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Second World War veteran celebrates 100th birthday having survived Britain's worst maritime disaster

Ernest Beesley was aboard the HMT Lancastria which was sunk by a German air raid killing 4,000 men, women and children on June 17 1940

A Second World War veteran who survived Britain's worst maritime disaster has turned 100.

Ernest Beesley of Perivale marked the milestone riding in a vintage car, dancing the Tennessee Waltz and being serenaded.

He was chuffed to get a card from the Queen as well as a note from singer Dame Shirley Bassey.

As a young man he served in the Royal Engineers during the Second World War and was posted aboard the HMT Lancastria which was sunk by a German air raid killing 4,000 men, women and children on June 17 1940.

Born in Wallingford, Oxford, on September 30 1917, he says his 72 year marriage to late wife Doris was the key to his long and happy life.

Second World War veteran Ernest Beesley in a vintage car while celebrating his 100th birthday(Image: PA)

The ex-serviceman has turned his passion to gardening to keep his mind and body sharp, he said.

Speaking from his care home in Uxbridge , where he was surrounded by friends and family on his big day, Mr Beesley said: "It was a wonderful day, one of the best days of my life."

Mr Beesley, who had been working on railway lines in Brittany, was on the Lancastria as it evacuated troops from France, shortly after the Dunkirk.

Ernest and Doris Beesley on their wedding day in 1941(Image: UGC)

Less than than 2,500 people survived the disaster, the largest loss of life from a single engagement for British forces in the Second World War.

He tells of the thousands of troops and civilians being sent to the coastline to escape the continent, with his group sent to the ill-fated Lancastria.

He was below deck taking a shower when the fatal air raid began.

Second World War veteran Ernest Beesley(Image: PA)

He recalled: "I had my shower and came back to where my kit was. I'd only been stood there for minutes when there was this vast explosion and the ship seemed to leap out of the water.

"A bomb had fallen down the ship's funnel and just blew it to bits really.

"I don't remember panicking, it was all very calm. I knew the ship was going to sink and I had to get away from it.

"I'd managed to get a life jacket and I jumped off and swam, probably about a quarter of a mile, until I saw a navy corvette heading towards me.

"At first I thought it was going to hit me, but the crew threw me a life raft which I was able to board."

He was hit by cramp and fell into the water from the crowded life raft, where he spent more than hour before being rescued.

Ernest Beesley holding a birthday card from Dame Shirley Bassey while celebrating his 100th birthday(Image: PA)

He was picked up by a boat, which he helped row to rescue other survivors and was later collected by a larger vessel before before being taken back to safety in Plymouth.

Mr Beesley spent seven years with the Royal Engineers until 1946.

He and his wife lived in Perivale, west London, before he moved to the care home in 2009.

They did not have children but he is close to his nieces who were among the loved ones taking part in his birthday celebrations.

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