NEWBY, George. Serjeant (3440142)
1/6th Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers
Died 17 June 1940, aged 34
George's headstone in the Prefailles Communal Cemetery
Photograph (68084149) by "kernowmaid" via findagrave.com
Not listed in the Book of Remembrance
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission records state that George was the "son of Frank and Charlotte Newby; husband of Marion Newby, of Epsom, Surrey" and was aged 38 when he died in 1940. However, the only George Newby found in the records whose parents were Frank and Charlotte was born Q2 1906, registered in Rochdale, Lancashire. His parents Frank and Annie Charlotte (née Forshaw) had married in Rochdale Q1 1903. Their first child, James, was born in 1904 followed by George in 1906.
The 1911 Census records the family of four living at 20 Trafford Street, Rochdale. 27 year old Frank is listed as a "House Painter" and 26 year old Charlotte as a "Cotton Rover" - a job in the cotton spinning industry.
In Q2 1925, 19 year old George married 16 year old Marion Greenhalgh - an early marriage doubtless connected with the birth of their first child, Frank, in Q4 1925. The marriage and birth were both registered in Rochdale - as were the births of their children Fred in Q1 1929 and Shirley in Q3 1935.
Marion is recorded in the 1939 Register as one of three unrelated people lodging with Irving Crabtree at St Andrew's School, Downs Road, Epsom. Now aged 30 her occupation is listed as a "Cotton Spinner". It is not known where her young children were. (Given their ages, their records would be currently closed, and there is none at this address.) Anyway, it seems that the couple had moved south: the birth of their fourth and final child, Heather, was registered in the local Surrey Mid Eastern District in Q3 1940.
George's WW2 service was with the 1/6th Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers. They were sent to France in 1940 as part of the British Expeditionary Force. As is well known, the BEF was overwhelmed by the ferocity of the expected German invasion. It is less well known that the consequent evacuation was not just from Dunkirk in Operation Dynamo from 26 May to 4 June. A significant number of troops and others could not get there and made their way west. Operation Cycle was the evacuation of Allied troops from Le Havre, at the mouth of the Seine from 10 to 13 June 1940. Further west, the 15 to 25 June Operation Ariel saw the evacuation of Allied forces and civilians from a number of France's Atlantic ports, particularly from St Nazaire and Nantes on the Loire.
George had reached St Nazaire, and secured a place on the Lancastria, a British Cunard liner (built in the 1920s and, until 1924 known as the Tyrrhenia) that had been requisitioned as a troopship - and had already seen service in evacuating troops from Norway. The ship's official capacity was 2,200 including the 375-man crew. In the crisis conditions at St Nazaire, however, the Captain had been instructed by the Royal Navy to "load as many men as possible without regard to the limits set down under international law". By the mid-afternoon of 17 June, she had embarked an unknown number - most likely between 5,000 and 7,000 - of troops, RAF personnel and civilian refugees (including embassy staff).
The Luftwaffe sought to disrupt the evacuation and, at about 16:00 hours, a Junkers Ju88 dropped four bombs on the Lancastria. Three direct hits caused the ship to list first to starboard then to port, while a fourth bomb fell down the ship's smokestack, detonating inside the engine room releasing more than 1,200 tons of crude oil into the Loire estuary. These bombs will have killed or mortally wounded many on the packed ship. Fifteen minutes after being hit, Lancastria began to capsize. When German aircraft began strafing survivors in the water, this ignited the fuel oil that had spread over the sea. Many survivors of the strafing drowned or were choked by the oil.
Top: the pre-war RMS Lancastria (copyright acknowledged)
Below: Lancastria as she sank off St Nazaire (public domain)
2,477 survivors were picked up by other ships. The death toll of 4,000+ (less than half of whom are named) is the largest loss of life in British maritime history - more than the combined loss from the Titanic and Lusitania put together. The immense loss of life was such that the British government sought to suppress news of the disaster, but that held only for a few weeks. As the wreck site lies in French territorial waters, it is ineligible for protection under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. However, at the request of the British Government, in 2006 the French authorities gave the site legal protection as a war grave.
Unlike many of the others killed in the disaster, George's body was recovered and he is buried in
Prefailles Communal Cemetery, on the Atlantic coast about 10 miles south of St Nazaire. (His grave 29 is shared with another but unknown casualty of the sinking.)
Roger Morgan © 2018
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