Two weeks after the rescue of a third of a million allied soldiers from the beaches around Dunkirk,
there are still nearly 250,000 trapped between the advancing Germans and the west coast of France.
"This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
Polonius: Hamlet, Act 1: Scene 3
1940: Monday 17th June, Saint Nazaire, France
'Don’t merde me, you little Froggy bastard — get back in line!’
‘Nom de Dieu. Please, I must go.’
‘Shut your gob and move your greasy arse now!’ The flight sergeant’s cheeks flapped as he thrust
the French soldier back towards the wheelhouse.
Saul stopped filming and squeezed past me. ‘Pack it in — both of you.’
Too late. The little Frenchman swung his fist at the RAF airman, missed and connected with Saul’s ear.
‘Jou kwas.’ Saul glared at me. ‘Jack, don’t just stand there, do something.’
I didn’t know what he expected and could only guess at what the Afrikaans meant, but I shouldered my way through the airmen, who were clinging to the stanchions while Saul lay on the slippery surface of the boarding platform, clutching his Kodak cine camera to his chest.
20 feet above us an armed guard laughed at our antics. Behind him, the dark cavern of the sally port, which led into the bowels of the great liner, beckoned to the little Frenchman and the rest of our frustrated passengers.
Willie, the chef of the small group of French Foreign Legionnaires, shoved me aside, plucked the sergeant off his feet and hoisted him over the rail. The chubby airman clutched vainly at the air before smacking into the murky water separating us from Lancastria’s towering grey hull. He surfaced to the ironic cheers of his charges, most of whom seemed pleased with the outcome.
Willie leant over the panicking soldier and swore at him in such rapid French that I could only follow a few words. They weren’t pleasant.
I threw a line over the side and told the sergeant to hang on. Saul struggled to his feet then helped me haul him out and dump him on the deck, where he flopped about, cursing and spitting out seawater.
Saul looked up at the liner. ‘How long have Brewster and Cassons been gone?’
I glanced at my watch. ‘They left at three-twenty, so fifteen minutes. What the hell are they doing?’
‘Arguing with the captain, I expect. They’re wasting their bloody time, there’s no more room. Look at her; there must be 8,000 on-board.’
At lunchtime, one of the Lancastria’s officers had told us to stop ferrying passengers as they already had over 7,000. The Royal Naval port control officers had ignored him and sent us out from the Old Mole with two more loads of thirty plus since then.
We were only one of dozens of vessels running this lifeline ferry. It seemed every branch of the retreating British Expeditionary Force was now on the liner. We’d even taken civilians and women with their children. Finally, the armed guard had stopped us. Only Brewster and Flight Lieutenant Cassons had been allowed up the companionway to argue for our remaining passengers.
Mercifully, there hadn’t been an air raid for the last hour. Even though we were at least ten miles out in the muddy Loire estuary, the air was still foul with the stench of burning oil from the docks in St Nazaire. This had to be our last trip.
Now the officious sergeant had received a well-deserved dunking, the atmosphere between the French soldiers and the RAF ground crew seemed less tense.
Miko sidled up to me, winked, and spoke in his gravelly, heavily accented voice. ‘Poor dive. I give only three out of ten.’
I prodded the airman with my foot. ‘Hear that, Sergeant? Professor Miklos Pavas, olympic diving coach, wasn’t impressed with your entry. What do you say to that?’
‘Bollocks. Bloody foreigners.’
Willie laughed and patted Miko on the shoulder.
‘Sind Sie Polnisch?’
Miko looked surprised and replied in German.
The RAF men seemed perturbed. Even with their limited linguistic skills, they recognised the language of the enemy they had been fleeing for weeks.
Miko laughed and exchanged some rapid sentences with Willie.
I poked him in the back and raised my eyebrows.
‘He is German Jew, Willie Grun.’ He pointed to another equally bald legionnaire. ‘He, Gio Verd, Italian — also Jew.
So, that made at least four Jews on-board — Saul Marcks, my copper-headed, South African friend, who had borrowed his father’s motor cruiser to help the war effort; and Miko, who had escaped from Romania two years previously. Five, if you included me. But, I had only impersonated a Jew in our college play. Ironically, of the five of us, I probably looked the most Jewish. Another of life’s little mysteries, as my Christian parents had already observed.
Unlike the RAF ground crew, the legionnaires were armed with rifles – bolt action MAS 36s by the look of them. Like the boat, though, we were volunteers and here to assist His Majesty’s navy with Operation Ariel. I hoped Brewster would order us to sail back the 300 miles to St Malo. There couldn’t be much more for us to do here.
Oransay, the other converted liner, had been hit by bombs earlier and was creeping away. The two destroyers HMS Havelock and HMS Highlander were fussing about like crazed sheepdogs.
