Date of birth: 1899
Date of death: 17.6.1940
Regiment: Royal Engineers
Family information: Husband of Elsie Pickering Towell nee Grace
Service number: 1007874
Harold must have been amongst the first of the volunteers, joining the British Army Regiment the Royal Engineers with the rank of Sapper, Service Number 1007874.The RE's maintained the railways, roads, water supply, bridges and transport - allowing supplies to the armies. They operated the railways and inland waterways, maintained wireless, telephones and other signalling equipment, making sure communications existed.
The RE was organised into companies and Harold served with the Battalion: 663 Artisan Works Coy. As befitted the Sappers, these were mostly men with particular skills such as carpenters, plumbers and electricians, above and beyond the basic skills of building labourers.
“At the beginning of February 1940 the company was sent to France and the historic French city of Nantes, which during medieval times had been the centre of the European slave trade. When 663 Artisan Works Company arrived in the city, hungry and tired after a three day train journey from Le Havre, some of the sappers joked that the locals must have thought it was a return to the good old days when they clapped eyes on the weary soldiers. Hundreds of miles away from the frontline 663’s role was to build a variety of construction works, mostly centred on the main airport for Nantes at Bougenais. These support troops were in place to provide logistical support for the front line army far to the north. Everything went smoothly in those early months and the men quickly bonded. However by June rumours were running rife that the British Expeditionary Force was in trouble.
On the 14th of June almost two weeks after the last troops of the BEF had been evacuated from the beaches at Dunkirk Harold and other men from the company were sitting around a radio in their billets listening into the BBC World Service and heard Churchill say that the BEF had completely and successfully evacuated France. The men looked at each other in disbelief and wondered if they had been left behind. Shortly after Major Morgan, Vingt Cinq as he was affectionately known by his men, called the company to parade and told them they were to depart immediately to the French port town of St Nazaire, 65 km to the west and onward evacuation to the UK”. Quoted from article on http://www.arrse.co.uk/community/threads/663-artisan-works-coy.166887/
On successfully reaching St. Nazaire 633 Coy found a number of ships waiting to remove evacuees.
The British forces in France were under the command of General Alan Brooke and by the evening of 14 June he had decided that the situation was hopeless. That night he was able to reach Churchill on the telephone, and convinced him that it was time to evacuate the rest of the B.E.F. before it was too late.
After a ten minute conversation Churchill agreed, and on the following day Operation Arial began.
Operations in Cherbourg, St Malo and Brest were relatively trouble free. The evacuation from St Nazaire was not so free from German intervention. It was already more difficult because navigational hazards in the Loire meant that the larger ships had to use Quiberon Bay as an anchorage before moving to St. Nazaire to pick up men. Up to 40,000 troops were believed to be retreating towards Nantes, fifty miles upstream, and so Admiral Dunbar-Nasmith had decided to begin the evacuation early on 16 June. By the end of the day 13,000 base troops had been taken on board ships.
633 coy were embarked on HMTroopship Lancastria, previously RMS Lancastria, a British Cunard liner commandeered by the UK Government for war. After a short overhaul, the Lancastria left Liverpool on 14 June under Captain Rudolph Sharp (born 27 October 1885) and arrived in the mouth of the Loire Estuary on 16 June. She anchored 11 miles (18 km) south-west of St. Nazaire. By the mid-afternoon of 17 June, she had embarked an unknown number (estimates range from 4,000 up to 9,000), of civilian refugees (including embassy staff, employees of Fairey Aviation of Belgium), line-of-communication troops (such as Pioneer and RASC soldiers) and RAF personnel. The ship's official capacity was 2,200 including the 375-man crew. Captain Sharp had been instructed by the Royal Navy to "load as many men as possible without regard to the limits set down under international law".
At 1350 hrs, during an air-raid, the nearby Oronsay, a 20,000-ton Orient Liner was hit on the bridge by a German bomb. Lancastria was free to depart and the captain of the British destroyer HMS Havelock advised her to do so, but without a destroyer escort against possible submarine attack, Sharp decided to wait. A fresh air raid began before 4 p.m. Lancastria was bombed at 1548 hrs by Junkers Ju 88 aircraft from II. Gruppe/Kampfgeschwader 30.
Three direct hits caused the ship to list first to starboard then to port; she rolled over and sank within twenty minutes. Over 1,400 tons of fuel oil leaked into the sea and was set partially on fire, possibly by strafing. Many drowned, were choked by the oil, or were shot by the strafing German aircraft. Survivors were taken aboard other evacuation vessels, the trawler Cambridgeshire rescuing 900. There were 2,477 survivors, of whom about 100 were still alive in 2011. She sank around 5 nmi (9.3 km) south of Chémoulin Point 9 miles (17 km) from St. Nazaire.
Sending 4,000 people to their deaths, possibly many more, it is the greatest ever loss of life in the sinking of a single British ship, claiming more lives than the combined losses of the RMS Titanic (1,523 passengers and crew) and RMS Lusitania (1,200 passengers). It had also the highest death toll for UK forces in a single engagement in the whole of World War II. The death toll accounted for roughly a third of the total losses of the BEF in France.
Although the date of Harold’s death is listed on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) certificate, it omits the location even though it is known that he was on HMT Lancastria at the time. Other sources simply say France and Belgium Campaign, 1939/40 .Many families of the dead knew only that they died with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).
