After more than 75 years, the men who died in a secret Second World War disaster are to be finally recognised today. Chris Lloyd reports

THIS morning, when the nation falls silent at 11am to remember its war dead, a new monument will be unveiled commemorating the men who were killed in one of the region’s most tragic, and most secret, incidents of the Second World War.

After a campaign lasting a decade and raising £30,000, an obelisk will be unveiled in Smith’s Dock Park, Normanby, in memory of the 61 men who died on board La Bastiaise when it was destroyed by a mine off the mouth of the Tees on June 22, 1940.

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The majority of the dead – 43 – were French sailors, who were going against their own government by taking La Bastiaise out on a sea trial that fateful day, and the 18 others were the Teesside shipwrights who accompanied them.

The new obelisk is approached by a walk lined by 18 trees, one for each of the shipwrights who, because they were civilians, do not have their names recorded on any other official war memorial.

“Although they were civilians, they all made the ultimate sacrifice, along with the French sailors,” says Liz Chambers, chairman of the Smith’s Dock Trust. “Many of them aren’t remembered anywhere else, and we felt that they should be.”

La Bastiaise was one of four Flower-class corvettes ordered by the French navy from the Smith’s Dock Company in 1939. But as the vessel neared completion, so France veered towards defeat, and on June 22, 1940, it agreed an armistice with Germany.

This meant the French navy fell under the control of Adolf Hitler, but those Frenchmen who disagreed with their country’s capitulation, formed the Free French forces. On the day the armistice was signed, it was therefore members of the Free French navy who were on Teesside testing out La Bastiaise. They were all young men in smart uniforms and white caps with red tufted pompoms on top.

Joining them to test La Bastiaise were 25 members of Smith’s Dock design team, plus some sub-contractors from Morpeth who had been involved in the project.

The night before the trial run, there had been a German air raid over the North-East coast. As well as hitting seafront properties with incendiary bombs, the planes dropped “magnetic mines” into the shallow coastal waters. The mines sank out of sight to the seabed, but they were designed so that when a metal ship passed overhead, it altered the natural magnetic field of the seabed and triggered the mine.

On its trial run, La Bastiaise passed over one, and the men ashore in the steelworks at Warrenby – where the remains of SSI are today – saw the vessel blown out of the water.

There was a rescue operation, and a few lucky souls were plucked from the water. The French commandant, Georges Lacombe, was one of them, and he and his surviving crew were found accommodation in the Zetland Hotel, in Saltburn, before being taken home, where Monsieur Lacombe died of his injuries.

Not a word of the calamity appears to have been reported in the newspapers of the day. The actions of the Free French navy were far too sensitive to be broadcast to the Germans, and if the enemy had learned that the mines it had dropped the night before had been so successful, it would have been encouraged to fill the sea with such explosives.

Instead, cryptic death notices appeared in local papers stating that the deceased had died “suddenly at sea”.

There was just one funeral, of Alex Henderson, 64, an engineer of South Bank, whose body was washed ashore the following day and who was laid to rest in Eston Cemetery. Presumably, the other bodies were never recovered (the wreck of La Bastiaise was discovered in 2004 lying in about 40ft of water). A memorial service for them all was held in South Bank parish church on July 7, 1940, although no list of names was compiled and, of course, there was no mention in the papers.

But this morning, with a service starting at 10.40am and attended by the Honorary French Consul in Newcastle, Eric Donjon, the men will at last be remembered. Seven families whose relatives died on the ship will be in attendance, as will many former Smith’s Dock workers, including a couple who worked on La Bastiaise.

“I feel immensely proud that they are finally getting recognised,” says Liz. “I’m really thankful for all the people who have helped, and very grateful to the Impetus Environmental Trust for its donation which has enabled the obelisk to happen.

“It shows that they didn’t die in vain, that they weren’t forgotten, and that they are all part of our history.”

THE local men believed to have died were (not all spellings are exact): Johan Gustof Andersson, of South Bank, RM Balls, JM Broad, Charles Edwin Crowell, John William Dobson, Frank English, Robert E Fenwick, William Gent, V Hansson, Charles William Hall of Stokesley, Alec Henderson, 64, of South Bank, S Hickling, Thomas Hunter, 58, the Tees Pilot of Middlesbrough, FA Morton, Thomas Alfred Moremon, Herbert Pateman of Middlesbrough, Louis Stanley Powell of Normanby, William Pringle, 58, of Saltburn, Harry Rackstraw of Middlesbrough, Howard William Townshend of Eaglescliffe, W Young.