Last sur­vivor of Bri­tain’s worst mar­itime dis­as­ter dies aged 97

Warwickshire Telegraph - - NEWS - By CLAIRE HAR­RI­SON

TRIB­UTES have been paid to the youngest and last known sur­vivor of Bri­tain’s worst mar­itime dis­as­ter.

Reg Brown, who was the last known sur­vivor of the SS Lan­cas­tria, has sadly passed away.

Trag­i­cally, not only was he due to turn 98 next week but his death comes days just be­fore Re­mem­brance Sun­day, an in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant day for the Bed­worth res­i­dent.

In fact, he was a lynch­pin of the Bed­worth Ar­mistice Day, proudly lay­ing a wreath for more than two decades to re­mem­ber the many who died.

His sto­ries from the fate­ful day in June , when the liner was sunk by Ger­man bombers, are revered ac­cord­ing to Gil Leach, for­mer chair of the Bed­worth Ar­mistice Day Pa­rade Group, who said: “I re­mem­ber him telling me that peo­ple were jump­ing over board with life-jack­ets on and it broke their neck in­stantly. Reg knew this, so he jumped over and then put his on.”

Reg was in­volved an act of in­cred­i­ble act of hero­ism while float­ing in the sea: “I re­mem­ber he told me that a woman had jumped over­board, she said to him ‘I can swim but my baby can’t’ so he and his Sergeant took it in turns hold­ing the baby in their teeth, for six hours, be­fore they were res­cued.”

He even­tu­ally got to meet the child he helped to save: “He was at the Ar­bore­tum one year and he was ap­proached by a woman, it turned out to be the baby he helped to keep alive, he couldn’t be­lieve it.”

Bat­tle-hard­ened Reg would proudly take part in the Ar­mistice pa­rade ev­ery year - even as he got older and was in a wheel­chair.

“He was de­ter­mined to take part in the pa­rade and lay his wreath, even when he was in his wheel­chair, he al­ways had to get out of it to lay his wreath, he just had to do it,” Mr Leach added.

“We used to have a plan B, just in case the weather was too wet, we al­ways said we would speed up the ser­vice a bit, I re­mem­ber one year it was re­ally rain­ing and I turned to Reg and said ‘Shall we go to plan B,’ he just said to me ‘I am go­ing to stand in the rain, they can bloody stand in the rain too,’ so we did.”

Reg’s tales will be revered among those who knew him and the many who had heard about the great-grandad, who lived in Gains­bor­ough Drive for many years.

“He was such a great fel­low, I had the hugest amount of re­spect for him,” Gil added.

To­day, an air of of­fi­cial se­crecy still clings to the sink­ing of the Clyde-built Lan­cas­tria in June 1940 with the loss of a re­ported 7,000 lives.

The at­tack on the troop­ship by Ger­man bombers off the coast of France claimed more lives than the com­bined loss of the Ti­tanic and the Lusi­ta­nia and was the worst sin­gle loss of life for Bri­tish forces in the Sec­ond World War.

Mr Brown made re­peated trips to Par­lia­ment on be­half of the Lan­cas­tria Sur­vivors’ As­so­ci­a­tion to get the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment to recog­nise the site of the ship­wreck, which lies off the French coast.

The lo­ca­tion, ten miles from St Nazaire in west­ern France, had al­ready been de­clared a war grave un­der French law, but he wanted the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment to recog­nise it too.

He also fought for recog­ni­tion for all those who per­ished in the tragedy of His Majesty’s Troop­ship, SS Lan­cas­tria.

“He was an in­cred­i­ble man, I know ev­ery­one who knew him or knew of him will miss him but we will make sure his story is con­tin­ued to be told,” Mr Leach added.

This is how Reg Brown re­mem­bered the ill-fated day in June 1940. Troops were singing Roll Out The Bar­rel and There’ll Al­ways Be An Eng­land as the ship was in its death throes.

Reg re­called: “We ar­rived dock­side on Satur­day, June 15, and we waited two days to be trans­ferred out to the Lan­cas­tria. She was lay­ing miles off shore be­cause the water was too shal­low in­shore.

“We were among the last to board the ship on the morn­ing of June 17. When I got on board, I was filthy, dirty and hun­gry. I put my plim­soles on and a towel around my neck, hop­ing to have a wash down below. But the food smelt so good, I de­cided to eat in­stead, be­cause I thought I could get a wash any­time.

“I was two decks below. As I sat down to eat, there was this almighty bang and the boat rocked like a cra­dle. The ceil­ing came down. I tried to get from No 2 deck to No 1 deck, but the stair­way had been blown away. I was walk­ing and climb­ing over peo­ple and they were walk­ing and climb­ing over me to get top­side.

“We were in a ter­ri­ble state, fright­ened, ready to die. We’d got to the stage where we didn’t care if we lived or died. Bert Har­ris, a friend of mine, and me, de­cided to strip down to our socks, un­der­pants and vests, and we climbed over­board.

“We swam for our lives. There was oil ev­ery­where.

“It was on fire. The Ger­man planes came back to ma­chine gun us, and I could feel the vi­bra­tions in the water as the bul­lets hit.

“Af­ter about three hours, we were picked up by a French minesweeper.”

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