The sinking of the Lancastria during WWII remains Britain's worst maritime disaster. On 17 June 1940, over 4,000 people died after German bombers hit the ship they were being evacuated on. This previously unknown painting (courtesy of Sky News) shows the WWII attack on the Lancastria. It sank within 25 minutes just a few miles out to sea near the French port of Saint-Nazaire. The death toll was more than the sinking of the Titanic and the Lusitania combined.
Great uncle frank
Jenny Williams with her great uncle Frank in 1995, when he was in his 80s. “Frank waited all through the war to be 'called up.' The letter actually came after VE day. He was sent on a troop ship to the Far East, where the war was still on, but by the time he got there it was over there too (VJ day). So he came home again, which took a long time, and never saw any action. I think he found all this very frustrating.”
Jack Tomkins served in Malta from 1941 to 1945; although he didn’t have to enlist as he was from the Republic of Ireland, he was already in London and felt the threat from Hitler was so great he ought to join the war effort. His role was to man anti-aircraft guns and radar to intercept attacking Italian planes. Malta was under siege and bombardment from the air. Like many who survived, Dad didn’t talk at length about the war, but he did say that food was very scarce; sometimes they just had goat from a local farmer, and water sometimes rationed to a pint a day – for everything, drinking, washing, shaving. And he had colleagues in his unit who were killed by bombs or bullets close to where he was – but he survived, uninjured.
Many who came back from the war were severely traumatised, and took it out on their wives or families. That was never part of Dad’s experience; he was never anything except loving and kind to my mother and me, and never showed any signs of what he had been through. Doubtless that can be ascribed in part to his unerring faith, and God’s protection on his life and his mind.
After the war, as a London City Missionary in Forest Gate in East London, he oversaw the reconstruction of a Mission Hall which had been destroyed (except for one small hall) during bombing, and in serving there for 20 years saw it grow to have a Sunday school of 100 and adult congregations of 70 to 80. Many came to know the Lord there. It is still a Christian Centre.
So the little badge he often wore, “Saved to Serve,” had special meaning in that his life had been preserved through the war, but his personal salvation (as an 18 year old in rural Ireland) was even more significant.
Maurice Relf was a Naval rating during WW2; his ship was HMS Hood, the largest Battleship in the British navy at the time. By divine protection (Maurice was a committed Christian and a firm believer that God ordained the lives of all), Maurice was on sick leave on shore in the spring of 1941. On May 24th 1941 Hood was sunk in the Denmark Strait by the Bismarck battleship, with the loss of over 1,400 lives, only three survived. So Maurice was definitely not in the wrong place at the wrong time. He went on to serve on other naval ships for the rest of the war. Post war, he worked in Education in Sussex and was an elder in a Baptist church. Maurice was my uncle, and his three children (my excellent first cousins) are all very committed Christians.
One thing we don’t always appreciate is that those of this generation who survived the war, whilst not losing their life, lost 6 or 7 years of their lives; there was no single ‘gap year’ for them, but rather a long gap of 6 or 7 years before they could pick their life up again. For instance, my mother and father first came across each other at a Bible college around 1934; they didn’t marry until 11 years later after the war ended.