Back in the 1960s, the congregation at Draycott St Margaret’s put up a war memorial plaque in the church. It named the forces personnel of the parish who had died in both world wars.
See – the story of Draycott’s war memorial.
This is the story of Lawrence Cyples
Lawrence Cyples (sometimes spelt Laurence) went to war in 1940, leaving the family home in Draycott. But, within just a few months, he was destined to die, five hundred miles away.
His body is interred in a tiny cemetery near the village of St Georges on the island of Oleron, just off the west coast of France in the Bay of Biscay. Here, kindly villagers rescued and buried his body when it was washed up on their shore. Lawrence is one of twelve British servicemen buried there.
He died after one of the most devastating attacks on British shipping in the whole war – the disaster of the SS Lancastria.
Lawrence (sometimes identified as Laurence) was born into a potter’s family in 1906, in Forsbrook, the next village along from Draycott. By the time of the 1911 census, his family had moved to Stallington, the other side of Blythe Bridge.
In 1930, Lawrence married Violet Evans and they had a son in the next year. They then settled at The Rocks, a house opposite the Draycott Arms.
However, in 1940, at the relatively late age of 35, Laurence was called on to take part in the British Expeditionary Force campaign’s to stop the German advance into France; this was the first major encounter between the British and the Germans in World War Two. Lawrence was a sergeant in the RASC.
The BEF were simply unprepared for the speed & ferocity of the German onslaught, and, in May of that same year, the troops had to retreat quickly, with many of its soldiers heading, famously, to Dunkirk, where a fleet of small ships had to hurriedly ferry them back to England.
The remaining British soldiers in France, including Lawrence, were still in trouble, cut off by the speeding German advance, and had to head for the other, west side of France, and to the port of St Nazaire, where they hoped for transport home.
So it was that, a month after Dunkirk, the SS Lancastria, a converted cruise ship pressed into Navy service, arrived off St Nazaire to pick them up … eventually squeezing Lawrence and at least five thousand other personnel aboard a ship meant only to carry two thousand.
However, by now the German air force was already in the skies above western France – and the Lancastria was simply not able to get underway fast enough. The ship was bombed – a direct strike down its funnel – and sunk in minutes, taking virtually all on board down with it.
It was to be the largest single loss of life to British forces in the whole of World War Two. A full account of the incident is written up in Brian Crabb’s book The Forgotten Tragedy.
The news of the Lancastria’s terrible death toll, coming so soon after the complete retreat from the European mainland, was felt by Prime Minister Winston Churchill to be more than the British public could cope with: so he had the news suppressed.
(The account was only eventually released five weeks later).
The lost lives are still commemorated by the few who remember; in fact, an 80th anniversary service was due to have taken place this year, only to be called off because of the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s not known whether Lawrence’s wife Violet was ever able to visit her husband’s grave on the island in the Bay of Biscay after the war. Probably not; people didn’t have the money to travel abroad in those days.
Eventually, more than a decade after her husband’s death, she married again, to Leonard Ridge, a neighbour. The wedding was held at St Mary’s Catholic Church in Cresswell.
Violet lived to a great age, and is now buried in the graveyard at the same church.
With thanks to Bill Pearson for researching the records
Can you add any more to this account? We’d be grateful for any knowledge anyone may have. Use the Comments-Box below or email us. Lawrence’s service number was 5041642