The immense loss of life was such that the British government suppressed news of the disaster through the D-Notice System. It was felt that such devastating losses might turn public opinion against the war if the full facts were known. However, the story was broken in the United States by The New York Times and in Britain by The Scotsman on 26 July, more than five weeks after the incident. Other British newspapers then covered the story, including the Daily Herald (also on 26 July), which carried the story on its front page, and Sunday Express on 4 August; the latter included a photograph of the capsized ship with its upturned hull lined with men under the headline “Last moments of the greatest sea tragedy of all time” but the full story of the Lancastria never came out. Due to the government-ordered cover-up, survivors and the crews of the ships that had gone to the aid of Lancastria did not discuss the disaster at the time due to the fear of court martial.
The British Government has refused to make the site a war grave under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 although documents obtained under Freedom of information legislation (FOIA) show that it could be done. Early in the 21st century the French Government placed an exclusion zone around the wreck site. In July 2007 another request for documents held by the Ministry of Defence related to the sinking was rejected by the British Government. The Lancastria Association of Scotland made a further request in 2009. They were told that release under the FOIA would not be given because of several exemptions.
In 1995 Harold Towell (Jnr) gave an interview to a local newspaper in which he stated:
“My father perished along with many others. He and the other unfortunate souls are now buried along the coastline at Clion Sur Mare. I was working as a welder at the time and I only found out when I got off the bus at Brotherton when I came home for the weekend. I was only 19 and the news came as a great shock. I still have an original 1940 copy of the Daily Herald which ran a front page story of the sinking. Two uncles, Cyril and Greg, were also killed in the war and my brother Walter was wounded in France. The memories are still painful. As soon as I found out my father had died I joined the RAF as a volunteer. It is ironic that I bombed the same coastline where my father met his end. I had only just got to know my dad and then he was gone. That fateful day will always linger in my memory.”
A cousin, Edgar Towell, served in the Royal Navy in the same conflict.
On 12 June 2008, at a ceremony at the Scottish Parliament, First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond presented the first batch of medals to survivors and relatives of victims and survivors the HMT Lancastria Commemorative Medal which represents "official Scottish Government recognition" of the Lancastria disaster. 150 survivors and relatives gathered from across the UK and Ireland for this historic event.
The medal was designed by Mark Hirst, grandson of Lancastria survivor Walter Hirst. The inscription on the rear of the medal reads: “In recognition of the ultimate sacrifice of 4,000 victims of Britain’s worst ever maritime disaster and the endurance of the survivors – We will remember them”. The front of the medal depicts the Lancastria with the text “HMT Lancastria – 17th June 1940”. The medal ribbon has a grey background with a red and black central stripe, representative of the ship's wartime and merchant marine colours. Hundreds of medals have been issued to survivors and relatives across the world.
On the 17th June 2015 the Lancastria sinking was finally marked by the British Government with a formal acknowledgement of the loss following a long campaign by MPs, military chiefs and surviving family members of both those who were lost and the few that survived.
Campaigner Victoria Panton Bacon stated “To those who still grieve it is not a dim and distant memory.”
Harold Towell is remembered at the Le Clion-sur-Mer Communal Cemetery.
The Towell family can be traced back to the birth of William Towell, great great grandfather of Harold in 1776 who married Catherine Davison. They were probably from the north east as their son Joseph was born in North Shields in 1806. He in turn married Elizabeth (?) and their son Joseph was born in Scarborough in 1850.
The family are recorded in the 1881 census living at 26, Temple Street, Castleford. Joseph was employed as a ‘joiner’. They had been in Castleford for several years as some of their children had been born there including Norman Maximillian in 1880.
By 1891 Joseph had died and widow Elizabeth (given as Annie Elizabeth) was living in Bridge Houses, Brotherton. This was most probably near the glassworks on the opposite bank of the river to Ferrybridge as eldest son John Marshall Towell was employed at the glassworks.
Ten years on the 1901 census records Annie Elizabeth and some of the children living in Jolly Sailor Yard. Norman, his wife and son, however, was further down Low Street in cottages close to Marsh House. His neighbours were John and Elizabeth Ann Hutchinson (nee Greenwood) and family. It was to their daughter Mary Elizabeth Hutchinson, aka Mary Lizzie, he was married in St. Edwards, Brotherton in May 1899. Norman was employed as a ‘coalminer - hewer’. Harold was born in 1899.
He was followed by Doris born about Aug 1901, Maggie born about Feb 1906, John William born about Feb 1909, Albert born about May 1912, Cyril Towell born about May 1913 died 13th June 1943, Lydia born about May 1915, Joseph Gregory Towell, James Gregory born about May 1917 died 11th June 1944 and Hephzibah B Towell born about Nov 1925.
In 1911 64 year old Annie Elizabeth is listed as living in Davies Houses, Low Street, whilst Norman and extended family are still further down the road.
In 1920 Harold married Elsie Pickering Grace (born1900) and slowly expanded his family with 8 children – Harold (jnr) 1921 (served in the RAF), Lillian 1923, Walter 1925 (served in army), Albert 1927, Mildred 1930, Annie 1932, Frederick 1935 and George 1938. Harold followed his father Norman into employment as a “coal miner”.
Norman Maximillian Towell died in 1952 and was buried in Brotherton on 9th January 1952 aged 71 years.