The Pettit Family 1823 - 2002

Harold b 1915 - d

Wife - Josie Wife - Diana Daughter - Anne Son - Colin
Certificate Type Copy Found
Birth Not found as of 27 November 2004
Marriage Not found as of 27 November 2004

Research Dates
27 Nov 04    16 Dec 04   

27 November 2004
Harold Pettit is the last surviving child of his parents, Horace William and Francis Mary Pettit (nee Watts).   Born in the second year of the First World War, Harold had a fascinating and very frightening experience at the start of World War 2.   The story was ordered to be kept as a secret by the Government at the time, and I only became aware of it following a request for information and help with the construction of the family tree.   Harold kindly supplied me with two clippings, one from a newspaper and the other from the Lancastrian Association Newsletter.   Both articles are reproduced below, although some short passages have been removed from the newspaper article.

The Newspaper Clip.

It was the greatest maritime disaster in British history, when more than 4,500 were drowned - over three times the number lost in the "Titanic".   Winston Churchill was so shocked that he forbade publication of all news of the tragedy, and it was more than fifty years later that it became generally known.   The 16,700 ton Cunard liner "Lancastria", converted into a troopship, was crammed with over 7,000 servicemen, instead of the regulation 2,500, when she was bombed off St. Nazaire and sank within 20 minutes.   Harry Pettit, now 87, was among eight remaining survivors who returned last weekend after paying an emotional return over the wreck.

That fateful day was June 17th 1940, when the press stated that the British Army had been saved by the "Dunkirk miracle", whereas in fact at least 100,000 soldiers and airmen were still in France and many ships, including the Lancastria, gathered in the Loire estuary to evacuate these men.   The steamships zig-zagged away to avoid the German dive-bombers, but the heavily overladen Lancastria was a sitting duck.   She was struck four times before overturning, and sinking nine miles off St. Nazaire.

In the chaos ladders broke, many were trapped below, others could not swim, and several of those who managed to grab one of the too few 2,500 lifejackets failed to wear them properly and broke their necks on hitting the sea.   The ship's thick leaking oil quickly spread across the surface, and thousands died at sea and were later washed up along the coastline.   Many of them were hastily buried by French civilians who placed a bucket on top as a marker until, with no signs of a German presence, they were re-interred in 37 different cemeteries.

Harry can thank his physique for his last-minute survival.   A private in the Royal Army Service Corps at the time, he had trekked for a fortnight, hiding in the ditches, during the retreat before reaching St. Nazaire to board the Lancastria.   Of his experience when sinking with the ship, he remembers: "I was being sucked down and thinking, 'It's taking a hell of a time to go down, how long is it going to take to die?'   Suddenly I shot to the surface like a cork out of a bottle."

It wasn't until 10 years later that Harry learned what had happened.   The Lancastria had landed on a sandbank 12 fathoms down with her superstructure still visible above the waterline.   As a marathon runner and footballer and who frequently cycled 200 miles in a day, Harry prided himself on his fitness.   Naked and covered in a layer of ship's oil, he swam for four and a half hours, luckily not spotted by the German planes intent on machine-gunning survivors.

Utterly exhausted, Harry was thinking to himself "This is it" when, suddenly, he heard a Cockney voice shout to his crewmates aboard the escort ship HMS Havelock: "Don't go yet, there's another one here!"   Two sailors dived in to haul Harry from the water, by now too weak to climb on to a life-raft unaided, with one of those two, Jack Tindall, remaining a firm friend ever since.   It took Harry 10 days to get rid of the taste and smell of oil from his system, but his rapid ascent from the Lancastria left him profoundly deaf with burst eardrums and his lungs were also affected.

Nevertheless, he was despatched to Iceland for three years, rising to the rank of sergeant and engaged on transport docking and supplies, before fulfilling the vow he had made to a Frenchwoman before boarding the Lancastria, saying he would be back, when returning for the Normandy landings on D-Day +10.   But before he boarded any other troopship he always gabbed a life-jacket before putting his kitbag down on the deck.

Demobbed in Germany in 1946, he returned to his civilian career of teaching, in Suffolk, London, Sussex and Kent.   Harry acts as national co-ordinator of the Lancastria Survivors Worldwide Association, dealing with hundreds of letters and 'phone calls from relatives of the handful of survivors still alive.   Even so, the Association's ranks have risen from 60 to 600 over the past 30 years, by admitting families and those with particular interest in the ship.

