None of the sea disasters of the war is likely to surpass in human suffering the wreck of the troopship "Lancastria", which was bombed and sunk in St. Nazaire harbour on June 17. Here are some survivors' stories of the tragic and pitiable scenes they witnessed, and of coolness and heroism in the face of catastrophe.
This is the story an Army officer told.
I was on deck saying goodbye to two friends when the aeroplanes first came over. The 'planes were only 200 feet up. I thought they were British. Then the "Lancastria" was hit. As she went down I waited until her deck was awash, then stepped into the sea. I still had on my tin hat. It was just as well, because when we were all in the water the 'planes still went on dropping bombs. As they hit the sea their force lifted us right out of it.
The most dreadful thing was the cries of those who couldn't swim and there weren't enough lifebelts to go round. You heard, "Help me! I can't swim" – and you couldn't do anything.
But the courage shown was magnificent. Those who could swim sang as they swam.
I managed to get into a lifeboat, but it was soon so overcrowded that it turned turtle and we were all back in the sea. I clambered on the keel, holding a paddle I had somehow collected. With it I pulled more men up with me. But they all crowded to one end, and suddenly the keel up-ended and we were in the sea for the third time.
After that I started swimming and was picked up by a tug.
A member of the "Lancastria's" crew who tried to launch one of the lifeboats describes the scenes on deck. He said:
As soon as we were struck I pushed my way through the mass of soldiers towards one of the lifeboats. Already it was full, right up with men, and when I moved them the others all surged towards the boat hoping they would get a place aboard.
Just then the "Lancastria" gave a terrific lurch to port and all the men were thrown from one side of her to the other. I slid on my back down the deck, which was an enormous slant. I was flung into the sea, which can only be described as being one almost solid mass of men clinging together like flies and covered with thick black oil. Some of them were horribly burnt by the explosion, others were hanging on to debris, others were swimming until they finally sank; it was every man for himself.
All this time the three aeroplanes were still above us and they continually swooped and bombed the oily waters and their machine-gunners fired on the men struggling for their lives in the water.
Miss Fernande Tips, whose father is managing director of the Belgian branch of the Fairey Aviation Company, said:
I was with my mother, two brothers and a maid in the dining-room when the ship was bombed. We all wore lifebelts as we ate.
As each bomb fell all we could see was a sort of shadow, followed by thousands of splinters. Something hit me very hard in the eye and there was a terrific bang.
We tried to stick together. We went up slanting stairs to the deck. After that I lost trace of my mother and brothers. My mother swam about for three hours before she was picked up.
Captain R. Sharp, the "Lancastria's" commander, said:
I was in my cabin when the bombs hit us, all four in one salve. I was on the bridge when the ship sank, and I was thrown into the water. I was supported for four hours by my lifebelt; then I saw one of my own ship's lifeboats in charge of Murphy, an Irish quartermaster, and McLeod, a Scottish quartermaster.
Murphy called to McLeod: "Holy smoke, there's the captain". There were a number of Frenchmen in the boat, and with their help they hauled me aboard.
I am a heavy man, and I was as slippery as an eel because of the oil on my clothes and the lifebelt.
Two Church Army workers, Sisters Troot and Chamley, said: Through an open porthole we saw a black cloud in the sky moving very fast. It turned out to be five or six aeroplanes which, as soon as they were over the ship, released bombs. We rushed on deck and, hearing the order "Women and children first", got into a lifeboat while men were sliding into the sea by ropes and others leapt overboard.
The German 'planes swept down and we saw the spurts as their bullets struck the water where men swam for their lives.
As our boat moved away from the side of the ship, soldiers watching through a porthole saw theat we were wearing our lifebelts. They shouted, "Give us a chance", and we took off the belts and flung them into the sea. The soldiers jumped in after them. We saw R.A.F. 'planes arrive and drop lifebelts.
When the first warships arrived there was a great cheer and cries of "The Navy's here".
("Daily Express" and Press Association.)