EXCLUSIVE: WW2 veteran recalls waking up in the English Channel after his ship was torpedoed

Stan Ford doesn’t remember the sound of the explosion, but he remembers the feeling.

It was strange, weightless, floating… then nothing. He woke up in the cold English Channel, fighting to stay afloat.

Moments before the sailor, then 19, had been standing inside his gun turret on the HMS Fratton, when a missile from a German midget submarine hit the ship and blasted him into the air.

It took just four minutes for the entire vessel to sink on 18 August 1944 near the Normandy coastline, taking with it 31 crew members.

“The platform I was operating on detached in the explosion and went over the side with me still in it,” explains Stan, now 97 and living in Bath, north east Somerset.

“It was from quite a great height. I came to and I was in the water. There was no sign of the platform, it sank immediately.

“I had to float until this little craft came by and hands came over the side of the boat and pulled me aboard, and then they laid me down and that was it.” He immediately fell unconscious, or as he tells it “nature put me to sleep.”

He next opened his eyes in a field hospital on Gold Beach, Normandy with a fractured spine and two injured legs. He still wears callipers to this day.

Stan’s life was saved that day, but he has thought about the crewmates who didn’t make it ever since.

“It was actually a soldier in the next bed that helped me come around when he was speaking to me and encouraging me,” he says. “That was when I started to think about the family and all the people that I knew, and the 31 of my friends and crew members that lost their lives.”

Tonight he will be thinking of his fallen friends again as he takes part in the Royal British Legion’s annual Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall, in the presence of King Charles III, The Queen Consort, other members of the Royal Family, fellow veterans and celebrities including EastEnder’s actress Shona McGarty.

Stan will on the stage to read a tribute to Queen Elizabeth II, after her death in September aged 96.

He says: “The Queen set the highest possible standards for duty and service, she was a lynchpin for all of us. I was proud to call her my Queen and to do my best to follow her example.”

Cyril ‘Stan’ Ford grew up in Stapleton, Bristol, one of 10 children to parents Robert and Margaret. After leaving school he took a job making iron brackets for Anderson air raid shelters. When he got the call up for the Royal Navy in 1943 he was excited.

“I was 19. It was a new experience. So all the way through the war, the thought of losing never entered my muscles. We were never going to lose,” he says.

“There was a good spirit in the navy – there was then and I am sure there is now. It was my first ship, so I was still getting used to things.”

HMS Fratton escorted men and supplies across the channel before and after the D-Day Landings. Recalling the morning of June 6, 1944 he has said: “I was at the Isle of Wight and remember looking around and seeing so many ships of all sizes and types, it was quite a sight.”

After being injured, Stan was moved from hospital to hospital but was unable to see his family until Christmas. But the soldier in the next bed had written to them the day after Stan woke up.

“It was very kind of him but the soldier gave the wrong impression to my mother in the letter. He said I’d had damaged cheeks so she thought I’d been disfigured. I did correct her; it was the wrong cheeks!” he laughs.

Returning home he was reunited with wife Eileen – who he met when he was 17 and in the Home Guard.

“Me and my friend had just come off duty, and it was blackout in those days so you couldn’t see anything, but we heard the clip clop of shoes. It sounded like girls, and yes it was,” he says. “My future wife was walking with her friend.”

After the war, the pair married in 1948, and had two daughters. Stan then went on to have a successful career in the furniture industry, retiring in 1985. In 2017 he was awarded the Legion d’Honneur – the highest order of merit in France – but there is something he wants to make clear about the medal.

“I’ve always wanted to accept the award on behalf of the crew that lost their lives, because they were friends of mine,” he says.

Back in June he travelled to Normandy to visit a new memorial which has been constructed for the fallen, 22,442 names of men who never came home. “I found a pillar with the 31 names of my friends and crew members on it and it was a very emotional thing. I put my hand on some of the names of my close friends,” he says.

“We are intending to build something for the students and children so that they can learn and see what happened during the Second World War and hopefully try and avoid the same thing happening in the future. So that we will never forget, and so my grandchildren and great grandchildren don’t have to go through it.”

Having seen the horrors of war first hand, Stan is upset by the situation in Ukraine.

“I thought when the war ended and the United Nations were formed, that would be the organisation that would stop these future wars.

“We have done the sanctions and we try to help Ukraine in various ways, but it’s a terrible situation,” he says. “It’s a terrible situation that countries can still create these sorts of happenings.”