Liberating Europe
From D-Day to Berlin: The Allied Liberation of Europe

Surviving the Lancastria Disaster

  • May
  • Cliff
  • 87; born in 1918
  • Army, Service Corps
  • Tickton
Photo of Cliff May

Summary: Cliff May was a survivor of the Lancastria, a ship sunk by off St Nazaire by the German Luftwaffe during the evacuations of personnel from occupied France (See Dunkirk).

Mr May was interviewed at his home on 27th June, 2005.

Could you tell me your name please?
Yes. Clifford May.
And how old are you now, Mr May?
86, 87 in August.
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And which branch of the armed forces were you?
Well I started...I was in three actually. I started off in the Royal Artillery, in June 1939. Then, when war was declared in September I was transferred to the R.A.S.C..
What does that stand for, please?
pullquote panel top it went down we just sort of floated off, as the boat went down, just sort of floated off. I couldn't swim.
Clifford May
Royal Army Service Corps. And then, I don't know of the date, round about 1942, we were then transferred to the REME, Royal E (indistinct) Mechanical Engineers.
How old were you when you joined up?
Er, '39...twenty.
Twenty. Did you volunteer or were you drafted?
No. Called-up with the Belisha, Hoare-Belisha's Militia for six months, in June of 1939.
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What rank were you when you signed-up?
Just a private.
Private, and what were you when you left the army?
Staff Sergeant.
What year did you leave the army?
January 1946.
When I was de-mobbed.
So, could you tell me the events and circumstances that led to you joining the army, and your training, and where you went, and what you did?
When I first joined the army I was called-up with Hoare-Belisha in June 1939. I was sent to Harrow Park, Birkenhead, Liverpool. Was there for the first three, for the first two weeks it did nothing but rain, and then when war (was) declared in September I was then transferred to the R.A.S.C., and then I went down to Hounslow, Middlesex, and then ten days after war started we were in France, and we went out to a little village in France, St. Etienne, near Nantes, into base workshops, and I was there until, er, we were evacuated in June 1940. June 17th actually. We then transferred, we had to walk from our workshops to Saint Nazaire, from Saint Nazaire we got onto the troop ship, the Lancastria, about 6,000 people on this troop ship, way overloaded, and more or less ready for steaming when the Germans came over and sank the ship in 16 minutes. So, I'll show you the...(reaches for photographs).
So the ship was ready to sail from France...
Yes, Saint Nazaire.
...and it was attacked by German aircraft?
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That's right.
Fighters and bombers, or...
Well, the (looks through memorabilia and brings out a newspaper with the sinking of the Lancastria as the headline story) that's a photocopy Pauline (Cliff's daughter) did for me actually. One bomb went right down the funnel.
(reads article) Crikey! So you were on this boat when it went down?
I was on the boat, and when I came off...we were fortunate that the people, the first people on the boat were the R.A.F., and they all went forward but by the time we got on the boat was more or less full, so we were at the rear end. Consequently, when it started going down, the bow end went and the stern was up, and we, most of our Company I was with, we just stood on the bow, the rear of the ship, the stern, and as it went down we just sort of floated off, as the boat went down just sort of floated off. I couldn't swim.
Goodness me!
I had a cork lifebelt.
How frightened were you?
I (laughs), well if you could describe when you're twenty...(not fearful due to youth and sense of immortality).
...really, so just how you feel, but er eventually I got picked up by a small boat, and transferred to a larger boat, and eventually finished up back in Falmouth. Our Company was fortunate, we didn't lose anyone but the R.A.F., they lost everyone.
As you can see there.
(reads) 3,500 men were lost...
And at the time Churchill, he kept it (in the) dark, he didn't announce anything, he didn't publicise anything, 'cause it was a month after Dunkirk, and they'd had enough aggro with Dunkirk, so he tried to let the public know just exactly what happened there, but it was a big boat, it was a big (boat) Lancastria, and it just went down in...just so quick.
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So, I need to understand how come you were one of the lucky ones who survived. Was it down to where you were on the boat at the time?
It was down to the fact that we were at the rear end when we went on, the stern, and we were in a position where we could get out onto the deck. There were some down below, you read the stories, some, some have gone... a lot of the people had walked from Dunkirk, come all the way through France and got on, and they went into the baths and things like that, went into the baths and in the cabins and things.
