LIFESTYLE

WWII Veteran Who Survived HMT Lancastria Bombing Turns 100 And Reveals Secret To Long Life

'It was a wonderful day, one of the best days of my life.'

01/10/2017 11:17 | Updated 02 October 2017

Warning: video contains flashing lights.

A Second World War veteran and survivor of the HMT Lancastria disaster has celebrated his 100th birthday in style.

Ernest Beesley spent his big day, on Friday 29 September, celebrating with friends, family and staff at the care home where he lives in Uxbridge.

The 100-year-old took a trip in a classic car and then attended his birthday bash, where local singer Natasha Hardy performed. The pair later danced to the Tennessee Waltz together.

On top of all that, Ernest received a card from the Queen and a note from singer Dame Shirley Bassey congratulating him on the milestone.

“It was a wonderful day, one of the best days of my life,” Ernest said.

“I couldn’t even begin to pick just one favourite part, but it was quite the experience dancing with the singer who came along to perform.”

Bupa
Ernest Beesley took a trip in a classic car on his birthday.

Ernest took the opportunity to share the secret to a long and happy life on his birthday, saying gardening had helped keep his mind and body sharp, but ultimately it was all down to his late wife, Doris, who he was married to for 72 years.

As well as being joined by his family including his nephews and nieces, staff at Bupa’s Clare House care home, where he has lived since 2009, arranged for his old friends and carers from the home to return to join the celebrations.

Dave Togoto, manager at Bupa Clare House, said: “He’s a trooper, he really is, and such a brilliant character. We wanted to go all out with the celebrations, not just because it’s his one hundredth birthday, but because it’s Ernest and everyone here loves him!  

“He’s sharp as anything and is always keeping us entertained with his stories.”

Bupa
Ernest with local singer Natasha Hardy.

Born in Wallingford on 30 September 1917, Ernest served in the Royal Engineers during World War Two.

He was aboard the HMT Lancastria on 17 June 1940, the day it was hit and sunk by a German bomber near the French port of Saint-Nazaire.

Some 4,000 people are thought to have lost their lives in the disaster, making it the largest loss of life from a single engagement for the British forces during the war. Even to this day it remains the largest loss of life in British maritime history - greater than the Titanic and Lusitania combined. 

Ernest was on the ship - which was evacuating troops from France, shortly after the Dunkirk evacuation - having been working on railway lines in Brittany.

He said thousands of troops and civilians were sent to the coastline to escape the continent, with his group sent to the ill-fated Lancastria.

One of the last to board the ship, Ernest was below deck taking a shower when the air raid began, meaning he wasn’t aware of it until the impact struck.

He recalled: “I had my shower and came back to where my kit was. I’d only been stood there for minutes when there was this vast explosion and the ship seemed to leap out of the water.

“A bomb had fallen down the ship’s funnel and just blew it to bits really.

“I don’t remember panicking, it was all very calm. I knew the ship was going to sink and I had to get away from it. I’d managed to get a life jacket and I jumped off and swam, probably about a quarter of a mile, until I saw a navy corvette heading towards me. At first, I thought it was going to hit me, but the crew threw me a life raft which I was able to board.”

Supplied by Ernest Beesley
Ernest during his days in the Royal Engineers.

However, the rescue was far from over for Ernest. As more and more survivors clung to the side of the life raft, it became very crowded.

Ernest stood on it briefly to relive cramp, but he fell into the water and was unable to board the raft again.

“I just had to keep swimming,” he added.

After more than an hour in the water, Ernest was picked up by a boat, which he then helped row towards other survivors in order to rescue them. He recalled that many of the survivors were covered in oil from the disaster.  

Having plucked others from the water, their rowing boat was picked up by a larger vessel and Ernest was taken back to Plymouth where, on arrival, he claimed he was asked not to say anything about the disaster.

“We were told not to talk to anybody. It was the same time that Dunkirk was taking place and Churchill didn’t want people to be disheartened. They estimated that around 5,000 people died on the ship,” he explained.

Bupa
Ernest celebrating his 100th birthday with friends, family and cake.

After World War Two, Ernest moved to Perivale, Ealing in west London where he lived with his wife Doris. He lived there until he moved to the Uxbridge-based care home in 2009, aged 91. 

Though the couple had no children, Ernest remains close to his nieces who attended his birthday celebration.

Aside from the seven years (1939-1946) spent with the Royal Engineers, Ernest spent his entire working life with the Great Western Railway.

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