Jo Fendon





On to St. Nazaire


This time we were loaded on to trucks and taken back to the train station and into cattle trucks.  Again no information of our destination.  We headed north the way to the front line.  At this moment, the time preceding every combat, especially the first time, any solder will tell you that all fears, dread, apprehensions are concentrated in the abdomen.  My stomach felt like it was about to somersault.  I had no need for Epsom salts.  This was it.  I was going to battle. 


As the train continued northward no amount of cheering brought gladness to my heart.  The images of war mimicked all thoughts.  I could see the trenches, the guns, the cannons.  The only war I knew nearer than this one, was the previous world war.  My own father had been there, he had seen the abominations we were moving towards.  I saw our fate through his eyes, and all the stories and history lessons that gathered to form my beliefs.  The day was clear and sunny, the mood in the carriage was not.  Were we all to become food for the cannons?


The train slowed as it approached a junction.  A gentle tilt.  It turned. It started to pick up speed.  We were going South!  South, back the other way.  Away from the Germans.  Slowly the truth dawned.  The rumors started to take shape.  We were no longer going in the direction of the Germans, we were fleeing.  We had heard through hearsay and gossip that the Germans had broken through the French lines and we had mistakenly assumed this was tactical.  A subtle method invoked to trap the Germans advance.  The new realisation pointed at a hasty retreat.  Luckily, at this time we did not concept the closeness of the enemy.


The ride back was contrary to the one only a few months before.  The French in their dismay and disappointment, spat and shook their fists at the passing carriages.  This did not matter.  The sudden relief of a non-existent imminent battle was overwhelming.  Although, this was still to come, it was in a distant future.  But not as remote as the blackness near-at-hand, the darkest day of my life less than a week away.  The last day many of my friends and comrades would see.  We were oblivious that this path was a direct line to the biggest British maritime disaster in history.


Eventually the train came to a halt at the famous Le Mans, where the car races are held.  As I departed the train I saw the prestigious Le mans clock and then we actually marched along the Le Mans Mulsanne straight.  There were no cars racing on this straight now, but thousands of men, marching.  We progressed miles and miles before reaching a train station and boarding another cattle truck.   


Amongst the organised bedlam of all these men were approximately sixty from the Sherwood Foresters, including my pals Morris, Tuggie, Bill, Jackie, Mark, Frank and Frankie.  Most of the regiment had been transported to the front line before the retreat.  We were on the train for a long time.  Although not tightly packed, we still had to take turns to sit down.  The train passed through Nantes and finally stopped at Pornichet. 


The French held no grudges here and the time spent was lovely.  We discovered a café ran by 2 French girls, both a little older than us.  They could speak perfect English.  Their café was modeled on an English tea room, serving tea and cakes.  The girls were thrilled when we commented that it looked like an English café.


After 2 or 3 days we were on the move again,  this time we were ordered into single file.  A line of men miles and miles long including Indians with their mules.  With no knowledge of the destination.  Each time the man in front of you stopped, you stopped, and the man behind you stopped.  A corporal belonging to my division, Taylor, a bit of a wag always making those around him laugh leaned over my shoulder.  With a serious voice he spoke, “Have you noticed there are no Officers with us, there are only sergeants and sergeant majors and corporals.”  I looked around me, behind and forwards realising I had not set eyes on an Officer for a while.  My blood boils when I think of this, they had left us behind and gone on the bloody ships long before us.  I have only gleaned this in later years through conversations with others including an Officer.  I have no proof but it is my belief.


It was night when we arrived at St. Nazaire.  We spent the night on the beach in front of a small wall.  Near where we stood a monument now stands in memory of the sinking of the Lancastria.  At sometime during the night an aeroplane flew over.  I have heard in later years stories of an air raid that night.  I do not think so, just one plane, a shuffti kite (in Arabic, shufti to look and kite means plane).  The Germans used this method to discover the strength of air raid precautions, air raid squads and guns.


Whilst standing there a voice shouted, “France is finished,”

“France is not finished monsieur,” answered a defiant French soldier.

The man proclaiming France’s demise was close to me, he leaned towards me and in a quieter and knowing voice said, “France, is finished.”  He could speak French and had heard news bulletins on radios as we passed by the houses.  He had heard France had surrendered.  A shiver passed down my spine.



The Sinking of the Lancastria


The next day, June 17th 1940, we continued our march, finally coming to a halt when we reached a long jetty.  In the sea awaited a huge flat tender, the type used to load goods.  Hundreds of solders boarded the tender, we were all tightly packed together as it set sail to rendezvous with the Lancastria.


We boarded the troopship the Lancastria into one of the holds at the side of this magnificent ship, we were the last ones to come aboard.  We were sent straight upstairs after being told there was no room below.  We stood on the deck, starboard side, talking and looking around at the splendor of this vessel, Billy, Tuggie, Frankie, Frank, Jackie and me.  A while later, I realised I was hungry.  I asked the lads if they wanted anything to eat, offering bully beef and British field bread, not surprisingly  they all declined so I ate the lot.  A short time after swallowing the last mouth full word came round that chicken was being served down below.  The rest of the lads decided to go down, “Are you coming Mickey,” one of them asked.

