Troops sang to drown out the screams.
We uncovered a previously unpublished account which tells how the men sang Roll Out the Barrel to drown the cries of their dying comrades.
Survivor John Taylor, a young Royal Artillery gunner, recounted the drama in a letter to a paddle-steamer enthusiast.
May 29, 1940, was a bright sunny day and as the ship left the mayhem off Dunkirk, the bombing raids fell silent.
At first, the 600 men taken on board thought they were safe, but soon young John saw planes approaching.
Official accounts say a dozen Heinkel bombers attacked and sunk the Waverley and two other vessels, Lorina and Normannia.
John, from Colchester, Essex, said he and his comrades dived on to the deck as the planes dropped their deadly payload.
He thought the second bomb had gone down the funnel, but he later realised it had sliced through the deck.
He picked himself up, emptied his cigarettes on the deck, and told his pals: "Help yourselves. The ship is sinking."
The next thing he saw was his sergeant major covered in blood.
He wrote: "I thought: 'Poor devil, he won't be able to swim like that'."As the boat dipped at the stern, skipper John Cameron called in a calm voice for men to move forward and not pack the sides.
"By this time, the ship's bow was rising higher and higher and I saw a soldier jumping from the highest point, which didn't seem a good idea.
"In the following few minutes almost everybody jumped for it. They were screaming 'Mum' as they jumped. I can hear it yet.
"Being 19, fit and a strong swimmer, I felt quite calm. In our favour, it was a lovely afternoon, sun shining, with the sea calm."
John took off his webbing, side arm and boots and, as the water lapped around the Waverley's decks, stepped over the rail.
He swam for the doomed vessel's wooden slatted seats which were floating nearby. They were designed to save lives and had been retained from Waverley's civilian past at the insistence of skipper Cameron.
John Taylor watched as the ship rolled on to her port side.
"Next thing I knew was that the mast was swinging towards me. It hit the water just in front of my face making the sea boil and foam where it hit.
"Soldiers were all around on floats or anything else they could hang on to. Some were already two or three hundred yards away.
"The unfortunate ones were drowning. There was a lot of screaming.
"Someone, somewhere started up a popular song of the times, Roll Out The Barrel.
"They were singing, 'Let's have a barrel of fun, we've got the blues on the run'.
"This singing sounded macabre because it was drowning out the cries of the other poor soldiers."
John spent several hours in the water. He thinks it was about 6pm when he floated within 60 yards of another vessel.
He remembers that after he was pulled aboard he was given half a bottle of Gilbey's Spey Royal Whisky.
It was 10am the next day when he landed at Ramsgate in Kent after his rescuers got lost on the way back.
"The survivors were marched to Ramsgate station where there were second-hand clothes for us to choose from. I ended up with a blue jacket, pin-stripe trousers and Wellington boots."
Then John was taken back to Warwick where he rejoined what was left of his unit.
The number of those on board the Waverley who died is not known, but John Taylor believes as few as 40 men survived the bombers' attack.
The Waverley was not seen again for half a century until her wreck was discovered by divers in the Channel.
They recovered a porthole which is now on display at the Museum of Transport in Glasgow.
Captain Cameron survived and spent the rest of the war on minesweeping trawlers. He was later awarded the DSC.
In 1947, he took command of the new Waverley. He died in 1988.
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|Publication:||Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)|
|Date:||May 28, 2000|
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