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Duration 30:36

Forgotten tragedy: The loss of HMT Lancastria

On 17 June 1940, HMT Lancastria was sunk by a German bomber while evacuating troops from St Nazaire; over 9,000 troops were packed on board. Janet Dempsey offers an  explaination why so many who were lost will never be accounted for.


I first encountered the story of the Lancastria while I was actually drafting another talk on the Battle of the Atlantic, and to say I was a bit taken aback by it is an understatement. I was absolutely amazed that a story this incredible could be this obscure. As soon as I discovered the Lancastria, if you like, and discovered how close we were to a very significant anniversary, I thought it was an ideal time to bring it to the attention of others via this talk in the room and via the podcast.

Today is the 70th anniversary of the loss, and although the Lancastria’s a much more recent event than the loss of other ships such as the Titanic and the Lusitania, the Lancastria really is Britain’s forgotten tragedy…buried largely by the events of the fall of France and the evacuation of Dunkirk, as well as a direct order directly from Winston Churchill not to give the British public any more bad news on what was already a calamitous day for Europe.

Since I actually announced that I was doing this talk, I have received a number of telephone calls and a number of emails from relatives of those who…survived, and [those who] died on the Lancastria, and I’ve been absolutely overwhelmed by their stories and their passion for taking this out into the wider world again. I don’t profess to be an absolute expert on this; this is as new to me as it is to many of you.

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So let me introduce you to the lady herself. She was built by William Beardmore, for the Anchor Line subsidiary of Cunard. She was launched on the Clyde in 1922, originally as the Tyrrhenia. She was a big girl; she was 16,243 tons, and 578 foot long. More significantly, she was actually fitted to carry 2,200 passengers.

So, why is it such a significant maritime disaster? Well, we all know of the great loss of life on board the Titanic. 1,517 were lost when she hit an iceberg. Again we all know of the tragic circumstances surrounding the Lusitania; 1,198 people died when she was torpedoed. A little less well known is the Empress of Ireland; 1,024 people drowned when she was struck by a Norwegian coal freighter on the St Lawrence River in 1914.

However, the loss of life on the Lancastria was more than all of these three ships put together. Estimates range from a conservative 2,500 to 6,000, but from the documents that I’ve been studying within the National Archives, I believe the figure is more around the 4,000 mark, which is still extraordinarily high.

So, who was on board the Lancastria? Well, a very, very sweeping statement would be that it was troops and civilians being evacuated from France ahead of a very rapid German advance, but in short, we just don’t know who, or how many people. There have been estimates that as many as 6,500 people could have been on board, with some estimates ranging even as high as 9,000.

This, bear in mind, was for a ship that was meant to take 2,200 passengers, and it’s because of this we just haven’t really got a clue how many people actually did die on board.

What I will attempt to do is explain why so many people came to be on board, why we simply don’t know who exactly was on board, why the loss of life was so high, and we’ll also look at why the Lancastria seems to have been so long forgotten.

Really the beginning of the end for the Lancastria was heralded with the fall of France in May 1940. The German army launched its Blitzkrieg offensive on France and the Low Countries on 10 May 1940. At the time this operation was going on, Lancastria was actually being readied to take part in Operation Alabaster, and that was the operation, basically, to man and defend certain Icelandic bases, and her role was to carry 2,000 troops up to Iceland, so she was nowhere near France at the time.

The speed and ferocity of the German advance pushed the major part of the British expeditionary force and their French allies towards Dunkirk. They found themselves in an ever decreasing pocket around the port. Consequently a decision was taken on the 25 May to evacuate British and French troops from that port.

The operation was named Dynamo and its aim was to evacuate up to 45,000 men from Dunkirk. In the event, over 338,000 were rescued between 27 May and 4 June, in what Winston Churchill described as ‘a miracle of deliverance’. And for most people, the story simply ends there. Our troops had all been rescued, a defeat became a victory and an army lives to fight another day.

