With our social groups temporarily suspended at the moment, we’ve invited some of the scheduled guest speakers to tell us a bit about themselves and the incredible work they do. This week we hear from local historian and retired soldier, Simon Jarman MBE:

I live in Oswestry, I am married to Linda I have two children a boy, David an Army Officer and a girl, Sarah a children’s nurse and two grandchildren again one boy and one girl. Three step children and another grandson.

I am retired from the Army and work part-time running a small business giving talks and presentations on the First World War and Forest Skills/Bush craft for youngsters in the Midlands, Wales and sometimes further afield. This is somewhat limited with the current Virus at the moment so I am selling Vinyl Records from home and helping look after a very poorly step-daughter.

Before this I went to Antarctica for 4.5 months to work for the British Antarctic Survey at a base called Rothera.

Just before that I had a book published on my great uncle who served in WW1 and lived till he was ninety seven years old.  I managed to get the book finished whilst I had three months off recovering from cancer which I was lucky to recover fully from.

Prior to being diagnosed with cancer I had worked in Copthorne Barracks for a number of years working for the Army Cadet Force covering Shropshire, Worcester and Herefordshire as a Training Safety Officer.

Initially I served in the British Army for 29 years, initially as a chef and latterly as a (WO1) Regimental Sergeant Major dealing with soldier’s careers, logistics in many places in the world, discipline and much more.  (The soldier who could legally shout at people)

I was attached to the Special Air Service (our special forces) for quite a few years and served with the Paras, Commandos and Guards as well as other Regiments.  I saw operational service in NI, Bosnia, Rwanda, Congo and others and there are many places in the world I was able to visit, I would do it all over again, for sure.

I was awarded the MBE in the New Year’s Honours of 1999 by the SAS for my services to them operationally and around the world and again in 2005 I was awarded in the New Year’ Honours a Meritorious Service Award for my work in Copthorne Barracks for recruiting, working with the Fireman’s strike, the Foot and Mouth Crisis and Fuel Strikes in the early 2000. 

HMT LANCASTRIA SUNK ON MONDAY 17th JUNE 1940

Days after the evacuation at Dunkirk there were still 1000’s of soldiers and civilians stranded to the West of France HMT Lancastria was sunk on Monday 17th June 1940 recovering 1000’s of these poor souls.   This was the worst maritime disaster this nation has ever suffered and more men and some women were lost on this than the Titanic and Lusitania put together. 

To this day no one really knows exactly how many perished on board, in the water, below the water or trapped in the ship, blown up or drowned, strafed in the water by German Aircraft or slipped away due to Hypothermia but it is upwards of 3000 could be as high as 5000 as the numbers for the manifest were not accurate as counting stopped after a certain number was reached.

My personal interest is the fact that my grandfather Major Norman Barrett (Royal Engineers) was on board that ship along with hundreds of his men, he was one of the lucky ones who survived but saw many of his men die terrible deaths that day.

I am sure he suffered PTSD from those visions which must have haunted him for the rest of his days.  I loved him, to me he was so reliable and dependable, my memories of him are mints, tweed, dogs, walks to the beach in Cornwall and paddling in the sea and listening to his stories.  I saw the terrible red raw scars on his legs from the burning oil that fateful day.

You see, he paddled in the salt water to help heal those burns years later when he was the Borough Surveyor for Camborne and Redruth, in Cornwall.  Rest In Peace Grandad.  My thoughts are ALWAYS with you.

THE TIMES used a normal sized column to publicise the disaster on the 25th July 1940 this was only after the New York Sun which published the story on the 24th July 1940. Five weeks after the terrible event took place.

There were two brief mentions of the disaster in the confidential copies of Lloyds List and Shipping Gazette for 22 and 24 June.

Such was the size of the disaster that Winston Churchill immediately issued a D notice, suspending publication of any news about the event.  Ina later account, published in his book The Second World War Volume three he wrote:

“At Brest and the western ports the evacuations were numerous.  The German air attack on the transports was heavy.  One frightful incident occurred on the 17 June 1940 at Saint-Nazaire.  The 20,000-ton liner Lancastria, with five thousand men on board, was bombed just as she was about to leave.

Upwards of three thousand men perished. The rest were rescued under continued air attack by the devotion of the small craft.  When this news came to me in the quiet Cabinet Room during the afternoon I forbade its publication, saying “The newspapers have got quite enough disaster for today at least”

I had intended to release the news a few days later, but events crowded upon us so black and so quickly that I forgot to lift the ban, and it was some time before the knowledge of this horror became public.”

The convenient postponement, which lasted five and a half weeks, was brought to the British peoples’ attention in a late edition of The Times newspaper on Thursday 25 July 1940, and in more detail the following day.  The story was not disclosed by Winston Churchill, however, but by the New York Sun, which published the story on 24 July.  The following is the extract from the The Times.

TROOPSHIP LOST

BOMBED IN B.E.F. EVACUATION

HEAVY CASUALTIES

The report went on to say:

….As reported in our later editions yesterday, the loss of the Cunard White Star liner Lancastria off the French port of Saint-Nazaire, as she evacuated members of the B.E.F. on the day the Petain Government capitulated, has now been revealed from an American source.

Nobody knows exactly how many were on board, but the number was probably about 5,000, of 2,500, of whom were saved.  (This has since been disputed and some thoughts were it could easily have been 7,000).

Most of the casualties were British soldiers, but there were also on board about 600 RAF Officers and men and a few British civilians who held official positions in France.  Nearly all of them had come from Nantes, which had been used as an assembling ground for British troops of all units, Saint-Nazaire was one of the last ports available for the evacuation of British troops, and many thousands embarked there.

A number of air raids had already been carried out on Saint-Nazaire, but the damage had been slight and the casualties surprisingly few.  The embarkation had just been completed when the shipping was attacked by a strong formation of JUNKERS 87 dive-bombers, three bombs hit the Lancastria.

RAFTS MACHINE-GUNNED

The liner heeled over almost immediately and sank within about 30 minutes.  Many men who had survived the explosion were machine-gunned as they tried to make for shore in small boats and in rafts.  The Junkers also dived to within a short distance of the sea to fire on helpless survivors struggling in the water.  Many soldiers and airmen were killed, and many others were drowned before help could reach them.

Fortunately, the anti-aircraft fire had driven off most of the Junkers, and the arrival of the RAF Hurricanes sent others scurrying.  One German machine was shot down into the sea by a Hurricane, and at least one more was badly damaged.

Out of the large number of ships evacuating troops from Saint-Nazaire the Lancastria was the only one that was lost, in spite of almost constant raids.  Among those lost were a number of RAF officers and men who had arrived at the port that day from Blois, on the River Loire, which had been used by units of the Advanced Air Striking Force.

One was a squadron leader padre, who had refused to embark on an earlier ship because he did not want to leave behind a crate full of bibles.  Others were Army Officers and men who had been in camp outside Nantes.  The casualties also included men from the Royal Corps of Signals, Royal Engineers and other regiments who had been assisting the AASF in ground work.   

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