Private Ronald Charles Pates – Victim of the Lancastria
by Linda Ayres
The Cunard Steamship Company launched the Tyrrhenia on 21st May 1920. Her name changed in 1924 to the Lancastria and when the Second World War began in 1939, she was taken over as a troopship.
On the morning of 17th June 1940, the Lancastria dropped anchor along with many other ships at a port near St. Nazaire on the French Atlantic Coast. She and the other ships went there ahead of the German attack, to help in the mass evacuation of British servicemen, embassy staff, RAF personal, women, and children.
One of those awaiting departure was, Private Ronald Charles Pates, of the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC). He was born in 1914 in Bedford, one of four children of Annie and William Pates. Ronald, along with thousands of others, rushed to get on board the Lancastria and, by the time the ship was ready to set sail, it was crammed with an estimated 6000 passengers or more. At 1.50 pm, Captain Sharp received orders to sail. He signalled for a destroyer escort, but there was no response. Since U- Boats were active in the area he made the decision that it would be safer to wait for a second ship to be loaded and set out together for protection.
At 3.45pm the Luftwaffe came. The first Junkers-88 dropped four 500 lbs bombs that hit holds number 2, 3, and 4 – with the last tearing a hole in the port side underneath the waterline. As the ship listed and began to sink, the crew and passengers tried to escape. Many of the exits were blocked by fire, leaving little chance of escape for many of the large number of passengers on board. For those who did get onto the hull and the deck of the ship, low flying aircraft attacked them with machine gun fire and leaking oil covered them. Of the few lifeboats launched, many of them turned over. Twenty minutes later, the Lancastria had sunk.
While survivors were struggling in the water, the Luftwaffe began to firebomb them to set the fuel spill on the sea on fire. (The Lancastria had a capacity for 1,380 ton of oil). Survivors on the hull, holding on to debris while they tried to keep afloat, were also machine-gunned. The Luftwaffe attacked the lifeboats full of women, children, with machine guns. During the Luftwaffe attack, many other boats, some with French crews, took some survivors to waiting evacuation vessels. The Cambridgeshire, a trawler, rescued 900 survivors. Residents of St Nazaire, despite their exhaustion, dived repeatedly into the water, dodging machine gun fire, to help the survivors.
Just 2,477 passengers survived. The number of lives lost is unknown, but some have said it could be 6,000. The Lancastria went down in history for the largest loss of life at sea – a disaster much greater than the lives lost on the Titanic and Lusitania put together.
Churchill wrote: “When the news came to me in the quiet Cabinet room during the afternoon, I forbade its publication, saying ‘the newspapers have got quite enough disaster for today at least”. I intended to release the news a few days later, but events crowded upon us so thick and so quickly that I forgot to lift the ban, and it was years before the knowledge of this horror became public.”
In September 1951, a French salvage company surveyed the wreck and decided not to break it up where it lay, and she is now as a War Grave of the unknown thousands that were lost. The French have built a monument to the Lancastria dead, and have placed an exclusion zone around the wreck to protect it.
In 2005, the first restrictions were released, and the survivors of the Lancastria could talk freely of what happened on that ill-fated day. The full details will be made public in 2040.
Most of the crew came from Scotland and it is where the Lancastria Association began, it represents the survivors and their relatives, and has members all over the world. Memorials in Glasgow, St Nazaire, and in the National Memorial Arboretum honour the crew.
Before the 75th anniversary on Wednesday 17th June 2015, the relatives of those who were onboard criticized the Ministry of Defence for failing to commemorate their sacrifice. In 2008, the Scottish Government commissioned a medal to honour survivors and descendants of those who lost their lives. However, the UK Government remained doggedly silent
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Defence said: “There is no formal event being organised by the MoD.” She added the Government did not commemorate events “Willy nilly”, and later said:“ The sinking of the HMT Lancastria remains the United Kingdom’s greatest maritime disaster of many thousands of servicemen and civilians, and the fortitude of those who were saved that day, must never be forgotten.”
Private Charles Ronald Pates went down with the Lancastria. He is commemorated on the screen wall, panel 41 in Les Montiers-en-Retz Communal Cemetery, No T/63985. There are 62 Second World War casualties on this site, of these, a quarter are unidentified.
At the time of his death, his parent’s lived at Nuneaton, Warwickshire. He is commemorated on his grandparents’ headstone at Foster hill Road, Cemetery.
There is no mention of the tragedy or his rank on Private Pates’ headstone, just the date. Perhaps his family did not know what happened that day, or were told to not to tell.
The inscription on the memorial:
Ronald Charles Pates
Who made the supreme sacrifice
In France June 17th, 1940,
Aged 25 years
Grave Ref H 575
Researched and written by
Linda S Ayres
Photography by Linda S. Ayres
The Scotsman Friday July 26th, 1940
Photograph of the Lancastria, The Liverpool Echo, 25th July 1940
Photograph of trawler rescuing survivors, The Sphere 3rd August 1940
Photograph of the sinking of the Lancastria, Illustrated London News, 3rd August 1940
The Independent, 16th June 2015
The Daily Mail 17th June 2015
Cunard Liners – Martin’s Marine Engineering.
My thanks to Ted Martin for his assistance
August 04, 2021