So where was Lancastria? Well, by this time she’d moved from Iceland to Norway and was evacuating troops from Norway, from Harstad. She evacuated 2,600 troops, and suffered a very near miss from German bombers, and at the time, her crew thought that she was very overloaded.

However, we know that the story in France was far from over. At this point, there were still elements of the British expeditionary force fighting south of the Somme and spread across various depots, stores and camps throughout France. For those people, the evacuation from Dunkirk just simply hadn’t even been an option.

Operation Cycle took place from Le Havre and involved the evacuation of 11,000 British troops and 26,000 Allied troops, and this took place from 10 June to the early hours of 13 June. The first German troops entered Le Havre just several hours later, at eight o’clock in the morning.

Unfortunately for many of the men evacuated from Le Havre, their evacuation was no further than Cherbourg. When they got to Cherbourg, Churchill expected them to join other units and form a second BEF [British Expeditionary Force]. However, the French Forces were in full collapse, and the men of the BEF found themselves heading west again to try and find open ports.

So where was Lancastria? By this time, she was actually in Liverpool. She’d spent hours on the Clyde where she was supposed to be refitted, and then been moved to Liverpool for a routine re-fit and to have 1,407 tons of surplus fuel oil removed from her tanks. Her crew had just taken their wages and were signing off articles and on their way home when they were called back to their ship. She received emergency orders to sail for Plymouth.

By 14 June, the situation in France was getting much, much worse. The Germans entered Paris where they found it undefended and largely evacuated. Their march through France was relentless, and the British troops that were left in France were now making their way to any ports that were still open, right around the coast.

Some 160,000 soldiers and airmen were picked up from the coast at Carne, Cherbourg, St Malo, Brest, St Nazaire, and right down the Bay of Biscay. In addition, many made for the smaller ports, where they left in a variety of boats. In many instances, soldiers were fending for themselves, and even trying to get to ports using Michelin maps that they’d purchased from local shops.

Lancastria left Liverpool at five o’clock on the 14 June, for Plymouth, to await her orders.

Operation Aerial officially began on 15 June, even though troops had been moving towards ports for some days. Whereas Operation Dynamo and Operation Cycle had centred on the area around a single port, Operation Aerial was a code name given for major evacuations from Carne, Cherbourg, St Malo, Brest, St Nazaire, and right down the Bay of Biscay.

Now following on so closely from the losses that they’d incurred at Dunkirk, the strain that was placed by this operation on the Navy and the Air Force to provide boats and air cover for such a huge operation over such a huge area was unimaginable. Every craft and every aircraft was drafted in to try and complete this operation.

Meanwhile at Plymouth, the Lancastria and the Franconia were given orders to sail for Brest. Lancastria slipped out of Plymouth at midnight on 15 June. By the time the Lancastria docked at St Nazaire at 4am on 17 June, there were thousands of troops and civilians waiting to be evacuated. The Luftwaffe had complete freedom over the airspace, and German advance was just one day away from taking over most of the Breton ports.

On this day, following the resignation of the French Prime Minister, Marshal Petain ordered the French to cease hostilities against the German invaders. France would be surrendering, and the BEF were now out on their own. So the Lancastria actually found herself in a race against time to get troops out of France.

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[The document shown]…is a report supplied by Wing Commander Douglas MacFayden, about the situation at St Nazaire and some of his observations: ‘The traffic jam in the assembly area had become quite acute, and it was difficult to move out of the area and quite impossible to get in. During this time, the assembly area was becoming completely filled with troops and transport and I estimate there were at least 10,000 personnel there by noon. A few scattered light bombs in the area would have accounted for a very large number of casualties.’

And my personal favourite: ‘During the night we were treated to an amazing display of pyrotechnics caused by the discharge of every possible French light firearm at enemy aircraft, which must have been quite three times out of range. The danger to personnel in the docks was much greater, owing to the laws of gravity, and I personally received a portion of the French defences on my steel helmet.’