Sometime during the last raid, I had stopped shaking with fright. I didn’t believe Saul’s view that we were unlikely to be hit as the Germans were focusing only on the big targets. Why bother with a 45 foot cruiser when you had a couple of 16,000 ton monster troop ships in your sights? Saul seemed very calm in the circumstances, but then he’d been to Dunkirk and back half a dozen times while I’d been labouring on our farm.
Not convinced, I held my arm out straight and was surprised to see that there was no trembling.
‘Hold it higher if you wish to salute the fuhrer.’ Willie’s English was almost perfect. He laughed and translated into French for the benefit of his comrades. I felt my cheeks redden and rotated my arm to look at my watch again. Twenty minutes to four.
‘Ahoy, Jacob’s Star!’ the guard shouted down at us. ‘Prepare to receive boarders.’ His tone was mocking as Brewster and Cassons, his arm now in a proper sling, emerged from the shadows and clattered down the steel companionway. The boat rocked as they jumped aboard. Brewster’s beard quivered as he gesticulated to us to follow him into the cabin. The passengers remained on deck. He waited until we were settled.
‘What a fuck up.’ I’d never heard him swear in public before. ‘That poor, bloody man.’ He looked up at the great liner and I assumed he meant her captain. ‘He’s been ordered by the port officers to ignore international law and take as many as he can cram in. He told us he only has 2,000 life jackets; he doesn’t even know how many souls he has on-board. His best guess is nearly 8,000. Eight bloody thousand! For Christ sake, he’s only got about thirty bloody lifeboats!’
‘He’s got steam up. Why doesn’t he leave?’ I asked.
‘He tells us he’s waiting orders. Orders, my arse! He’s waiting for a bloody destroyer to get him past the U-boats, that’s what he’s waiting for. Bloody madness.’
‘There are nearly 1,000 of my men in the bloody hold.’ Cassons sounded angry. ‘They can hardly breathe in there and look at this.’ He pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his sling and thrust it at me.
I unfolded it and read with disbelief.
‘No wonder you look bloody surprised. It’s today’s lunch menu. Consommé, crab salad, ox-tail, veal, even your own personally grilled steak. Where do they think they are — on a bloody cruise?’
‘Will they take any more?’
Brewster turned to me. ‘No, they’re refusing. We tried but we’ve been told to push off. We can’t get back to Jersey with this lot so we’re going to have to unload some back at the Old Mole.’
Saul shook his head. ‘That’ll go down well. How are you going to choose?’
I thought the choice would be simple and saw us sailing back under the guns of the French Foreign Legion — our RAF friends abandoned on the Mole, if they were lucky. I didn’t say anything — one of the joys of not being in charge. This was an officer’s problem; Brewster would have to puzzle that out for himself.
He looked at us in turn but, drawing no inspiration, shrugged. ‘We’ll deal with that when we get there. Take us back to St Nazaire, Marcks, there’s a good chap.’
Miko and I exchanged glances then scurried back on deck to cast off. As Saul engaged reverse, the little Frenchman exploded. Screeching a stream of obscenities, he rushed for the landing platform.
The sergeant grabbed for the soldier but Willie placed a restraining hand on his shoulder.
‘Let him pass.’ He turned to his comrades and fired some rapid French, which brought howls of derision.
He smiled at me. ‘He is conscript, little rat who wish leave the sinking ship. He jump, as you say, from frying pan to fire.’ He translated for his friends as the little Frenchman leapt past the sergeant onto the base of the ladder. The guard raised his rifle and pointed it down the steps.
In the distance, the air raid siren started up again. We all looked up. The cloud base was low — Cassons had commented that it was about 1,500 feet with seven tenths cover; perfect for bombers to sneak in.
He was alongside me now. ‘Cast off. They’re coming this way.’
I slipped the rope and pulled the fender aboard as Saul opened the throttles, leaving the Frenchman stranded between 12 fathoms of water and the 18 inch bayonet of the guard. Cassons was right — two black shapes were diving from the clouds and skimming towards us.
‘What are they?’
‘JU 88s. Same type as the ones that bombed the Oransay.’ He pointed to the liner a mile in the distance. ‘They must be operating long range — from Holland, probably.’ He watched closely for a few more seconds. ‘No doubt this time that Lancastria’s their target.’
Saul reduced power and held us about 100 yards from the great liner. She was equipped with one 4.7 inch cannon mounted alongside her swimming pool but that would be no use against fast moving aircraft. The few Bren gunners on her upper decks would be lining up their sights but, according to Cassons, they would be wasting their ammunition.
