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Sinking of the Lancastria

Sinking of the ‘Lancastria’

On 17th of June, 1940, the troopship Lancastria was sunk by enemy action following the rescue of troops and refugees from St. Nazaire. So great was the loss of life, some estimates as high as 6,000, that all details of the disaster were suppressed because of the possible effect on public morale.

Local man Jack Leaford, then S/Sgt Leaford, was one of the survivors.

“Our party, X section, boarded the Lancastria, off St. Nazaire, at about 07.00 hours on June 17th, 1940. We had breakfast and spent the morning cleaning up or resting. During the course of dinner, it became known that the Oronsay, another ship of the convoy, had been bombed and hit. Later it was confirmed that her bridge was blown away and navigating instruments destroyed. This happened at 13.50 hours.

Some time elapsed before we were warned by the Lancastria’s bells that a fresh raid was in progress and those that had lifebelts adjusted them and proceeded to defence stations. No incident occurred and the ‘all clear’ was given after about 15 minutes. A further warning was sounded at about 15.35 hours, and almost before the bells ceased ringing an explosion occurred which caused the ship to shudder. Eye-witnesses state this to be a bomb, or bombs, which struck the water about 30 yards from the port beam. The troops were mustered between decks, and such likely places as would afford cover, while the crew went about their defence duties. The atmosphere below got very foul, by reason of congestion and all portholes being closed, but the men remained patient and orderly.

At 15.50 hours, that is about 15minutes after the first attack, we were hit. One had the sensation of the boat bouncing in the water and cordite fumes spread from the area of the explosion. Almost at once the Lancastria began to nose down, indicating that she was badly holed somewhere forward of the funnel. Some of those who were above related how the attacker dived out of the sun on the port side and came down to within 500 ft of her objective, before releasing her salvo of bombs. It was further stated that the bomb penetrated the decks between the bridge and the forward hold.

Orders were given to abandon ship, and those concentrated below began to file up the hatchways. Lifeboats were lowered, and troops assisted in throwing over all loose gear which might prove serviceable in the water. This job completed, they then set about their own salvation. Some jumped overboard, others slid down ropes hanging over the ship’s side, while some managed to get into lifeboats. There were many, however, who decided to await events, for the most part, these were without lifebelts.

Soon the ship began to list badly to port, her forecastle all the time dipping further into the sea, any remaining gear, not secure, now began to fall over the side, carrying with it some more men. Some of these, already in the sea, were injured by falling debris. The she momentarily appeared to right herself, as the troops swarmed to get to the starboard side, but when she again went over to port, the list was probably about 45 degrees. Those who had not, by now, escaped from below, stood a poor chance of so doing by way of the hatches, although some managed to get through portholes. It was indeed very difficult to reach the starboard side, as the slope of the deck was so steep. During this period, one of the lifeboats capsized, later, men scrambled onto the upturned keel and were saved.

The Lancastria sank lower into the water, and crowds who had got over the starboard side, were now walking about on the sloping side of the ship, no doubt wondering whether she would sink entirely, or remain afloat long enough for them to be saved. Either the bomber, or an escort plane, circled the ship, taking stock of the situation. It was fired on by the destroyer Havelock, and other adjacent vessels, before climbing into the clouds and disappearing.

Some 20 minutes or so had gone by since we were hit, and the ship lay completely on her side, nose under the water and stern clear. It did appear for a while as if she would remain in this position, and so encouraged were the troops, on and around the wreck, that they commenced to sing “Roll out the barrel”. There was, however, an escape of steam through the ship’s side, which was sufficiently alarming to cause another batch of men to leave the ship, and get into the water, now black with fuel oil and a mass of floating valises, crates, spars, chairs, and men struggling to get clear. Some alarm was caused in this area by the appearance of automatic flares, it was thought that the wreckage would catch fire, however, they proved quite harmless. Some, who no doubt were further away, were under the impression that these flares were incendiary bombs.

British planes had now arrived on the scene, flying low over the water, they dropped lifebelts, and waved encouragement to those in the sea.

It became quite evident that the Lancastria would completely submerge, and when she did finally go, with her after gun the last part visible, she did go quietly. This was good fortune , indeed, for those who had remained on, or around, her, she had apparently been so badly holed that there was no vortex.

The majority of those who lost their lives, were trapped between decks, killed by the blast, or subsequently drowned, died from shock, or were overcome by the fuel oil.

The floating debris made it difficult for the rescue boats, to get very near to those who were in the vicinity of the wreck, save for the smaller craft. Those who were in this locality were in the water for varying periods up to three hours. Some were partially clad, and others completely stripped; all were so black with fuel oil, that recognition was not possible. They just lay where they were, hanging on to something, or supported by a lifebelt, awaiting their turn to be fished out. The rescue boats did untiring work, going to and fro from the various boats in the bay. The majority were put aboard a minesweeper, and later transferred to the ‘Oronsay’. Others were put on the ‘John Holt’, the destroyer ‘Havelock’, and the oil tanker ‘Cymbula’, while some were landed back in St. Nazaire on a French boat, believed to be the ‘Loire’.

All survivors were unanimous in their praise of the treatment they received after rescue, they were cleaned, fed and given some sort of clothing.

The ‘Havelock’ put into Devonport, and the Navy saw to it thet the survivors were made comfortable.

The ‘Oronsay’ and ‘Cymbula’ landed their survivors at the Marine Barracks, Plymouth, while the ‘John Holt’ party, proceeded to Raglan Barracks, Plymouth.

During the course of the journey home, it was revealed that the departure of the ‘Lancastria’ from St. Nazaire was delayed by reason of the ‘Havelock’, her escort, having fouled a propeller. Thus, it was about 19.30 hours that we left St. Nazaire, arriving at Devonport about 16.00 hours the next day. The ‘Oronsay’ was then already at anchor. The ‘John Holt’ arrived at about 22.30 hours the same day, the ‘Cymbula’ having arrived at 22.15 hours”.

This has been constructed from data received from the undermentioned:-

7579823   S/Sgt.  Pixie J.                        7594019  S/Sgt.  Thornton V.

7593850   S/Sgt.  Leaford  E.                   7593107   Sgt.   Tyrrell  T.

7588053   Sgt.     Smart J.                        216825     Sgt.    Hall R.

7594265   Sgt.     Clarke S.                      7593923   L/Cpl. Turneau  T.

7594285   L/Cpl.  Heap M.                        7594514   L/Cpl. Kalnes  E.

7593886   Pte.     Ratcliffe  J.                   7597300   Pte.     McCarlie  J.

7610706   Pte.     Arnold  J.