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I was in the water for five hours... I was scared stiff

PUBLISHED: 17:55 14 October 2009 | UPDATED: 09:02 12 August 2010

SORROW: Neal Howard remembers the day HMS Lancastria sunk. His holds a  photo of himself as a young man and his late wife Phyllis.

SORROW: Neal Howard remembers the day HMS Lancastria sunk. His holds a photo of himself as a young man and his late wife Phyllis.

A NINETY-YEAR-OLD war veteran who was on board HMS Lancastria when it sunk in the country s biggest maritime disaster has recalled the fear he felt spending five hours in the freezing cold water. West Wickham resident Neal Howard, of Chamberlain Cresce

A NINETY-YEAR-OLD war veteran who was on board HMS Lancastria when it sunk in the country's biggest maritime disaster has recalled the fear he felt spending five hours in the freezing cold water.

West Wickham resident Neal Howard, of Chamberlain Crescent, was just 19 when the troopship, carrying up to 9,000 people, was bombed and sank off the coast of France on June 17, 1940.

The boat was taking part in Operation Ariel, the evacuation of British nationals and troops from the French port of St Nazaire, two weeks after the Dunkirk disaster.

Thousands were killed in what was regarded as the country's biggest loss of life in the Second World War.

After reading about the sinking in Times Past in the Bromley Times, Mr Howard said: "I was a youngster when it happened but I was in charge of my squadron, just as a regular soldier. We were marching down the road, some were marching quickly, some were marching slowly. I was trying to keep the peace.

"When we got to the boat I crawled up the side, on the netting and got on. The boat was complete chaos, people were running everywhere. I was so tired, I went to my cabin and I slept. I asked the others to wake me up for food but they didn't.

"When I woke up, I asked them where my food was and they told me to go to the canteen. When I was in the queue, the bomb hit. I could smell the cordite.

"We ran. We were trying to get off the beastly boat. Another chap was with me. We got on a lifeboat but one side of it went into the water and then we followed it in."

Three direct hits caused the ship to roll over and she sank within 20 minutes. More than 1,400 tons of fuel oil leaked into the sea and was set partially ablaze. As well as those who drowned, many died from the fuel fumes.

Mr Howard recalled: "I was in the water for five hours. I was scared stiff. I was no hero. There were people in the water around me but we weren't really speaking. I was hoping I would be picked up by somebody. I didn't want to think about my family.

"I didn't think about anything except that I was tired and I wanted to know when I would get out. I was afraid but you shouldn't let the enemy get you like that.

"There were quite a lot of ships about but for some reason the Royal Navy didn't come and get us. I think they thought they would get bombed too. Finally, a dinghy from HMS Havelock came and picked us up.

"The chap on the back was huge. He got his hands between my legs and threw me over his shoulder. He just scooped me out the water. It was like when you see a fish being thrown up and landing, that's what I thought at the time.

"There were others in there already. We went along and picked up anyone who looked like they still had a bit of life in them. I was too pleased to get something solid between the sea and me.

"Once I was in the boat I put my back against the wall and I actually slept. I didn't want anymore of that nonsense. The Navy took us to a big gymnasium in Devonport.

"They looked after us very well. They gave us cakes and cigarettes and chocolates."

Winston Churchill tried to hush up the sinking, which became the bloodiest single engagement for UK forces in terms of lives lost in the Second World War. It claimed more lives than the combined losses on the Titanic and Lusitania.

Coming only two weeks after Dunkirk, it was believed the disaster, in which just 2,477 survived, would cataclysmically damage morale.

It was not announced on the Defence Notice system but the New York Times eventually broke the story on July 26, more than a month after it happened.

Mr Howard said: "I was sorry that Winston Churchill did that. He thought it would be too bad for morale. I wasn't angry about it. I didn't have time to be angry. I was just sorry."

Meanwhile, Mr Howard's childhood sweetheart Phyllis, who later became his wife, found out about her beloved's tribulations from a sailor who demanded his pay-book for identification.

The couple had grown up together in India, where they attended the same school ,and they later went on to have two daughters.

He said: "The sailor wrote to her what happened. When I arrived on her doorstep, she was pleased to see me and I was pleased to see her. If I'd been anything else she'd have given me what for.

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