So we see at St Nazaire a situation of complete and utter chaos.

Embarkation to the Lancastria began about at 6am. It could have actually begun earlier, but the French harbour master forbade any earlier loading because he didn’t want lights used. Subsequent reports have shown that there was a full moon out that night, it was quite bright so it’s completely inexplicable why loading couldn’t have taken place before 6 o’clock.

The Lancastria was at anchor in Charpentier Roads which was about five miles away from land, so those going aboard Lancastria had to be taken there by smaller craft.

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…Once on board Lancastria, senior ranks and officers of the initial parties to go on board were actually allocated cabins while more junior ranks were allocated bunks in third class accommodation or within the holds on E and F decks, which are the two at the very bottom of the ship.

Initially the lounge steward was counting those that came on board with a little hand counter, but was told to go back to his lounge that he looked after because it had been turned into a senior rank’s mess and drinks were being called for. The atmosphere on board was almost like a cruise to begin with. People were reportedly taking hot baths, going to the restaurant and eating from the menu, enjoying alcoholic beverages in the lounges…

The senior veterinary officer of the BEF, Major Plunket, wrote very matter of factly in his war diary: ‘Embarked by lighter at 9am on HMT Lancastria, had breakfast, went to sleep. Woke up at 1:30 pm. Lunch 3 pm. Ship hit by bombs at 3:50, had sunk completely by 4:15. Left the ship by lifeboat, was picked up by French trawler after about one hour.’

However, by midday, the evacuees kept coming. The decks and holds were completely crowded and by noon they knew there were over 5,000 people on board, and they were still taking more on board. So despite the ship being full to capacity by midday on the 17 June, she didn’t leave St Nazaire. The decision was taken to hold her where she was, and wait for the other ships to complete boarding and to all leave together with the escorts.

At 13:48, the Oronsay received a direct hit on her bridge. In his report to the Admiralty, Captain Sharp of the Lancastria writes: ‘The Oronsay was lying four cables from us at anchor. At 1:48pm the enemy flew over and dropped bombs which hit the Oronsay. After that we expected an air attack at any time.’ He then goes on to say that the crew were going to their air raid precaution stations from 2:00pm, but there were so many people on board that there was actually nowhere for anyone to take any cover.

At 3:45, the ship’s ARP alarm was sounded, and a JU 88, of the Kampf geschwader dreizig gruppe zwei piloted by Peter Stahl flew over the Lancastria and dropped four bombs, all of which hit the Lancastria with fatal consequences. As I say, she was hit by all four bombs. Captain Sharp claims in his report that one bomb went down the funnel, and the others hit hatches four, three and two. The funnel bomb didn’t actually fall down the funnel; it fell very, very close to the funnel, but nonetheless, the ship couldn’t have been hit in any worse places.

The hatch covers were shattered and splintered and allowed the bombs deep into the ship. Hundreds would have been killed immediately, while others would have been trapped, beyond hope, behind wreckage. In his report, Captain Sharp concludes that each of the bombs which struck the ship passed through the upper deck and hatches, bursting inside the ship and blowing holes in her sides.

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The bomb that burst through number three hatch, which we see here, actually hit the oil tank, and once the oil tank was burst it spilled hundreds of tons of the fuel oil, that should have been taken off at Liverpool, into the sea around the stricken ship.

Eyewitness accounts vary as to how long she took to sink, but Captain Fuller, master of the John Holt, timed her demise at just 24 minutes. As she was slipping away into the sea, hundreds of evacuees clung to her keel. Those subsequently rescued, reported that those clinging on were singing ‘Roll out the barrel’ and ‘There’ll always be an England’ as they waited for the ship to slip between the waves.

Less than 25 minutes later she was gone, and thousands of people were in the oil coated water mingling with the dead, being choked by oil, and being dragged down by their heavy uniforms. JU 88s were machine gunning them from the air, and there was a real danger that this would cause the oil to catch fire.

