some men are sliding down the falls, squealing with pain as the ropes cut their palms to ribbons.  No good that way, I think, so I just jump.  It is quite easy: I have on my life jacket, and I am also fully clothed with boots and my steel helmet on.  I don't go under very much, but it is distinctly inconvenient when three or four other bodies, also booted, land Bang! on my tin hat.  I think I must look rather like the latter member of Laurel and Hardy.  (Why don't you do something to help me!)

So this is IT!  Well, well, well.  I indulge in a mild fancy that my life will come rushing past my eyes like a film, quite forgetting that I have on my life-jacket and will no doubt float for hours in that warm June water.  Common sense returns, and so there is the business of getting away from the shadow of the ship, bulging nastily overhead.  There will be a vortex from that, you can bet your boots, so get away from it...

A chap I saw on the boat was moaning that he couldn't swim, and I had callously replied, "Well, now's your chance to learn".  This self­-same chap now dashed past me like a torpedo, doing the American crawl almost as a matter of instinct.  He has learnt to swim.  So I follow suit, not with that beautiful crawl, but with my own laborious rudgeon.  It is a matter of minutes to get away about two hundred yards, and out here in the open one can pause to think and take stock for a bit.

Little heroic acts are going on, here and there.  Up on the top deck is a Bren gunner, still popping away.  (He went down with the ship - couldn't get clear in time).  One of our Hurricane pilots - I believe it is he who has shot down our assassin - flies low overhead and drops his Mae West into the water for one of the swimmers; he will be sunk if he gets brought down.  Over yonder a woman, one of the few English civilians who were coming away on the "Lancastria", is calling out: "My baby, look after my baby".  And back comes the answer: "It's all right, ma, we've got her".  And they have too, holding the baby well up above the water.

Just then a bloke without a life-jacket comes up to me - swims up to me, rather - and says, very politely: "Good afternoon, I propose to share your life-jacket", and I reply, "Do!" and he does.  This, indirectly, is of great benefit to me for, although our mutual water­line is considerably lowered, he is such a calm individual that he helps to keep my imperviousness, now wearing thin, intact.

"Don't talk", he says.  "You'll only swallow this bilious oily muck.  Just keep swimming.  We'll make a team of it".  And this we do. He hooks his left arm inside the tape of my jacket, and swims with his right arm while I swim with my left.

And thus we plodded away through the water.  It is now covered with a film of oil from the bunkers of the murdered ship, It is extremely unpleasant stuff to taste.  Nowadays I can no longer bear the smell of a paraffin lamp, for it was inevitable that I should swallow some of that oil.

I suppose we were about two hours in the water.  After tantalising waits, and mad spurts by us to try and reach a French trawler which has seemed to get no nearer, it suddenly looms up and a dinghy puts off towards us.  A great hand reaches out and pulls both of us into the boat by the seat of our pants, and we lie like stranded chub, wheezing out oily water.  The sailor rows over to the trawler and shoves us on board, then goes off to pick up other survivors.  On the trawler I see several of my officers, all very wet and white and pale and genteel­ looking in masses of blankets.  I am moved in time to the engine-house, where there is a chance to dry out.  In here is a man, quite naked with a blanket which he can hardly use, who has been blinded by the blast and fearfully lacerated by flying fragments.  When we get to a bigger ship, it is the very dickens helping him on board.

By about seven-thirty we go on board the "Oronsay", also a transport, and half as big again as the "Lancastria".  She also has received some­thing of a pasting, including a glancing hit on the bridge.  All the ship-clocks, we notice, have stopped at ten minutes to two.  "Oronsay" does not wait long before she ups anchor and shoots away up the coast at high speed, using her auxiliary steering ....

That night was much more horrible really than the actual sinking.  Nerves had had a chance to set in, and men were lying about every­where starting up as the ship's screws cleared the water with a rattle like machine-guns, and then resubmerged with a bomb-like boom.

The next morning dawned wonderfully fine and clear, and we found we were well into the English Channel.  It was expected that we would reach Plymouth by midday.  We arrived there at two, but so great was the queue of ingoing traffic from all sorts and conditions of ships that we, personally, did not disembark until eight 'clock in the evening.

And such a welcome we got in Plymouth - all of us in our funny survivors' clothing being cheered to the echo.  An embarkation officer said to me, rather unnecessarily: "You'd think we were winning this war, instead of losing it!" I remember I took time off to refute that pretty sharply.  I should like to think his face was red, but I rather doubt it!

Perhaps our return from France wasn't so much a glorious victory as we would like to think it.  However, it was a grand survival, and -­ after all - there is an old saying which has some force: "He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day..."  Many of those "Lancastria" survivors will be going overseas again...

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