“No I don’t want anything else to eat,” I replied, “I’ll be all right.”


I stood at the side of the ship looking out, my memory fails me as to whether I was looking out to sea or inland to the river.  There was a tender heading towards the ship with hundreds of squaddies on board.  Someone came and stood beside me, I learned he was the boarding officer named Gratis.

He inquired, “what is it like up the front.”

I replied, “Well, I don’t know sir, I haven’t a clue, we’ve been running all the while on trains and lorries, a bit of walking, so I couldn’t tell you what happened.  I don’t know anything”

“Do you know anything,” I asked.

“No, I haven’t a clue,” he said.


The approaching tender was rather close now.

Gratis shouted to the Captain, “En tendre monsieur,” an instruction to wait.  The Captain of the Lancastria shouted, “what’s the problem Mr. Gratis.”

“we’ve already got 6700 people on board.  We can’t possibly take anymore, we’re packed like sardines.”

“we’ll just take these and that will be it, then we’ll be on our way.”

I saw the number of people aboard, written down on the piece of paper he was holding.  I am not entirely convinced these figures were correct.  I think they were too low.


At that precise moment the first German plane appeared and dropped a bomb approximately 500 yard away from us.  I actually saw the second bomb leave the plane.  It went over the top of us and I believe that may be the one that hit a ship nearby the Oronsay, hitting the bridge.  In my horror and disbelief the event seemed surreal.  A few minutes later an order was given, “everybody down below.”  At the time I obeyed without question, but in hindsight this seems a daft idea.  Either drown or be hit by bullets, which is worse?  I had managed to go down part of the stairs when the first bomb hit us.  The ship immediately tilted dangerously to the starboard side.  This was when my fear was the greatest, I really thought my short life was about to end.  Luckily, the ship straitened for a few minutes, giving those on the stairs a chance to scramble back onto the deck they had just left and save themselves.


At the top of the stairs, two airmen stood, one either side of the entrance, one had a little white dog on a lead.  They shouted, “make your way to the other side of the ship,” pointing directions.  Their plan was to attempt to regain the boat at an even keel, by using the weight of the passengers.  It did not work, it carried on tilting more and more.  Slowly and slowly as it keeled over I clambered onto the side.  By this time my fear had subsided as I planned my escape.  Find anything floating in the water and swim away as fast as possible before I was sucked into the sea by the sinking ship.


As soon as the ship was flat on its side I took all my clothes off leaving my hat until last.  This was the way you would undress when going to bed.  All around me others were doing the same.  What a funny sight we must have looked, hundreds of naked men, except for their hats, standing there on the side of a sinking boat.  A port hole opened and a pair of arms then a head appeared jutting out from it.  Maurice Simms was nearby and with his and the help of two others, all four of us managed to pull out the rather weighty Sergeant-Major.  We remarkably laughed at this situation we found ourselves carrying out. 


At some point my friend Jackie Wright came up to me.  He was visibly scared, “I can’t swim Mickey, what shall I do?”

“Take all your clothes off Jack and I’ll try and help you,” I instructed. “Grab anything that floats, even if it’s a dead body.” If it’s floating it will hold you up, were my thoughts.

He wouldn’t.  he just stood there, too frightened to help himself.  Sadly I was not physically strong enough to help him, without his own assistance.  I knew I had to leave the ship as quickly as possible to avoid being pulled down with it.  Never a day goes by that I do not think about the friends I left behind to be claimed by the sea.


When the ship was completely flat on its side, I walked into the sea, as though I was walking from the beach.  With my wallet clutched in my hand I calmly scanned the water, many kit bags and various items floated near by, I sighted a hatch board about four foot wide directly in front of me.  I put my wallet in my mouth and managed to wriggle onto the top of the board with my feet dangling in the water. I pushed myself away from the ship and started to swim as hard as I could with my feet. The board kept tipping, so I stretched out my arms wide and held onto the opposite sides to keep it steady.  But I could not go very fast. I was very aware I was still in danger of the boat dragging me under, this was my only thought and the fear kept me going.  I saw a plank in front of me about six inches wide and six feet long.  Thinking quickly, I grabbed the plank and held it in front of me with my fingers, it slowed me down but stopped me from swaying.


Ahead I could see a destroyer, it was a long way in the distance, I decided to swim towards it. Behind me I heard the them singing, ‘roll out the barrel’. I glanced behind me, the ship was upside down. I saw men standing on it.  As I swam farther away the sound of the song became more muffled with the sound of sea around me.  When I looked back again the Lancastria had vanished beneath the waves.


It seemed like hours I was in the sea, I have no idea how long. Timed passed by so slowly.  Although in my vision the destroyer remained in the horizon, not really any nearer, I felt extremely lonely like I was completely on my own in the vast waters.  I retained my wallet for as long as possible not wanting to lose precious pictures within, inevitably I let it go, imagining its solitary decent to the bottom of the ocean, slowly drifting downwards.