Saul clunked us into forward gear and shoved the throttles to their stops. I glanced at my watch again — nearly a quarter to four. Whistles shrieked on the ship and the electric gongs vibrated through her hull as she prepared for the attack. She was still anchored, swinging on her mooring — not enough movement to confuse the bombers.
‘How long?’ I asked Cassons.
He calculated. ‘Thirty seconds. Everyone lie down.’
He whispered to me. ‘If one of those 500 kilo bombs is a near miss, it could blow us out of the water.’
The Bren gunners opened up but their streams of red tracer showed they were well off target. The two bombers jinked right and, dropping to 150 feet, crabbed a diagonal path towards the ship.
‘Bloody difficult — tossing bombs from that speed.’ There was something of professional admiration in Cassons’ voice as he tracked the two bombers. ‘It’s guess work, really. They have to stay steady until the last moment, otherwise they’ve carted their bombs hundreds of miles for nothing.’
He scanned the horizon. ‘Too late — even if our Hurricanes were still here.’
The first bomber, twin supercharged engines screaming, swept past us at over 200 miles per hour — so close I could see the black crosses on the underside of its wings. I watched horrified as four black objects fell from their cradles and plunged through the thick, oily smoke trail from Lancastria’s funnel.
The bomb aimer had miscalculated. They all missed by over 100 yards and splashed in over her stern. Seconds later, four massive fountains of seawater erupted into the air, followed by a horrendous blast of sound. Lancastria rolled with the pressure wave and we shuddered from stem to stern as though punched by a giant fist.
‘Oh shit.’ Cassons’ voice was full of despair as the second plane, correcting its companion’s mistake, released its bombs earlier.
The first, wobbling as it fell, smashed into Lancastria’s deck by the stern mast; the second seemed to go down her funnel. The third impacted near the front mast and the last missed and ploughed into the sea, yards from her bow.
The explosions were volcanic. The massive liner rose from the water like a toy boat in the bath. Flames erupted from her holds and snaked up her masts. Her middle section shook like a mad dog, but it was the last bomb that did for us.
Exploding close to her bows, the shock wave smashed into us like a wrecking ball. RAF and legionnaires alike were tossed overboard.
I clung like a limpet to a stanchion while Cassons struggled for a grip on our short mast. Our engines had stopped and I could hear Saul trying to restart them in Yiddish.
Brewster hauled himself out of the cabin and strode along the gyrating hull. His voice was clear, almost nonchalant. ‘Fairground ride over, you’ve had your money’s worth. Mr Pavas, Renouf, look lively, get some lines and fish them out. Lieutenant, to me please.’
Less than 100 yards off our starboard bow, the liner was convulsing. Her shattered masts drooped towards us as her bow plummeted to the boiling ocean. She lurched to port, collapsing like a drunken sailor. Her funnel was gone — in its place a fountain of flame. Columns of smoke spewed from her devastated holds.
One handed, Cassons couldn’t help but, with Miko’s wiry strength and my farm trained muscles, we managed to drag Willie out first. He was stronger than the two of us and soon had Gio on board. The other legionnaires floated patiently. One of them, a giant named Koyla, used his hands as a stirrup and hoisted his comrades over the side.
Once the legionnaires were aboard, we turned to the airmen whom Cassons had been encouraging to stay calm. Most seemed to be treading water comfortably, but the sergeant was in trouble again.
Even though we were focused on the rescue, I kept glancing over at the stricken ship, praying that Saul would get the engines going before she rolled over and capsized us. Thick bunker oil churned out from her ruptured side, spreading like treacle towards us, and just waiting for a spark to set it alight.
It was closing in on the sergeant. Miko thrust a rope at me and growled, ‘I go. You needed to fix engine.’ He jerked his arm towards the wheelhouse. Before I could object, he’d dived over the side.
He surfaced behind the sergeant, who was thrashing about in panic. They wrestled for a bit before Miko emerged with his arm around the airman’s neck.
I hurled the rope but, as Miko stretched for it, the airman struggled loose and wrapped himself around his rescuer. Miko was in trouble. I was about to throw myself in when a body hurtled past and splashed into the water.
Willie surfaced and applied an undocumented life-saving move by punching the sergeant in the temple. They tied the rope under his limp arms and, with Koyla’s help, I hoisted him up and over. We dropped him to the deck again but this time he wasn’t thrashing. Exhausted, we slumped against the deckhouse and looked across to a scene from hell.
Lancastria was falling towards us, her lifeboats defeated by the massive list, dangled from their davits. Only one was being lowered. It jerked to a halt. A sailor leant out and wielded an axe to the stern rope.
‘No! Don’t do that,’ Brewster screamed across the water, but it was too late. The boat, still tethered by its bow, plunged and twisted. All its passengers were catapulted into the water 50 feet below.
