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LANCASTRIA: Questions to answer

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I wish to comment in response to the article ‘Lancastria Sinking Major Memorial Call’ (News Post Leader, July 5) about Jean Bell and the testimony of her father Bill Leddy about his dreadful experience on that day, June 17, 1940.

My late father, who was a medical doctor and had qualified in the north east between the world wars, went through Sandhurst and was given the rank of Captain. He led a group of men at the time of Dunkirk to St Nazaire, with the German army in hot pursuit. They got a boat in the bay to where the HM troop ship, Lancastria, was anchored.

He had been given the task of taking a census of all the people on board, but went for lunch first (he had probably not eaten properly for days), then went on deck to rest in the sun. He watched two Spitfires and a German bomber in the air and realised that the lifeboats would be just about useless if Lancastria sank.

The account of what happened to him and what he witnessed, years later put into writing by him, is in The Loss of Lancastria. This book of the testimonies of about 37 people who survived that day was compiled by John L West.

It is a wealth of material and heartbreaking to read. I have a paperback copy. It is out of print and I was unable to trace the publisher. It may still be available on the internet.

My father only once talked with me about his contribution to the book, and that was when I was an adult and I wasn’t allowed to question him.

I am approaching my mid-70s now and a few years ago I published my autobiography. I wanted to put my father’s account as recorded in The Loss of Lancastria in my book, but there was no publisher to contact so I copied it by hand and included it in the appendix with some black and white photographs of the ship sinking.

My book, The Way I See It by Henry A Field, was published by Dolman Scott and is available in paperback and as an e-book.

The whole episode of Lancastria was a terrible disaster to happen so early in the Second World War and needs to be recognised as such.

There are still several unanswered questions, such as: Was the total number on board approaching 9,000? Why did the captain not try to move the ship? Was the ship unable to move due to its weight?

For me one very important question is why did Winston Churchill keep the sinking a secret? The photos and an account of what happened by someone on another boat ended up in America and filtered back to England. If Winston Churchill wanted the nation to fight wherever, to win over evil, then the likes of Lancastria, though horrific, should have spurred the nation on with vigour.

The trouble with any war is there is little time to take stock and grieve – the ‘ripple effect’ will go on for a long time.

Winston Churchill put a 100-year block on the information he had about Lancastria’s sinking. Why did he do this? We don’t know, but did he want everyone concerned, relevant and related, ‘gone’ so there could be no come-back?

A call for a memorial for the Lancastria might be a good thing for history, but is the clout still with us to make it happen? The MoD seems not willing or able to be interested so does that mean all information is fading into history?

I think the government should release all the details now and with the interest that could be generated perhaps a memorial could be the outcome. There is no need to keep the information hidden any longer.

Henry A Field

Cramlington