Posts Tagged ‘Summer’

Six weeks of Blenheim Summer

March 26th, 2015

Alastair also writes about the kindness, sadness and desperation of the French people, many of whom were refugees. On one occasion, he recalls how his camp tent became a delivery suite for a young woman who gave birth on his flying jacket. On another, in the streets of Chartres in the early hours of the morning, saddened by the air of resignation amongst all the refugees, he entered the city’s cathedral for a moment of calm. To his amazement, he found himself gazing at thousands of candles, lit as far as the eye could see, and hundreds of refugees gently worshipping. Alastair wrote: ‘I felt growing in me a hope of eventual peace and of right prevailing in the end’.

Alastair wanted his comrades to be remembered, but feared that history would eclipse the Battle of France because it was a story of ‘failure’. He was right – the disasters of the Battle of France are being overlooked. I have come to realise how little understood is this episode of World War Two. Even less known is an event which occurred on 17 June 1940 – the day before the Battle of France ended – the sinking of the troopship Lancastria. This tragedy was the largest single loss of life for British forces in the whole of World War Two. It was also Britain’s worst ever maritime disaster, claiming more victims than the sinking of the Titanic and Lusitania combined.

Lancastria was stationed off the coast of St Nazaire, packed with war-weary troops and refugees fleeing from a country that was politically divided, economically bereft and physically shattered. Despite attempts at a headcount, no complete manifest was kept and there were chaotic scenes as thousands clambered aboard, seeing Lancastria as their escape route. She then suffered three direct hits from a German bomber and quickly sank. It is not known precisely how many perished that day, but estimates suggest it was at least four thousand.

Thus began one of the biggest cover-ups of World War Two. Churchill himself immediately placed a D-notice on the event, preventing news of the tragedy from reaching an already demoralised British public. To this day, the wreck is still not a designated war grave.

Why haven’t the stories of the Battle of France and the sinking of Lancastria become part of our military folklore, alongside the Battle of Britain, the Evacuation of Dunkirk, El Alamein and the D-Day Landings? I think if Alastair were asked this question he would say it is because the Battle of France was a defeat. However, surely the sacrifice of men who are part of a battle lost is every bit as important as the sacrifice made by those whose fights are ultimately won?

Alastair was captured by Germans after being shot down a fourth time on 14 July 1940 and he spent the rest of war in captivity, making various escape attempts. The Battle of Britain had begun a few days earlier. Mercifully, its outcome was very different. In spite of terrible losses, British strength and determination overcame the enemy. But this year, as we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, we should also take time to remember events which took place in France some weeks earlier, especially all those who fought as bravely as my grandfather and those who died on Lancastria. They deserve nothing less.

The official launch of Blenheim Summer will be at the RAF Club this evening. The book tells the story of the Battle of France through the eyes of Alastair Panton who was an RAF Reconnaissance pilot during these difficult days, seventy-five years ago.

Six Weeks of Blenheim Summer by Alastair and Victoria Panton is published by Biteback priced £16.99. To order your copy for £14.99 plus p&p call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk


World War Two

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