Vol 10. 4th Edition
Escape from the HMT Lancastria
by Frank Richards
I enlisted on 15 November 1939 and served with the Buffs until May 1946. During this long stint as an infantry soldier, I saw service in France, Algeria, Tunisia, Sicily, Italy and Austria.
However, one of my most harrowing experiences took place in France. In June 1940 no one knew what was happening or where we were going, refugees were mixed up with us. We tried to tell them it wasn’t good to be with us, we most likely could be spotted by enemy planes. Finally on 16 June, a very hot Sunday afternoon, we reached St Nazaire. A plane dived from out of the blue and planted a bomb in the middle of the harbour. When the spray cleared there didn’t seem to be any damage to the ships.
We were each issued with a tin of ‘bully’ and a packet of biscuits, so three of us decided to open one tin and share it because it was going to be our breakfast, probably dinner too, so you had to think ahead (like you do in the Army!). I had a sandy bed that Sunday night listening to the ships’ sirens blaring out. Morning dawned to a drizzly rain. Still, no one knew what was happening until around 10 am, then there was activity down by the jetty with troops boarding smaller boats, so we surmised that we had another mission to go on. I said, “It’s going to be a quiet one - none of us have any ammo”. We slowly had our turn to board the fishing boat (I think that was what it was). That was when we met up with the troopship Lancastria. Climbing up the gangway, the Captain asked me “How many more are there?”. I said, “Plenty more behind us”. He said, “We should have only 4,000, we now have more than 6,000.” On board, three others and myself were given an officer’s one-man cabin. Taking off my equipment, I lay on the deck. I think for a while I had forty winks. Then someone said that if we made our way to the galley there would be something to eat and drink. There was, too! Big fat bangers and mash. I had my fill with a large mug of proper tea. Next, I heard that the ship’s shop was open. That, I
found, was another deck down. There was a queue of some RAF personnel, so I was the last one and that’s when the alarm bells struck up their melodious clanging. The man in the shop told us that he would have to close until the ‘all clear’ was sounded. That didn’t happen.
A few moments later a big explosion blew me across the corridor. I hit the opposite side, the lights were gone and you literally could not see your hand in front of your eyes - it was pitch black, and for a second I said to myself “Frank, you’ve got to get out of here”. My instinct took me to the right. Then I realised I was walking on people, but no one was making a sound, so I kept walking. Luck was with me, I finally saw a chink of light and I was heading the right way. When I did reach full light, I stopped for a moment thinking of those I stood on, but can’t remember anyone following behind me. Was I lucky?
When I did get back to my mates, they wanted to know where I had been. Then one turned on his way out and said “Look at your face!” I looked in the mirror as the ship lurched sideways. What I saw was my hair standing really straight upright like a bass broom. My face was a grey mass of dust. I swilled water over my head and face. I then began to wonder why I was hanging around with the ship all cock-eyed. On my way out I saw a life jacket beneath the bunk and thought “you never know”, so I went out tying it round myself. I could swim, but you never know one might need a little help! Getting on to the deck, I looked over the rail to see a lifeboat being lowered manually, it wasn’t funny, but I was almost certain what was going to happen - and it did! The man holding the rope
attached to the front of the lifeboat couldn’t hold it. I felt sorry for him, but much more sorry for the occupants as the boat was only about half way down and it was a sorry sight because there were lots of troops already in the water. I then noticed there was still another deck above me. Thinking I would have a better chance up there, I swung out and grabbed the upper rail and climbed on to the deck - then I looked down, and although the ship was leaning well over, it was a long way down to the water. That made up my mind not to jump. Some men were sliding down ropes and unless you were trained as a sailor that wasn’t a good idea.
By now the ship was well over on its side. Lots of loose material was falling and as I was standing or rather holding onto what I thought was a cabin, whatever it was it shielded me from whatever fell. I then discovered I wasn’t alone, another soldier was hanging on to the other end. By then the ship was well on its side, so I let go and slid straight onto the rail which was just disappearing under the water and I walked off into the water. I don’t know if the other soldier followed me or not. I didn’t see him, but he did tell me he was a Fusilier. In the water my thoughts were to get away from the sinking ship. I realised that I was in a sea of thick, black oil.
Looking back, the funnel of the Lancastria was just disappearing under the water blowing up a cloud of steam.
I thought to myself, I had some nice bangers and mash on the liner Lancastria. Other memories too will never be forgotten. I suppose time wasn’t something that I was thinking about. I was occupying myself pushing little flames under thick oil that kept springing up, caused I am told by a German plane trying to set light to the oil. In those circumstances things were rather hectic. But luck was changing. To my surprise, a small sailing boat was beside me and the French man was trying to pull me up, but the oil on me hampered him, so he made a loop in a rope and I managed to get it over my head and under my arms. That way he made a good job of heaving me on board. He had already picked up one other survivor. He then took us to a ship which we found to be the petrol tanker Cymbula. The captain was waiting for us with mugs of strong sweet tea. I had two mugs being greedy! He was very generous. He called to one of his crewmen who was Chinese or of eastern origin, and he took me down to the side and cleaned me off with paraffin, cutting off my shirt and throwing it overboard. After cleaning me up he went off and came back with a pair of his white trousers and a jacket which I kept for several years. I’ve always wished that I had hung on to them, but as time went on I discarded them.
On 20 June, we came in to Plymouth at daylight. There were no brass bands to greet us, only one man going to work and I’m sure he didn’t even see us, although there were around 15 of us. From then on, it was all hustle and bustle to get us out of Plymouth as soon as possible, and they did!
Ed - We are grateful to Bill Fitness of Swanley who, whilst recording members’ experiences from the 1st Army (Djebels) Assn, Medway Branch, encouraged Frank Richards to send us this account.
Material Copyright © Wartime News.