Well they were stuck, but we were fortunate, we were more or less not far from the deck. We got upon the upper deck and that's how we were saved. But anyone who was down below just, they just didn't stand a chance, and our Company, as I say, fortunately I don't think we lost anyone at all. They were all, more or less my...well age group, but quite a few my age group, and some round about twenty, thirty, twenty-five, thirty, but that's the reason that I managed to survive.
(Mrs. May) There's a book there. It might interest schoolteachers and what have you, 'The Loss of the Lancastria', if they wanted to read it.
There's a whole book about the events.
(Mrs. May) And there's also a very interesting thing here about it. I don't know whether you know where Alrewas (The National Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire) is? You go down the M1, and you turn off as though you're going down to Derby, and there's photographs, and there's big war cemeteries (Addendum - A memorial covering all units) and things. Do you know about those?
Not that particular one.
Oh, that one, that one represents every fighting post during the war, and they're all centred in there. They all have a garden plot. We (Lancastria survivors) come under the Merchant Navy, Lancastria come...because it was a Merchant Navy boat, you see.
Ah, right.
So therefore it comes with the Merchant Navy. But there's the army, the navy, everyone is represented there.
No, I don't know about this place.
So, if you want to take a photograph of it...
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Yes, surely I will, thank you.
Pauline (Cliff's daughter) got that for me actually because they visited the...
(Mrs. May) That's what they call it, The National Memorial Arbortoreum (mis-pronounced Arboretum), Alrewas.
It's between er...
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Our Company was fortunate, we didn't lose anyone but the R.A.F., they lost everyone.
Clifford May
(Mrs. May) Go down the M1...
It's between Derby and Burton-on-Trent.
That's it, yes, yeah.
Burton-on-Trent. Down there.
So, how long were you in the water then, Cliff?
(Mrs. May) Just a minute. There's photographs look, of the boat.
Ah, right. Yes. I'll get some er...
(Mrs. May) The boat.
This is the...
(Mrs. May) This is the arbortoreum (mis-pronounced arboretum)...
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(Mrs. May) ...photographs taken inside it. Again, if you're interested, you know...
That's the boat itself...
(Mrs. May) This is what I say, I don't think there will be many people...
I don't know, I suppose maybe about an hour, in the water.
Did you, at that time, think that you were going to be saved?
Well, I don't know really, it's, I think I hoped. Kept hopes. I couldn't swim, but I managed to just keep head above water, and consequently I think there were boats around. I was fortunate in as much that I didn't get involved, because don't forget at the same time these planes (junkers_JU-88s) were machine-gunning as well.
Right, yes.
And a lot of people were ki...shot.
In the water?
In the water. But I was fortunate in that I managed to escape air (attack), and also the fact that there was no...I was covered in oil obviously.
Because everyone was covered in oil.
Boots I...I had no boots on. I kicked my boots off, but I'd still got my jacket and thing (cork lifebelt) on, but it was all caked in oil, and you know skin and all oil there, but I'd have to say about an hour.
(blows with astonishment) How cold were you?
Well, it wasn't...I wouldn't say I was really cold. It was about 3 miles off Saint Nazaire at the time, and of course it was the middle of June so the temperature, sea temperature wouldn't be too low.
Yes. Not that it would be comfortable...
No, no, no.
...but it wasn't likely to kill you.
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Oh yes, it er, and as I say when you compare with some of the things some of the people have written, what they've had to put up with. Women. Because women were on it as well you see.
Yes, yeah.
All people that had been evacuated onto the boat.
So, there were civilians on as well?
Oh yes, civilians, people who wanted to get home, been evacuated. Oh yes.
So the background of it was...
It's really a full story...
Oh yes! the Lancastria.
I'm just trying to, sort of get a picture. Because I'm not aware of it, but I will be...
No, well...
The evacuation, the ship, the whole purpose of the ship was to get English military and civilians out of France as the Nazis invaded?
