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Lancastria sinking major memorial call

Jean Bell with a picture of her father, Bill Leddy, who served his country during the Second World War.
Jean Bell with a picture of her father, Bill Leddy, who served his country during the Second World War.

A Stakeford resident has called for a prominent memorial in London to raise awareness of the deadliest maritime disaster in British history.

More than 6,000 servicemen and civilians – some believe as many as 9,000 – were on board HM Troopship (HMT) Lancastria, a converted liner, when it was hit by a German dive-bomber and sank off the Brittany port of St Nazaire, France, on June 17, 1940, during the Second World War.

It was taking part in Operation Ariel, the evacuation of British nationals and troops from France. More than 3,000 people lost their lives.

Jean Bell’s father, Bill Leddy, was working at the Woodhorn mine when he was called up at the start of the war. He was part of the Durham Light Infantry.

On the day of the sinking, he swam over to HMT Lancastria from another ship nearby and asked if he could get on board, but the captain said he already had more than twice the normal capacity so he could not take any more.

Bill was about halfway in his swim back to the other ship when the sinking happened and while he did not tell his family much, he did say he could see many dead bodies in the water.

Although those who died are recognised in a church and the National Memorial Arboretum in England, Jean has written to Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson, and the letter includes the following: ‘Surely it (the disaster) is worthy of a monument in a prominent place in London where people can see what was suffered?

‘St Nazaire, where HMT Lancastria left from, and the place in Scotland where it was built, have monuments commemorating Britain’s greatest maritime disaster.’

Speaking to the Leader, the 82-year-old said: “At the time, the disaster was covered up by Winston Churchill because he feared that the scale of the tragedy would affect public morale.

“I can understand his actions, but now the Government needs to do much more to make people aware of the disaster, which is part of Britain’s history and should not be forgotten.”

Bill was among the soldiers that were deployed in Operation Overlord, the successful invasion of German-occupied Western Europe, that started with the D-Day Normandy Landings on June 6, 1944.

After the war, he continued to work as a miner before becoming the night shift caretaker at Northumberland Technical College in Ashington until he retired. He died in 1994.

A Ministry of Defence spokeswoman said: “Our thoughts remain with the relatives of those on board HMT Lancastria, whose sacrifice must never be forgotten.

“The crew are rightly honoured by memorials in Glasgow, St Nazaire, and in the National Memorial Arboretum, the UK’s year-round centre of remembrance, among others.”

She added that it has been a long-standing policy of successive Governments that the cost of erecting memorials and associated projects is not usually met from public funds, but from private donations or from public subscription.