The worst maritime disaster in British History
At 4,12pm on the afternoon of 17th June 1940, HM Troopship Lancastria capsized and sank off St. Nazaire in the estuary of the River Loire, 20 minutes after being dive-bombed by the Luftwaffe. The ship was crammed full of British servicemen, including 800 RAF personnel, many of whom were drowned during the evacuation from Western France.
It is not known how many were on board, there was no time to count the troops embarking, getting the troops away from France as quickly as possible was all that mattered, therefore it cannot be ascertained exactly how many perished on that sunny afternoon just off the French coast.
The Lancastria’s last moments as men crowd on the upturned hull and plunge into the sea
We all know of the tragic loss of the Titanic during the night of the 14th April 1912 when 1,522 people were lost and the torpedoing of the Lusitania off The Old Head of Kinsale on the 7th May 1915 when 1,195 perished. What is certain though is that more then these two enormous losses put together were lost when the Lancastria rolled over. Reliable sources suggest that between 3,500 and 4,000 lives were lost, even possibly more. Amazingly, around 2,500 on board survived, including a few women and children.
Winston Churchill on receiving the news of this horrific disaster ordered that the loss of the Lancastria with heavy loss of life should not be reported to the media for the time being, as the British public had only recently been shocked by the evacuation of the British Expedtionary Force through Dunkirk, when a huge number of troops had been rescued and returned to England, but many thousands had been captured and made P.o.W. for the rest of the war and valuable equipment, weapons and transport had to be destroyed before leaving.
Survivors, some naked, most covered in oil, cram on to a rescue vessel
As a result of Churchill’s order, this ship and its apalling loss of life has not since received the importance it deserved and has virtually been ignored and forgotten by historians ever since.
Thursday the 17th June 2010 was the 70th Anniversary of this sad event. The servicemen and ship’s crew, who once aboard this liner felt that the horrors of their war in France were over and that they would soon be safely back home in England. How wrong they were, far worse horrors were about to begin.
Tea – Hot and Sweet – was a great comfort
The steam turbine steamer Lancastria was built by Wm. Beardmore & Co., in Glasgow. Yard No. 557, 16,243 gross tons, 578′ x 70.2′ Twin screw.
Launched on the 31st May 1920. Originally named Tyrrhenia for the Anchor Line.
Delivered on the 12th June 1922. In 1924, renamed Lancastria after fitting new passenger accommodation and transferred to the Cunard service between London and New York.
From 1932 until the outbreak of war, she was exclusively for cruising
On 5th March 1940, she entered service as a troopship.
Compiled by Gerry Lewis.