Many troops got rid of the uniforms that were pulling them down and were consequently pulled from the water naked. Others lost their lifejackets simply because they slipped out of them in the oily water. Pulling men out of the water was difficult and exhausting work, and the small craft found it difficult to manoeuvre through the oil slick. In addition the rescue craft were being machine gunned as well, and flares from the lifeboats, designed to go off when they hit sea water, were setting light to the fuel oil and causing fires and thick smoke.

Both English and French craft were involved in the rescue effort, and because the French craft were going back to the mainland, that fuelled speculation that some of the missing could actually have become prisoners of war.

Earlier, I mentioned the steward who was left counting troops coming on board with his little hand counter. He was L.R Welsh, and this is his account: ‘I was the lounge steward on board and from the first embarkation of troops was stationed on the portside, clocking each person by a small hand counter as they came aboard. Another member of the crew was stationed on the starboard side. After a while a message was passed to me to go up to my lounge at once, as the place was in turmoil.’

‘My lounge was, for trooping, reserved to Warrant Officers and Sergeants, and I found the place so packed with them that I could hardly make my way to the bar, and they were all shouting for drinks. I had to ask them to queue up outside the cocktail bar, and I took the drinks to them and collected the money. There were frequent air raid alarms, and each time I had to close down the bar and stand by my action station.’

‘At about 15:55, and still busily serving drinks, another air raid alarm, and at the same time a terrific explosion, and the ship rolled over on her side. I made my way somehow up to the boat deck to my boat station, and with an engineer tried to get one of the boats away. It was very difficult because of the enemy machine gunning and the ship listing badly. Then, when she lurched and rolled heavily onto the other side, I decided to jump overboard. I cannot swim, but lay on my back, paddling with my feet and hands.’

‘After about two hours, I began to feel that I would pass out, and I pinched and banged myself to bring myself out of it. I was surrounded by men in similar condition, and even when our own aircraft flew over and dropped rafts for us we were too weak to struggle to them. I was by now also full of fuel oil, continuously sick and deadly cold. Two soldiers near me were clinging together, and when I saw a boat approaching I shouted the news to them, and I was eventually dragged into the boat, but the two soldiers were by then dead.’

The boat became so full of survivors that she was in danger of sinking, but when it was found that one or two were already dead, we passed them back into the sea, and then we were sighted by the Destroyer HMS Havelock, who got us all safely aboard, and brought us back to Plymouth.’

This is not an untypical account. For very many hours afterwards men were pulled from the water. Captain Sharp himself reports that he spent between three and four hours in the water before being picked up by one of the Lancastria’s lifeboats. He states that for a time he could do nothing to help himself but manage to recover once he was aboard HMS Havelock. Those who were rescued were covered in oil, and many had swallowed a lot of it.

Major Plunkett, of the matter of fact war diary, of the Royal Veterinary Corps, had assumed the role of a medical officer on board a rescue trawler, and reported the 150 men were on board. Two men were brought on board were so exhausted they died just after arrival, while the remainder recovered after they had got rid of the oil from their lungs and had warmed up slightly. Wing Commander MacFayden fared slightly better being in the water for between half an hour and three quarters of hour, before being picked up by a French tug and then transferred to the Orinsay.

I’ve briefly mentioned the experience of four survivors during this talk: Major Plunkett, Wing Commander MacFayden and Captain Rudolph Sharp, Master, as well as his Steward. Just to say a little bit more about Captain Sharp; Captain Rudolph Sharp was a very experienced seaman, and he had been a Merchant Navy Officer since 1913.

He’d served aboard the Lusitania as a mate just months before she was sunk, but it was to be third time unlucky for Captain Sharp, because in September 1942, he was actually in command of the Laconia when she was torpedoed by U516 commanded by Werner Hartenstein. The incident became notorious as Hartenstein had stayed at the scene to rescue survivors. The loss of life on the Laconia was just over 1,600, making it the second biggest British loss of life at sea after the Lancastria; not a good C.V.

