- Contributed by
- People in story:
- George and Ena Stoneman and Daughter June
- Location of story:
- Pacific Ocean
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 24 June 2005
“WE WERE ANIMALS”
HOW VICHY FRANCE TREATED THE STONEMANS
The ‘Laconia’ survivors left U-507 as swiftly and unceremoniously as they had arrived.
Mrs. STONEMAN said: “One minute we were sitting down having something to eat and wondering what on earth was going to happen next.”
“Then it was all go. The sailors were running around telling us to get moving, and after that all I remember is climbing ladders again and coming out into the fresh air.”
“The sailors were pushing us along and urging us to get a move on. It was hard going trying to make sure that June didn’t fall and hurt herself, but we finally got back into the lifeboat.”
What Mrs. STONEMAN didn’t know was that an American bomber had attacked the U-507’s sister ship – U-156 – missing the submarine but hitting several lifeboats that were being towed to safety.
Years later, when the full facts of this extraordinary incident were published, the American Brigadier General Robert C. RICHARDSON, in charge of the allied air base at Ascension Island, admitted that he had ordered the attack.
“I had no choice, even though I knew the submarine was showing a Red Cross flag,” he said. “We didn’t know there were British women and children aboard the lifeboats, but even if we had we would still have bombed the U-boat”.
“It was the only decision to make. A simple one – and the right one.”
“It was our duty to attack any enemy submarine, no matter what the circumstances.”
The attack on U-156 caused an international rumpus, even though the world was at war.
Grand Admiral Karl DOENITZ, the man who controlled the German wolf-pack submarines, accused the Americans of flouting the Geneva Convention, which, he claimed, allowed warships to show the Red Cross flag when in the process of picking up non-combatant survivors.
Thirty survivors were killed in the attack and the German authorities decided that their own ships and crewmen must be protected.
The submarine commanders were ordered to “ditch” their survivors at the earliest moment and dive for safety.
Luckily for the hundreds of helpless men, women and children, the U-boats had delivered them, to a designated spot – and the Vichy French cruiser, ‘Gloire’ was en route to pick them up from Casablanca.
The survivors, in about eleven lifeboats were told to keep together … they would not have long to wait.
That same day the old French cruiser picked them up and, after a refuelling stop at Dakar, delivered them to Casablanca.
The survivors thought they were as good as home, but in many ways they were just beginning an ordeal that in many ways was worse than the one they had endured.
“The French were rotten,” said Mrs. STONEMAN. “That’s the only word to describe them. We ended up thinking of THEM as our enemies and not the Germans. They treated us like animals most of the time.”
On the journey to Casablanca the men were separated from the women and children and spent most of the time locked up in steel holds that rapidly became like pressure cookers.
Mr. STONEMAN said: “They really treated us rough and that journey was one of the worst I made in my life. We had little food and hardly any water.”
The STONEMANS were interned in a camp at a place called Sidi El Ayachia, an insect-infested group of mud huts on the edge of the desert.
All Mrs. STONEMAN can remember were countless days of terrible food, little water and killing heat.
They lived on lentils and dried peas mostly boiled into a kind of soup.
Once a day they were given a square of hard bread and a cup of strong coffee.
“It’s quite impossible for me to describe the filth of that place,” she said. “We were infested with lice and fleas and almost everybody suffered almost permanently from dysentery.”
“We were a burden to the French and they made it quite clear that they hated us. If it hadn’t been for the kindness of some of the missionaries, life would have been unbearable.”
The STONEMANS stayed in the camp for almost two months and they were finally released following the American invasion of North Africa.
Mrs. STONEMAN and June were the first to go. They went by hospital ship to Gibraltar and from there to Liverpool. Husband, George, followed a few days later.
They were finally re-united and arrived back in Plymouth just before Christmas, 1942.
The years have not blurred Mrs. STONEMAN’s memory, although she is inclined to forget the bad times – the first terrifying days after the liner’s sinking and the weeks in the French prison camp.
But she vividly remembers the kindness of a handful of German sailors – the enemies she had been taught to fear.
“I will never forget them,” she said. “Even to this day, even though the war went on for three more years when we got home, I still think of Germans with fondness and gratitude.”
“I look at it this way: without their help out on that ocean we would have died.”
These three articles were penned by JIM DALRYMPLE
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