I said a silent prayer to one of my old teachers, Mrs. Reynolds. Two years before leaving school she had forced me to go in the water and taught me how to swim. “When I leave this class at the end of term, everybody in this class will be able to swim,” her voice rang.  All did, except one.  This was not her fault Tommy Savage was a slow learner, a really nice lad but slow to learn anything. 


Onwards I continued, the water lashing around me.  Complete solitude.  My legs becoming weaker, but I continued to kick.


Eventually a rowing came into view in front of me.  Aboard were two Frenchmen a fisherman and his son, a solider.  They pulled me into the boat.  One of my mates Peter Moore appeared on the other side of the craft.  He was also in the Army and lived only a few miles from me in Sneinton.  I will be eternally grateful to those two Frenchmen.  Pete and I sat in the front as they rowed to the destroyer I had been heading for.  There was no room for anybody else in the boat.


On reaching the destroyer, we said our good-byes and thanks to our two saviors and clambered up the netting on the side of the ship.  I noticed the name of the ship under the bell, Haverock a H class, H44.  As we neared the top sailors pulled us onto the deck. We were both covered in oil that had spewed from the damaged ship.  Sailors took us below deck to the showers. One of them stated,  “you both look more like a blackboard and easel.”  It took a long time to remove all the oil, some had to be scrapped off.  This did not matter, I was saved, no longer in any danger but in a nice hot shower.  Years later one of my daughters wondered if I was not frightened being on board another ship so soon after the disaster.  “no,” I replied “I felt safe, I was with The Navy.”


As I had no clothes, I was given a blanket.  With it wrapped around me I was sent upstairs to a room furnished with chairs and tables. I think it was one of the mess rooms.  Occupying the room were a couple of men, some children, two women - possibly nurses, and other squaddies including Maurice Simms, Taylor (the wag) and Peter Moore. We swapped stories of escaping the doomed ship, talking to different people.  Several had left the ship in lifeboats or some sort of boat.


Some time later a petty officer entered the room, “got something to eat for you down below.” 

I was the nearest to him, “OK,” I answered.

“You don’t need your blanket,” he stated.

Feeling embarrassed, having to admit I was sitting here with no clothes on in the presence of women and children, I tried to answer discreetly, lowering my voice.

“I do, I haven’t got any clothes on,”

“Are you naked?” he inquired.

“Yes, I can’t take this off with women here.”

“hang on a bit, come with me,” he gestured.

He took me to another part of the boat and gave me a pair of his trousers.  He shouted to one of the Jacktars (sailors) for a coat, he brought me a sailors jersey and that is what I wore until we arrived at Blighty.


We had a meal as it was beginning grow dark.  I figured I must have been in the water for several hours.  The ship commenced its journey home.  When I awoke the next morning I heard  a cry we were at anchor at Devonport.  We docked at a sailors station, H.M.S. Drake.  These ports are often named like this.  Through out the war the Germans have amusingly made claims to sinking H.M.S. Drake twice and also H.M.S. Arthur which was a port at Skegness!  On departing the Haverock I noticed the other ship to be bombed near the coast of St. Nazaire, the Oronsay was already anchored at Devonport.


We survivors were treated wonderfully here.  I was examined by a doctor.

“how are you feeling,” he asked.

“I am feeling a bit tight around here,” pointing to my chest, “I don’t know why.”

“probably the oil,” he answered, “you probably breathed a lot of fumes in. you can smell it anyway.”


I was not aware how bad the disaster was.  Weeks later I read in the papers, 2,500 saved with 2,000 dead.  I knew that was a monstrous lie.  I had heard the boarding officer, Mr. Gratis, seen his papers. 

With only 2,500 survivors I knew the loses were at least twice that many.


I never looked back, we were at war, no time to dwell on the past.  It was years later before the full realisation of the tragedy stuck me.  Delayed shock I think they now call it.  Although I thought about my friends I had not spared a moments thought for all those other men, women and children trapped inside as the ship went down. Some burned alive, some injured, some unhurt but unable to escape. 

How lucky I was and how sad all those young lads lost their lives. I  remember them as young lads.


I thought of all the ones trapped below, feeling empathic to their horror, I believed I was trapped for a moment, until the ship regained an even keel. I could understand their last trepidation before oblivion.  All those people on top of the ship, my friend I had to leave behind, all gone in a hideous death.

Could I have done more to help Jackie?

I know in my heart I was not a strong enough swimmer, there was nothing more I could have done, but still, the question lingers. 

At times I experience a down hearted feeling, especially when I recollect Jackie Wright. 

I even spare a thought for the little white dog, did it manage to escape with it’s master? 

They were on the top of the ship, it is possible. 

I feel angry when I think of the officers who went on ahead, probably taking the lifejackets. 

They could most likely swim and had a chance to escape. 

Not like Jackie and the rest of them left stranded, singing, on top of the mighty Lancastria.