That's right. A lot of them...we were based in that particular area, at Nantes, which was on the Brittany (coast), but a lot of people who came from Dunkirk, they escaped from Dunkirk - they got vehicles, they got lifts, all ways they could to try to get to that west coast of France, and consequently a lot of those people were civilians, and it's amazing the people who were actually trying to get onto the...onto the boat and there was three, the Lancastria, there was two more ships as well - the names are in the folders, two more ships there, and they were more or less ready for sailing, but it was just unfortunate that these dive bombers. I don't know - they weren't bombers as such, but they had bombs.
Can you just drop it down? (object being held) As I say, it was a big ship and it went down in sixteen minutes.
So was it just one almighty explosion that made you realise that you'd been hit, or a combination...
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Well it was an explosion but you just went straight down, it just blew the bottom off.
So as soon as you were hit you knew you had to get out?
Well yes, it went to either side, tried to stabilise it for a few minutes, but people realised that it was hopeless.
The bow was starting to go down, and as I say, once that goes down, well that's...there's a photograph somewhere of it. I've got it in here. (searches) No, I don't think I have, actually.
Just reading of this, er, newspaper cutting, 'The Sinking of the Lancastria', 'at least 3,500 men lost their lives in Britain's worst naval tragedy, but only now can this harrowing story be finally told.'
I've got it. See these...this book is all, they've all given their own versions...
All right.
...of what happened. How they survived.
Where did you get that from?
This is published by someone involved with the Lancastria.
'Lancastria narratives.'
It's a book. There's that poem, that one, and that one. (points out interesting parts) That's a painting, actually. Someone who did it of the Lancastria going down. Funnily enough, they called him May.
Yeah. Incredible! What a frightening story.
(Mrs. May) See the Lancastria Association...
Is that for..?
(Mrs. May) ...they have a reunion at different places. Cliff doesn't go because he's too old, but the send this every...
...every six months.
(Mrs. May) And the last one we got, Cliff had sent them some, where was it, Cliff had sent them some photographs...
That would be...
(Mrs. May) ...and they published them in the paper.
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That would be a group for survivors and the families of those that were lost?
(Mrs. May) That's right.
See well every...this year they've gone, I don't go because it's awkward to get there, but this year they've...they go to France the nearest Sunday available, which is June 17th, that's when it happened, they'll have gone a week last Sunday, and they go there because they've got a good friendship with the French people.
Because the French people put themselves out. They have a memorial there for the Lancastria at Saint Nazaire, and they hire a boat, up to this year previously the navy have supplied the boat, and they've all gone to where the Lancastria sunk and dropped a wreath, but for some reason this year the navy, due to cutbacks, they haven't done it. So they've had to hire a boat from Saint Nazaire and they went out this time with a civilian boat and dropped the wreath. They always do it, every two years.
Have you been before, then?
I haven't been to it, no, but the people do it, and it's a routine thing to do, and then they stay there, they go for three days, and they are entertained by the French people, and they, in turn, entertain the French and the French's a reciprocal sort of thing, so it's quite good. But that's the way it goes, such a lot, there's such a lot involved in it really, with you see in there, people who've sent reports - what happened to them, and some of the stories they tell, it is, it's a story in itself.
Ooh yes, yeah. It's a big one isn't it?
But that's, er, that is a useful book is that. But Pauline...I got those two, that one and this...but now, of course, they've brought another one out. This chap, he's bringing a book out.
(Mrs. May) Jonathan Fenby.
(Mrs. May) It's there, look.
Yes. He's publishing a book.
Jonathan Fenby, yes.
It was kept so quiet, after it happened. No-one really knew about it.
Is that, do you...why do you think that was?
Why do you think it was kept quiet?
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Well, due to the fact that Churchill, he'd had enough aggravation with Dunkirk, and he thought, 'Well, if people get to know this has happened, it might dispirit them.
So, rather than tell them, keep their spirit up a little bit, as we'd got all these people back from Dunkirk, er, if we tell them this happened now it'll, well they might be disillusioned, with what happened at Dunkirk, even though we got a lot of people out, er, now we've got this - all these people lost, it might dampen their spirits. He just kept it quiet, and that was it. Some people wanted to publish it, and some didn't. He didn't and he put a clampers on it. Stop the newspapers, anybody, publishing it. It came out a few months later, after Dunkirk had quietened down.
'Cause the families, er, of the survivors and the men that were lost would have talked about it.