However, one of the most controversial aspects of the sinking of the Lancastria was the alleged cover up of the facts by Churchill’s Government. As soon as news reached the Cabinet Office about the Lancastria, Winston Churchill issued a ‘D’ notice on the news, suspending publication about the disaster until the ‘D’ notice was lifted.

He later wrote that: ‘When news of this came through to me in the quiet Cabinet room during the afternoon, I forbade its publication, saying that the newspapers have got quite enough disaster for today at least. I had intended to release news of the disaster a few days later, but events crowded in so black and so quickly, that I forgot to lift the ban, and it was some time before the knowledge of this horror became public.’

So, the news actually came to light five and a half weeks later. At the time of the sinking, Churchill’s Government had been in existence just one day longer than our current government [date of lecture 17 June 2010], and in that time, they had dealt with the evacuation of Dunkirk, the fall of France, the evacuation of the second BEF, and the very real prospect of an invasion across the Channel.

While none of this forgives the blackout on news of the Lancastria, it does explain why Churchill may have genuinely forgotten to lift the ban. The Lancastria was just a bad news story in a sea of bad news stories.

However, while in England most people were unaware of the tragedy, those living around the coast where Lancastria had sunk could not get away from it. Bodies were washed ashore from Piriac…right down to the Île de Ré, just off La Rochelle…probably about three hundreds kilometres of coastline. The first bodies came ashore on 28 June 1940, and they kept coming all summer. The bodies were then taken away and buried in either local cemeteries or makeshift cemeteries and largely without coffins because they didn’t have the wood to make them.

A couple of local observations – Michel Lugez: ‘The bodies did not reach the shore immediately after the ship sank, but by July the bodies came ashore in large numbers. Here in Pornichet for example, there were two or three at each tide. At the Ponte du Bec there were others. At Sainte-Marguerite all along the coast there were corpses that were given back by the sea. At each tide, there were corpses being washed up on the beach.’

At the end of summer, the bodies stopped, and Charles Merlet writes: ‘We were walking along the coast on December 2nd. That’s when we noticed that there were bones. More bones and lots of military clothing, and in these clothes that had really deteriorated and were damaged we collected the wallets of these poor men who’d drowned, to identify them, and then the many bones; we never collected them, it was not possible. There were too many, all over.’

In 1940, the War Office moved its Casualty branch from London to the Blue Coat School in Liverpool. For many years, standard letters were sent from the branch to survivors, asking them who they had seen on board; had they seen them perish?  Had they seen them escape?

We have those files now, and they’re in Series WO 361. They contain accounts from those who’d been on board at the time; letters from wives of these missing, begging for husbands to be declared dead because of financial hardship, and hopeful pleas for information about those who may have been taken prisoner of war. These files testify to years of work by the War Office trying to identify those on board the Lancastria.

In 1946, Major Cyril V.Petit invited all survivors of the Lancastria to attend a reunion. It prompted the formation of the Survivors Association, which held an annual service of remembrance and a parade. The Association lasted until Major Petit’s death in 1969. In 1981, the HMT Lancastria Association was formed, and since then has taken on board several pilgrimages back to St Nazaire.

History may have chosen to forget the Lancastria but the survivors and their relatives never forgot each other, and I’ve been informed, this morning [17 June 2010], that at 11 o’clock, a wreath was actually taken out and laid over the wreck of the Lancastria by the Association. Some of those lost on that day, were: Lance Corporal Fred Fryer, aged 19, of 29 Railway Survey Company, Royal Engineers; Sergeant Leslie George Baker, aged 19, of 98 Squadron RAF; and Deck Boy John Frederick Darley, aged 17, Merchant Navy.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Lancastria is so recent an event that any one of those men could have been sitting with us here today. Please remember the Titanic, and the Lusitania, but please take something from this talk today, that doesn’t let the Lancastria become an entirely forgotten tragedy. Thank you.