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The Iron Phantom of the Desert Pt 2

by CSV Action Desk/BBC Radio Lincolnshire

Contributed by 
CSV Action Desk/BBC Radio Lincolnshire
People in story: 
J. Ellison
Location of story: 
France, England
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A4626308
Contributed on: 
30 July 2005

After a few week’s basic training, a couple of dozen of the lads and myself were drafted to join the BEF in France. We travelled by train to Southampton and eventually boarded a troopship and set sail for France where we landed at Le Havre. We were then put on cattle trucks and travelled for 2 days to a place I think was called Charleville. It was a transit camp of XXX Corps HQ’s. I had never seen a real tank before and a Sergeant took us to the vehicles and there stood a line of Matilda Tanks Mk 1. We were then interviewed by the officer in charge and told that we would receive basic training and then sent on to different squadrons.

Things were not going too well for the BEF as the Germans had broken through at different places. We received orders to board one of the tanks. My mate and I took the first one we could get into and after we had been given map references we moved out in single file. We were heading for Arras. We moved off in the dark and travelled all through the night. When daylight was breaking we arrived at Arras. The 4th and 7th Tanks were in the middle of a battle and apparently we had caught Jerry on the hop. The German Armoured Division were badly mauled and had lost at least half it’s tanks. Unfortunately for us, thought, the German then brought in their 88mm gins and heavier armour and we didn’t know what hit us. We were ordered to withdraw in the direction of Dunkirk but not before we had destroyed most of our equipment and made sure it was of no use to the Germans.

Our orders were then changed and we had to march for three days and nights in the direction of Cherbourg. There were troops of all nationalities all heading for the same area and what made it worse was that the roads were blocked with thousands of civilian refugees.

We eventually made it to Cherbourg and got onto the last ship to leave port. Some of the civilians were shouting at us saying why didn’t we stop to fight instead of running away. Some even spat at us but some wanted to come with us. On our way out to the English Channel we saw on our right, a ship being attacked by Stuka dive bombers and Junker 87s. We could see that one of the planes dropped a stick of bombs down the funnel of it and a few seconds later the ship was practically blown out of the water. The ship was never seen again and we were told that there were a great number of casualties. A lot of our lads were on that ship and we never heard what happened to them until we rejoined our regiment at Panton Hall. When we landed back at Southampton we boarded a train and threw our kits on the floor and flopped onto the seats. We were so tired we were asleep within minutes.

The next thing we knew was that a young lady from the Salvation Army had woken us up to ask if we’d like a pot of tea and a sandwich. Of course we did and I can tell you it was the best pot of tea I’d had in a long time. We finally arrived at our destination which was a transit camp in a place called Louth in Lincolnshire. Apparently ICI had a big factory somewhere nearby and the management and staff put on entertainment for us and when that was finished we were invited to some of the people’s homes where we were entertained for the rest of the evening. The next morning we boarded a train to rejoin our Regiment at Catterick Camp but when we got there we were informed that the Regiment had moved to Lincolnshire, not far from the place we had just left and it was only the rear party which remained there. The next morning we travelled with the rear-party to rejoin our Regiment in Lincoln. When we got there (Panton Hall) our CO told us that he was pleased to see that we had got back from France safely and he also told us about the loss of our chaps on the other ship.
I was put on guard duty and while on duty one of the chaps came up in a hell of a state. Apparently his wife was expecting their first child and he wanted to go on leave but the CO wouldn’t let him so he asked the chap on guard with me if he would break his arm so he could get back.

The next day we were given four day’s leave and when we returned, were told that we were being sent to the Middle East. We had to go to Louth Hospital for our medicals to see if we were fit enough to go abroad. Who do you think we should see at the hospital but the lad who had asked if we would break his arm. I saw he had his arm in plaster and I asked him how it happened. He had fallen in one of the slit trenches in the dark the night before and that is how he had done it.

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Message 1 - Loss of the Lancastria

Posted on: 14 August 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Mr Ellsison

I have read your story with great interest, both this part and subsequent episodes.

But with the very greatest respect I am puzzled by what you say about Cherbourg and the tragic loss of the Lancastria. In particular, you say:

"We eventually made it to Cherbourg and got onto the last ship to leave port. Some of the civilians were shouting at us saying why didn’t we stop to fight instead of running away. Some even spat at us but some wanted to come with us. On our way out to the English Channel we saw on our right, the ship Lancastria being attacked ... We could see that one of the plane’s dropped a stick of bombs down the funnel of the Lancastria and a few seconds later the ship was practically blown out of the water"

On 15 June 1940 the Lancastria and the Franconia sailed from Plymouth as part of Operation Aerial. Their initial instructions were to proceed to Brest, but just off Brest, in the Bay of Biscay, on 16 June, the two liners were attacked and the Franconia hit. The Lancastria, under cover of darkness, slipped away and anchored in the Charpentier Roads, about 9 miles from the port of St Nazaire and about 5 miles from land. Troops were ferried to the Lancastria, 600 at a time, by two destroyers, HMS Havelock and HMS Highlander - St Nazaire docks being too shallow for the Lancastria, an ocean liner, to enter.

The Lancastria was attacked at 15.47 and sank at 16.12 on 17 June. She was not 'blown out of the water', her bow went down, she heeled heavily to port, and disappeared. As soon as the raid was over all ships in the vicinity went to the area in an attempt to rescue the few survivors.

The last ship to leave St Nazaire with BEF troops was the Cambridgeshire, at 03.00 hrs on 18 June, with General Sir Alan Brooke and other senior officers on board. On 19 June HMS Punjabi, a destroyer, returned to St Nazaire and took off about 200 French and Polish troops.

Cherbourg, where you embarked from, is on the English Channel, St Nazaire is on the Bay of Biscay. The distance between Cherbourg and St Nazaire is 213 miles (343 Km), and between the two ports lays the great land-mass of the Brittany peninsula. Troops were taken from Cherbourg from 15 to 18 June, the last ship left in the afternoon, the day after the Lancastria was sunk off St Nazaire. 30,630 troops were embarked from Cherbourg, there were no civilians on the docks and all went smoothly without loss.

You also say "A lot of our lads were on that ship and we never heard what happened to them until we rejoined our regiment at Panton Hall". However, only one soldier of the Royal Tank Regiment appears in the Lancastria' Roll of Honour: Corporal George Andrew Skeen of 43rd Royal Tank Regiment. For reasons of morale, perhaps misguided but understandable, the sinking was kept secret until 25 July 1940, with full reports appearing in the British evening press. The news had to be released following press reports in New York Sun on 25 July. No news was given to troops or civilians before then.

Best regards,

Peter Ghiringhelli

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