Well that's...yes. People didn't know, the bodies were never found. It's a war grave, now, is the Lancastria, and no-one's allowed to go there, to dive or anything like that. It is a registered war grave, is the Lancastria, because there's so many bodies...
...went down with it. Some went down with the ship, and some were just lost. Some were machine-gunned.
So out of respect it's just left completely as it was?
Oh yes, out of respect. The French, some of the French people, the divers want to go to recover things out of her, but they put the clampers on that. Which is fair enough.
(Mrs. May) Where did you land?
I landed at Falmouth.
(Mrs. May) Falmouth, that was it.
What, after you were picked up?
after I'd been picked up. I eventually returned and we finished at Falmouth.
Did you get some leave after that?
Oh, yes, I got about three weeks' leave.
Three weeks! They were generous weren't they?
About three weeks they give you after that. Well I went from Falmouth, then I went to Yeovil, then from Yeovil I eventually came home, er, came home and then, (I was home for...1940...22) then I was called back again to the same unit, and I went to Luton.
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I had a very nice two months in Luton. We were working in the Vauxhall factory.
Oh, right.
We were test-driving all the army trucks, at Luton, at the Vauxhall works. That was in 1940, that was June, July, August.
So you were involved with building military vehicles?
Vehicles, that's right. And then from Vauxhall, we went then, embarked again, to er, we didn't know at the time, but we went up to Liverpool, embarked another ship - I can tell you the name of the ship. It was the Orapeser; I used to have a photograph of it at one time.
How would you spell that?

(Cliff and Mary struggle with the spelling)

I always remember the name, 'cause I can remember names. Orapeser. We sailed from there, Liverpool, and went in convoy. We went out in convoy, pulled in at Freetown, West Africa for a refill, and then we went from Freetown and we went down to Cape Town, and then we had two days in Cape Town, entertained by the people in Cape Town for two days, and then from Cape Town, we went up the Indian Ocean, we went to Suez.
Up the Suez Canal, then to Port Said.
To where, sorry?
Port Said.
Then from Port Said, of course, we then went to our destination, which was in Egypt, a place called Tel El Kabir (phonetic) and that's where we had our workshops, and I was in Tel El Kabir from October 1940 until June...end of June 1944. I was there the whole time.
Yes, because it was an important strategic place, wasn't it, North Africa?
Well it was, it was the base workshops, and all the vehicles in the Middle-East, used to come from the Western Desert used to pull them back, we used to re-cover all the vehicles. We used to have a terrific car park. We used to repair all the vehicles, mostly heavy vehicles, staff cars, engines, recondition the whole lot, and back up to the Western Desert again, that's because it used to go through an awful lot of vehicles in the Western Desert.
Were they full of sand? Did they get...were the engines full of sand?
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There was sand, and they were really hard done to, so therefore we had to strip every vehicle down completely. Every engine was stripped down, reconditioned. Then after I'd been there, then September - trying to think now - '44, '43, I then applied to go on a, what they called a Artificers course, which I passed. Then I came out of there a Staff Sergeant, and I was still at Tel El Kabir, but I went to a different workshop, still in REME, but I went to another workshop until the end of June, just after D-Day, which was in June, and then I left Egypt at the end of June, came back home again. I was in England, got a home posting. I was stationed at Batley.
Oh yeah?
I don't know if you know Batley?
Yeah I do, yes.
At that time I was living in Leeds. That's a home posting, you see?
I was there from July; by the time I'd been in you'd had three weeks' leave again. July, August, I was there until August the following year, 1945. And then after 1945 I was then posted out to Brussels.
I went to Brussels, then.
Yeah, in Belgium.
Belgium. And I was there until I got de-mobbed in January '46. Altogether I'd had about 6-and-a-half years in the army, instead of 6 months that I'd originally went for, it spread out to 6-and-a-half years (laughs). So I'd had quite a good spell, but I'd had nothing, apart from the Lancastria, that was the main upset I had. I mean I was fortunate, touch wood, I was in base workshops. We never got any occupation, we didn't get any bombing, never saw any bombs, anything, I was fortunate in that respect.
