A Second World War veteran, who is among the last survivors of the HMT Lancastria disaster, has celebrated his 100th birthday by dancing the Tennessee Waltz.
Ernest Beesley spent the day enjoying celebrations with friends and family at Bupa’s Clare House care home in Uxbridge, where he has lived since 2009. To mark the occasion staff at the home hosted a party with Ernest’s favourite local signer, and even arranged a trip in a classic car.
Not only did Ernest receive a card from the Queen, but singer Shirley Bassey wrote to congratulate him on his milestone birthday.
Speaking of his secret to a long and happy life, Ernest says that his keen interest in gardening helped keep his mind and body sharp, though 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 the Bupa care home arranged for his old friends and carers from the home to return to join the celebrations.
Speaking of the celebration, Ernest said: “It was a wonderful day, one of the best days of my life. 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.”
Dave Togoto, Manager at Bupa Clare House, added: “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 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. Sometimes people forget that about older people – that they’ve had fascinating lives and witnessed some amazing things – so it’s important that we celebrate them.”
Born in Wallingford on 30th September 1917, Ernest served in the Royal Engineers during World War Two which saw him aboard the HMT Lancastria on 17th June 1940, the day it was hit and sunk by a German air raid near the French port of Saint-Nazaire.
Some 4,000 people are thought to have lost their lives in the disaster – with some estimates as high as 5,800 – making it the largest loss of life 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 recounts thousands of troops and civilians being 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 recalls: “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.”
However, the rescue was far from over for Ernest. Eventually the life raft became more crowded, until survivors were hanging from its side and, as Ernest stood to relive cramp, he fell into the water and was unable to board the raft again. “I just had to keep swimming”, he says.
After more than an hour in the water, Ernest was picked up by a boat before he helped row it towards other survivors to rescue, who he recalls were covered in oil from the disaster. Having plucked the other survivors from the water, their rowing boat was picked up by a larger vessel and Ernest was taken back to Plymouth. On arrival he recalls being 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.”
After surviving the War, he moved to Perivale in west London where he lived with his wife of 72 years, Doris who sadly passed away in 2013. The pair lived in the house until moving to the Bupa-run care home in 2009, when Ernest was aged 91. Though the couple had no children, Ernest remains close to his nieces who attended on the day.
Aside from the seven years (1939-1946) spent with the Royal Engineers, Ernest spent his entire working life with the Great Western Railway.