We seemed to take a long time to reach Angers. Some officers and other ranks went off to reconnoitre sites for landing strips but I can’t recall much was accomplished. We eventually reached Nantes where we backed up against thousands of others, Air Force personnel as well as Army. After two or three nights bivouacking outside the town we destroyed the G.1098 stores sabotaged any unnecessary machinery and marched in convoy to the port of St. Nazaire. We arrived on the 17th June at ten o’clock, having marched seven miles many of us in new boots taken from the G.1098 before it went up in smoke. We were tired, grumbling yet knowing nothing of the heroics that had been happening at Dunkirk a month before. At eleven o’clock we went aboard the Cunard’s Lancastria, grousing and grumbling at being among the last to board. We were assigned places on “A” deck aft.
At four o’clock in the afternoon several Stukas flew over. One dropped his bombs and missed by fifty yards, we cheered, and the gunners began to bang away with their ineffective popguns. Another Stuka flew in from the sun on portside. It zoomed low over the ship. We ducked down automatically, a confused chatter of guns a great bang and a smell of cordite. We straightened up and began to yell, “GOT the BASTARD!!” But he had got us. Amidships. Straight down the main staircase. No chance at all for those down there. Within several minutes the Lancastria began to tilt to starboard. We were wearing life belts, or had lifebelts. I wore mine. Shouts of “OVER THE SIDE”!!! “EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF”!!! Large rafts were heaved over the side, I helped and waited until most had gone over, anyone in the water with one of them thrown on top would have no chance. A rope ladder was now over the side I got on that and went down as fast as I could boots and feet banging on my head, and one time trapping my hand. By this time the ship was at a terribly steep angle. It is said one sees ones life flash in front of one like a movie. Not so. I was too busy working out what to do and where to go.About two o’clock, very hungry we went below and had a jolly good lunch of bangers and mash and hot tea, all the better enjoying silver service by uniformed waiters. Up on top again out in the warm sun, I took off my boots, which were torturing my feet and popped on my ‘plimsolls’. I rested on my kit bag we had been allowed to bring with us. Teddy Perfect said, “Why the hell don’t we get cracking and weigh anchor we’re a sitting duck waiting here”. Several agreed but each seemed lost in his own thoughts to develop more conversation. Time dragged on. It had been obvious the last few days that we were escaping out of France. We had no news of any kind – just rumours. One of the French troops guarding St. Nazaire had spat at the feet of one of our officers when he wished them goodbye and good luck. With hind sight not a sensible thing to do.
By now the sea was full of swimming, paddling, struggling men. I pushed out for a life raft some yards away that was moving away from me faster than I could paddle. I was not a good swimmer. I had the support of the buoyant life jacket yet I did not seem to be able to reach the raft. The ship was towering above me. Spotting a raft surrounded with bobbing heads that seemed to be nearer I struck out for that and eventually grabbed a loop of rope. I was dragged along, next I was paddling with my right hand, then almost pushed down under the raft as it turned in the water. This went on for a very long time.
Temporarily safe I began to think of my family and friends. By now we were sufficiently away from the ship to take stock. The Lancastria had turned over completely with her bottom above the water. Men were scrambling about on her upturned hull. It was uncanny. Would she go down completely or was enough air trapped inside to keep her like that to save the men before they were sucked down. Oil was everywhere. To get far away from the ship to land was everyone’s goal. I was getting tired. A tiny rowing boat painted yellow slid alongside the raft taking people off. I would not let go until I was sure I was ready to get into the boat. In the end I was helped into it by someone grabbing the seat of my trousers as I grabbed the side and missed through sheer exhaustion.
The rowboat put us on to a French trawler; I stripped off my jacket to get dry. A frigate, HMS Havelock, hailed the trawler. As we scrambled up nets to get aboard I lost my jacket. A sailor had taken it from me indicating he would throw it up after me. He did, I missed catching it as the swell was so great the stern end of the trawler dipped down too much as he swung it up to the level of the Havelock deck. It missed by three feet and sank between the screws of both ships.
Gone forever were my papers except for a photograph that was in my shirt pocket tucked behind a metal mirror.
Someone propelled me to the petty officers wardroom. We were fed hot tea and biscuits. We were well out at sea sailing for England when the ship’s ‘tannoy’ broadcast a message that the French Army had given up and Petain had signed the Vichy Agreement. We had little to say. It seemed we had run away. The relief of being alive over rode the gloom and sense of shame. It was all very daunting.
We drew into Devenport. As we tied alongside some well wishers on the dock had little sense. They threw tins of ‘bully’ and other food up to the deck with such vigour we were under a bombardment for a few minutes. One poor fellow having escaped unharmed had his head cut open with a tin of bully. Whilst on the Havelock I had taken off my sodden trousers, someone had taken them away to dry and I couldn’t get them back. I was given a ship’s blanket that I wrapped round me to go ashore. Going down the gangplank I trod on the trailing blanket, tripped and was grabbed by two Wren nurses at the bottom of the gangway. They were going to whip me away in an old world war one, canvas tilted, ambulance. The more I resisted the more convinced they seemed I was a ‘shock” case. I got away and followed the rest to the barrack block close at hand.
Whilst resting for a couple of days we received an issue of fresh uniform and basic gear. After we had been sorted out and our unit or regiment informed, I and a few others of the unit who fetched up at Davenport were detailed to report to Leeds. I telephoned my parents who were delighted. No leave was forthcoming. We were told that would be sorted once we reported to our unit. Leeds Town Hall a magnificent building. We bedded everywhere. I found a space on the stage near the organ console. Joy and sadness abound -ed as members of C. R. E. No.2 found each other. We learned nine personnel had been lost. One was dear old Captain Dennison. The staff sergeant had gone.
Another chap we all missed was ‘Mate’ a driver in H.Q. He had been friendly with all officers, NCOs, and the O. Rs. He was an incorrigible wag. At Nantes he had found some pornographic drawings, exquisitely drafted and beautifully coloured. They were works of art, e’en if very naughty. They were shown to all who wished to see and he had tucked them in his jacket swearing he would give them up to no one. Poor old ‘Matey’ with his pictures at the bottom of the sea. Teddy Perfect who I had last seen going down a rope over the side was his cheerful jolly self other than having both hands bandaged. He had burnt the skin off sliding down the rope.
We shared a posh billet. Our new headquarters were in a large house in Allerton Park. We were billeted in houses nearby. The excitement of going on ‘survivor’ leave was too much. Everyone wanted to know details of the road back from France. My story of the escape after Dunkirk of which people knew little seemed dramatic. The story of the Lancastria seemed a bit over the top. I stopped talking about it other than saying we came out down the Loire valley. “Oh, weren’t you at Dunkirk?” they asked, and lost interest when I said I came out of France at St. Nazaire. The disaster, the biggest loss of life at sea ever, almost 3,000 were lost. Churchill who thought it would be bad for morale suppressed news of the event. It was published seven years later.