Unanswered questions from 1940

A ceremony to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of evacuation had been reported on the television news the previous day. The report prompted her recollections of that distant summer, a time written on the pages of history books but fresh and real to her.

Her husband Jim had served with the Royal Army Medical Corps, rising to the rank of captain. He had been a member of the ill-fated British Expeditionary Force that had gone to France at the beginning of the Second World War.

When hostilities began on 10th May 1940, the British forces were immediately driven back to the English channel. Jim had been with his unit at Dunkirk, but the invading army had closed in and they had been forced to move south  to avoid capture. His widow recalled:

“They went to Dieppe. A ship was meant to rescue them. It was commanded by the queen’s cousin. What do you call him? Mountbatten. Yes. He tried to get into Dieppe, but he hadn’t a chance. He had to sail on – he went to Malta.

“Anyway, Jim and his men went to Saint Nazaire, but he didn’t make it onto the troopship doing the evacuation, which was a good thing, because it was sunk. There was nothing they could do. They went out into the countryside. He spent the summer making hay with French farmers. Eventually, they got him onto a coalboat going out of Saint Nazaire – there were so many German submarines in the channel that the boat had to sail halfway to America before turning back and heading for England”.

Today in Liverpool there will be a service to remember the sinking of that troopship, HMT Lancastria. The worst maritime disaster in British history, it is estimated that between 4,000 and 6,000 people died when it was sunk, so overcrowded were its decks.

The uncertainty about how many were aboard the Lancastria contrasts with the exactness that exists about many aspects of Second World War history. Perhaps the impressionistic accounts are more in keeping with the flux and confusion of the times.

Even the story of Captain Jim seems to have elements that will forever be unverifiable. How many of his unit were with him through the weeks that followed the loss of the Lancastria? France surrendered eight days after the sinking, how quickly was there a resistance network to shelter British servicemen trapped by the Nazi occupation? Where would the master of a coalboat have claimed to have been sailing when sailing from Saint Nazaire? Would the British have allowed such a boat to return to France? How many things can never be known?


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