I put it like this, I was stationed in Egypt I saw a lot - went on leave, went off to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, did all the usual things in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, went to the church and everything, swam in the Dead Sea and all these places, er, so really I had quite a good...(Addendum - I was fortunate).
One in Egypt (leave) went to the Sphinx, climbed on the Sphinx, got a photograph taken on the Sphinx and the pyramids. To be quite honest, I was single, I enjoyed it, and apart from the fact I was in the army. (laughs)
A lot of men have said that they saw things that they wouldn't have had the opportunity to see without the navy...
Well, yes, it was. The fact is that, I mean, I saw things that I wouldn't normally have seen because I was fortunate at that time, but it was an experience and I enjoyed it, and the weather was good.
Yes? Smashing!
Oh yes, I had no regrets really in that respect, apart from the fact that you're in the army and discipline, we were in workshops so it wasn't too bad. I was just doing a job, really which I would possibly have been doing had I been back home.
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Did you return to the automotive industry when you left the army?
Yes, and I came out in January, I went back into, er, the motor trade again.
So you were probably highly skilled by that time?
Well, yes, because fortunately we (indistinct) during the army, which was specialised on engine fitting I managed to get a job straight away when I came out in Leeds, and I stayed with that until I eventually got fed up with that, being restricted, and I got a job with a London firm, so in September I went down to London, then. Did it for six months, and then I went back up to...from there I went up to Newcastle, er, got married and went to Newcastle, because Mary was at Leeds, got married in the June. I'd been up in Newcastle three months and of course, at that time I was Service Engineer and I was doing Northumberland, Cumberland, Westmoreland and Durham, which was, instead of being stuck in a little workshop I had...
Out and about.
...a big area to travel, which was far better. Ah, yes.
What was Leeds like during the war? Was it, er, did it get any damage, because I mean Hull got hit pretty bad but we don't...
Er, I don't know really. I don't think...
(Mrs. May) I don't think it got all that much.
I don't think it got a lot of damage.
But there was a lot of manufacturing and...
There was a lot of it. Oh, yes because I mean one of the big manufacturers, er, trains and locomotives, Fowler's, John Fowler's. They were big manufacturers of locomotives. I don't think they suffered, not like Sheffield. Sheffield suffered a lot.
Well, Sheffield was the raw materials, wasn't it? I suppose if you go to the source...
You see, Sheffield were producers of steel and things like that, and iron, whereas Leeds were mostly...they were manufacturers, as such and I don't think...I don't think...I don't know. I didn't spend a (great deal of time there)...Mary might know more about Leeds because Mary's people lived in Leeds at the time. I can't remember they suffered a lot in Leeds.
I suppose if you take a way the raw materials then the next manufacturers down the line don't have anything to work with so you are shutting them off anyway, aren't you?
No, it's...I think Sheffield suffered a lot with the shipbuilding (Addendum - steel mills) and that. They suffered a lot didn't they? They had some bad bombs in Hull, but, er, as I say as regards a career I think the Lancastria was the one, the thing that really stuck in my mind as regards, er I don't know - damage, otherwise...
You said your Company didn't suffer any losses, did you lose any friends or any colleagues, or..?
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I didn't lose any friends, I didn't, no.
You were incredibly lucky, then?
No, because after we got back we all went back on different boats, obviously, but we all came together again in the July, formed another Company, or the same Company but under a different name, and er, they were more or less all the same people that we had when we went out to France.
More or less all the same people that we went out to Egypt.
So all the people I worked with, 'cause there were quite a few Militia boys, twenty, and we were all there together when we went to Egypt. And we were all together for a couple of years in Egypt, until of course we went our different ways from there, but fortunately all the friends I'd made in France, we were still together when we went out to Egypt. I was fortunate in that respect, oh yes, but some of I say some of the Company just completely...the R.A.F. suffered the worst. You go through the records you find that the R.A.F. really suffered. They were the worst ones, and the merchant navy. Yes, it was a blow on the (morale), especially (in) 1940.
Yes, because the war was quite young wasn't it?
Yes, but that was, as I say, regarding anything else, nothing really spectacular ever (laughs) happened to me.
Did you learn to swim in the end?
Did you learn to swim?
No, I never did (laughs)!
Probably put off for life!
No, never learned to swim.
Thanks very much for that.
That's quite all right.
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