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The Lancastrian Association Newsletter Article


 To borrow a phrase from my old friend and near neighbour Max Bygraves this time I "wanna tell you a sto-o-o-ry."

 I have told this story only once, that was approx 35 years ago, and it was told to an audience of nearly 800 at my school in Kent, an old Victorian double decker. It also was probably one of the most moving, poignant and rewarding stories that I have ever told. It maintained the silent, rapt attention of approx 750 children from start to finish. In justice to its inclusion in this Newsletter, let me say now that the story has strong Lancastria connections.

 The teacher in charge of Physical Education said to me one day in May "Harry; we have only 17 4th  year children who want to go to swimming lessons at the local baths. We normally take 40, what can we do?" I thought for a moment, then said "Leave it to me, Bill." I then sent a quick message round the school. "Full assembly tomorrow at 9am in the Main Hall." That's 400 from downstairs and 350 from upstairs.

 When the time came, after normal routine matters I had all children seated on the floor. Quite a squeeze. The risk factor was on my mind, but the occasion I thought, demanded it.

 "The Story." As all good stories do, it begins "Once upon a .time, there were two boys of the same age living in a pleasant seaside town. I will call them X and Y. They were very good friends, grew up together, went to the same school and loved the open air life, football, cricket, cross-country running, etc. On one thing they differed.   X loved to spend his spare time in summer on the beach with friends, playing beach games, swimming races, etc, but X could not persuade Y to join in. X said to Y one day. "You know you ought to learn to swim, you might be in a boat one day which hits a rock and you find yourself in the sea." "Oh that's a chance in a million" said Y and still stayed off the beach.

 Years passed, they left school, went to work and we must now call them Mr X and Mr Y. A few years later, war was declared and Mr X and Mr Y discussed what they should do. They decided to join the army together, and not wait to be called up, which would not be long anyway. Mr X was drafted into the R.A.S.C, and Mr Y into the R.E's. They were parted, of course, and each was later sent to France for several months. They did once see and wave to each other in a busy railway station, but that was all. The war flared up and unbeknown to each other, they were forced, after Dunkirk to retreat across France from East to West, where thousands of army and R.A.F men were crowded into all kinds of ships which were to take them back to England. The German planes attacked these ships and sank several, including a large troop ship packed tightly with 7000 servicemen.    Those, like Mr X, who could swim, had a better chance than those who could not, in fact Mr X,  who had loved the beach as a boy was swimming in the oil-covered sea 4 1/2  hours, before being rescued.

 When he finally reached England and had survivors leave, that is, a few days at home, Mr X went to Mr Y's home, hoping to find him there, but Mr Y's widowed mother, in tears, had had no news of him for weeks and that's how it stayed. Many years later, Mr X was in France and visited British War Cemeteries. He was not surprised to find a special grave, that of his friend, Mr Y.   He told Mrs Y, when he returned home; and the next year he took her to France to see her son's grave. It was very sad.

So, boys and girls, You have been very quiet, now for a surprise". "How do I know all this? I will tell you. Mr X is still alive and well. He is in this town today" - looks of surprise - "He is even in this school today" - buzz of excitement - "He is in this Hall now" - heads going round like corkscrews - "In fact he is sitting on this table, on this platform, talking to you." When the inevitable buzz subsided, I said, "Mr Carney needs more names from 10/11 year olds for swimming classes. What are you going to be when you grow up? An X or a Y? Please think about that. That's all, school dismiss!

 The next morning, when I walked in the school gate, a bright young lad walked up to me and said, "Good morning Mr X. I've got my swimming letter" Within days, we had over 50 names.

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16 December 2004
A newspaper cutting sent in by Josie Hall provides the following details:


Once again we join in sending greetings to all local members of HM Forces wherever they may be serving, abroad, on the sea or at home. Names sent to me for ? this week include:

Six members of the family of Mrs Pettit, 48, Seaton Road: Driver Wm. H Pettit, RASC., at present in hospital in Northern Ireland (formerly employed at the Alderney Dairies, and hon. secretary of the Sea Scouts Football Club); Gunner Wesley D Pettit, RA, (formerly in the accountant's department of the Felixstowe UDC); Cpl Harold L Pettit, RASC., now in Iceland (former Sea Scout and employed by Mr C E Wiseman); Driver Stanley W Pettit, RASC, (formerly employed at the Health Stores and a member of the Marina Dance Band); Gunner Joe Peck, RA, (formerly employed by Messrs. Plant and Co.); and Lieut QM W Banks, Dorset Regiment, formerly with the Loyal Lancs Regiment 25 years.

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