A 101-YEAR-OLD survivor of the UK’s worst maritime disaster has spoken of his experience of surviving the sinking of HMT Lancastria.

Ernest Beesley is one of the few remaining survivors of the Lancastria disaster, which happened when the Cunard liner turned transport ship was bombed by the Luftwaffe off the French port of St Nazaire on June 17, 1940.

More than 4000 men, women and children died in the disaster, with a further 2500 rescued – the Clyde-built ship had been carrying three times its normal capacity of passengers as it attempted to evacuate troops and civilians back to Britain.

She had been riding at anchor off the coast awaiting Royal Navy ships to protect her but the Luftwaffe found her and attacked.

Then a Royal Engineer, Beesey recalled how the bombs fell from the German aircraft, including one that went straight down the Lancastria’s single funnel. Veteran of a multitude of Atlantic crossings, and built by the Beardmore Company at Dalmuir to the highest standards, not even a mighty vessel like the Lancastria could survive such treatment. She sank in 20 minutes, and witnesses told how fuel oil leaking from the ship was ignited and German aircraft strafed survivors.

Beesley said: “We were nearly all soldiers and nurses. There were ordinary people, some of whom had children with them.”

A strong swimmer, Beesley remembered: “On the ship that was sinking I was thinking the shore was two miles away but I thought I’d better jump in and swim away. I swam for about 20 minutes and then this Royal Navy corvette came around and was headed straight for me.

“I shouted and they threw a rubber raft so I climbed into it and all these blokes covered in oil came swimming up, and about six of them got in with me and the others were hanging on the side.

“I got cramp in my legs and I stood up so they threw me in the sea. I started to swim towards the shore and I got so far before there was a rowing boat coming towards me from the shore, but he couldn’t see me because he had his back to me,

“When he got a bit closer I shouted ‘over here, over here’ and he said to me ‘can you row’? I said yeah, and then out of nowhere came another Royal Navy corvette who picked us up.”

Beesley was washed down to remove the oil and then taken back to Plymouth aboard the liner Oronsay. Beesley and his fellow survivors were told not to discuss the disaster with anyone, not even their families.

Appalled at the lack of commemoration of the Lancastria, the Scottish Government commissioned a medal for survivors and the families of those who died – Salmond presented Beesley with his medal and a quaich.

Beesley told his story in the second part of a special feature by the Alex Salmond Show on the loss of the Lancastria, which was the single biggest loss of British lives in any engagement of the Second World War, but which few people knew about at the time because Winston Churchill, who had been Prime Minister for only five weeks, ordered a media silence on the sinking to preserve morale.

The American press eventually broke the story but even then no proper commemorations were held until decades later.

The youngest survivor, Jacqueline Tanner, who was a mere toddler at the time, also appeared on the show, carrying her mother’s watch which stopped at 4.10pm on June 17, 1940, the moment the Tanner family went into the sea.

She said: “I was very lucky because my parents were strong swimmers who were in the water for a few hours. People gave daddy a piece of wood to put me on.

“When we got picked up I was unconscious by then so they put me in hot water, cold water, hot water, and I came round.”