Others, wearing life jackets, rushed to the sides.
Brewster screamed again, ‘Take them off before you jump! You’ll kill yourselves!’
But he couldn’t be heard over the hammering of the Bren guns.
Like lemmings, the passengers threw themselves from the decks, landing feet first into the churning sea. Seconds later the life-jackets popped their bodies to the surface, heads lolling on necks broken by the solid cork inserts smashing into their chins.
With a howl of thundering engines, the two planes swept in again. Their machine gunners ignored the minor irritation of the slow firing Brens and strafed the ship from stem to stern. Their tracer rounds danced over the spreading oil.
‘Bastards, can’t you see she’s sinking? What are you doing?’ I raged at the heavens.
‘They can see the oil spreading. They want to set it on fire, take some nice photos for the squadron mess.’ Cassons spat his disgust then pointed to the south-west. ‘There, two more.’
I followed his arm. ‘Those seem different.’
‘Dorniers — a different squadron. They’ll be talking to each other, though.’
The newcomers dropped to 100 feet and swooped in head-on. Their engines growled as a mass of black projectiles spilled from their bomb bays. Like giant pebbles, the canisters bounced over the waves before sinking.
‘Incendiaries. That’s us finished.’
How could he be this calm in the face of catastrophe? Of course, he’d had enough practice in the past few weeks.
I looked at him. With his blond, wavy hair and piercing blue eyes, he could pass for a German. For God’s sake, he couldn’t be more than a few years older than me. I knew little about bombs but, if he was right, we were about to be caught in a massive bonfire.
I’d heard that your whole life flashes in front of you just before the end, but I saw only one image — a confused picture where Caroline’s and Rachel’s faces merged into one and smiled at me. I tried to smile back but my face was frozen.
Time solidified. Petrified, I waited. Nothing: no explosion, no fire. The slimy black carpet of oil lapping against our hull remained as cold as the sea. I looked at Cassons.
He exhaled a long breath. I wondered what or whom he’d seen in his final moments.
He shook his head as his sangfroid returned. ‘Such are the fortunes of war. They must have set the fuses for a higher drop. The bombs haven’t armed. Now there’s a few hundred kilos of unexploded thermite sitting on the bottom waiting for some company.’ He glanced at the mortally wounded liner. ‘They won’t have long to wait.’
The Ju 88s snarled back for another strafing run, their bullets plucked soldiers, sailors, airmen and civilians like ants off the decks. The black sea was littered with corpses as the Lancastria continued to lurch towards her grave. Pitiful figures clung to her hull as her masts vanished under the oily water, which still refused to catch fire. We were enveloped in its tentacles now — it was only a matter of time. My watch said five minutes past four.
Brewster stood behind me. ‘Remember this, Jack. If we survive, we have to balance the books.’
If we survived. Only the Royal Air Force could balance anything now and they were nowhere to be seen. With the exception of Willie, the legionnaires were working their bolts frantically as they fired at the planes. They might as well throw their bullets into the sea. This wasn’t the day for balancing anything. I wasn’t even sure if it was a day for survival. The rifles stopped. The aero engines were but a faint buzzing in the distance. Havelock and Highlander were charging towards us.
‘8,000 souls, Jack…’ Brewster’s words sank into silence.
‘Surely they’ll rescue some?’ I pointed to the figures struggling in the glutinous oil, even though I could see that most were beyond help.
Some clung to wreckage. There was one drifting lifeboat, crammed to its gunnels with blackened bodies.
Only Lancastria’s bottom was visible now. Hundreds still clung on, desperate to avoid the suffocating oil. After the cacophony of the attack, the silence was deafening.
Faint moans, a few final whimpers as the sea claimed its due then, unbelievably, singing. Ragged at first, but the clear strains of “Roll out the Barrel” spread from the hull to those still struggling in the water.
Brewster passed his binoculars to me. He had recovered but his voice was grim. ‘Look and never forget.’
I didn’t want to look but forced the glasses to my eyes. He was right. Whatever else, this had to be remembered, recorded. One day, payment would be exacted.
I steeled myself and focused on the barnacled hull. Too many men to count, no women, no children — no hope.
I watched as an officer pulled out his revolver and placed it to the forehead of his companion. He seemed tugged backwards by a giant hand as the gunshot echoed over us. The officer placed the barrel in his own mouth and pulled the trigger. I handed the glasses back as my eyes flooded. Their requiem echoed into silence.
Then a new sound spread from the hull as the sea rose to claim it. Hundreds of strong voices singing, “There’ll always be an England”.
The chorus grew fainter until it was sucked from the air as the hull hissed into oblivion under the oil. Giant bubbles belched to the surface and then silence.