A disaster almost beyond imagination happened off the French coast 82 years ago. The story of a young man – connected to my family – caught up in the horror of the event is told here with the help of research carried out by Norina Dixon.
David Jones was a young soldier evacuating war-torn France when he found himself at the centre of a catastrophe – the worst maritime disaster in British history.
He was among thousands crammed into the troopship Lancastria at Saint Nazaire when she came under attack from a German bomber aircraft.
The raid, on June 17, 1940, took place just nine days after the miraculous rescue of 338,000 soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk.
At least 4,000 British servicemen and civilians lost their lives as a wave of bombs ripped apart and sank the former Cunard liner.
David, a 23-year-old lance-bombardier in the Royal Artillery, was among those who died in the attack.
His family were uncertain of his fate until his body was washed up on the coast of Saint Nazaire many days later.
The sinking of the Lancastria is one of the ‘forgotten’ tragedies of the Second World War.
This seems extraordinary considering that the number of lives lost far exceeded the numbers who died on the Titanic in 1912 and the Lusitania in 1915.
France was in turmoil – and within days of surrendering to German forces – when David had been ordered to leave the country.
He had been helping to defend airfields there with 158 Battery of the 53rd (City of London) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment of the Royal Artillery.
When he boarded Lancastria – due to sail to Britain – thousands of troops and civilians, men, women and children, were waiting to be evacuated in Saint Nazaire.
The ship was anchored in Charpentier Roads, about five miles from the port. When David was ferried to the vessel, the decks and holds were crowded.
No-one knew how many were on board. Some estimated that up to 9,000 people were in the ship when death arrived in the form of a German Ju-88 bomber.
Three of the aircraft’s bombs crashed into the holds with a fourth rupturing fuel oil tanks. As the ship began to capsize, some passengers were reported to have sung ‘Roll out the Barrel’ and ‘There’ll Always be an England’.
Lancastria sank at 4.12pm, within 20 minutes of being attacked. Many of those who were plunged into the sea drowned because there were too few life jackets or died from hypothermia. Survivors were also machine-gunned by German aircraft.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill imposed a media blackout after the sinking – fearing what the news would do to British morale in the midst of its ‘darkest hour’.
Newspapers in New York broke the story five weeks after the disaster. The Scotsman was the first British newspaper to reveal the tragedy – in just six paragraphs on an inside page – on July 25, 1940.
Almost 2,500 people – including children as young as two – survived the sinking of the Lancastria.
David’s body was among dozens washed up on the coast at Saint Nazaire in France. He was buried at the nearby Escoublac-la-Baule Cemetery.
David’s regiment, formed in August 1939, landed in Cherbourg on October 16 that year. They joined the RAF’s advanced air striking force at Reims, with 158 Battery defending airfields around Guignecourt.
The 53rd shot down up to ten enemy aircraft as the Germans launched their attack on France on May 10, 1940.
As the country was on the verge of surrender the following month, David was among a group of men from 158 Battery sent for evacuation in Lancastria from Saint Nazaire.
The Lancastria Archive, a roll of honour naming the known victims of the sinking, says: ‘The sheer size of the Lancastria disaster and the fact that the troopship sank in the estuary of the River Loire, trapping many people inside the hull, means that a great many of the bodies were never recovered.
‘A considerable number of those who escaped the sinking never had life jackets and could not swim. It is a fact that bodies were found weeks and, in some cases, months later, north and south of Saint Nazaire; some more than one hundred miles from where the Lancastria sank. It is virtually impossible to gain knowledge of the exact numbers of personnel lost on that fateful day.’
David is listed in the archive under Army personnel buried in France, having been washed ashore. Although not officially recorded as being aboard Lancastria, there is no doubt that he died in the sinking.
The troopship SS Oronsay – less than half a mile away from Lancastria – was also attacked by a German bomber on June 17, 1940. A bomb landed on her bridge, killing several people, as the ship helped in the evacuation of British troops. Oronsay – whose steering and wireless rooms were wrecked in the raid – rescued many of the 2,500 people who survived the sinking of the Lancastria before heading back to Britain.
When the Titanic sank in 1912 after hitting an iceberg, 1,517 crew and passengers died. When the Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat in 1915, 1,198 crew and passengers lost their lives.
There are Lancastria memorials in Liverpool, Glasgow and Saint Nazaire.
David, born in 1916 in Hackney, London, was the son of John Ernest Jones (1880-1954) and Adelaide Edith Gill (1881-1965). John was the son of William Jones (1849-) and Amelia Elston (1856-1894). Amelia was the daughter of William Elston (1813-1885) and Loveday Roberts (1819-1909). Loveday was the daughter of William Roberts (1791-1875) and Frances Hodge (1796-1873). William was the son of John Roberts (1766-1834) and Elizabeth James (1767-1861). John was the son of William Roberts (1738-), who was my great-great-great-great-great grandfather.