A postcard of RMS Lancastria from 1927
|Builder:||William Beardmore and Company|
|Maiden voyage:||19 June 1922|
|Out of service:||17 June 1940|
|Fate:||Sunk by air attack on 17 June 1940 off St. Nazaire|
|Length:||578 ft (176 m) oa|
|Beam:||70 ft (21 m)|
|Height:||43 ft (13 m)|
|Draught:||31.4 ft (9.6 m)|
|Decks:||7 decks and a shelter deck|
|Installed power:||6 steam turbines, 2,500 nhp|
|Speed:||16.5 knots (31 km/h; 19 mph)|
|Notes:||Sister ship: RMS Cameronia|
RMS Lancastria (later HMT Lancastria)[Note 1] was a British Cunard liner requisitioned by the UK Government during World War II. She was sunk on 17 June 1940 during Operation Ariel. Having received an emergency order to evacuate British nationals and troops in excess of its capacity of 1,300 passengers, modern estimates range between 3,000 and 5,800 fatalities—the largest single-ship loss of life in British maritime history. The sinking of HMT Lancastria claimed more lives than the combined losses of the RMS Titanic (1,517 passengers and crew) and RMS Lusitania (1,198 passengers).
The ship was launched in 1920 as Tyrrhenia by William Beardmore and Company of Dalmuir on the River Clyde for Anchor Line, a subsidiary of Cunard. She was the sister ship of RMS Cameronia that Beardmore's had built for the same customer the previous year. Tyrrhenia was 16,243 gross register tons, 578 feet (176 m) long and could carry 2,200 passengers in three classes. She made her maiden voyage, Glasgow–Quebec City–Montreal, on 19 June 1922.
In 1924 she was refitted for two classes and renamed Lancastria, after passengers complained that they could not properly pronounce Tyrrhenia. She sailed scheduled routes between Liverpool and New York until 1932, and was then used as a cruise ship in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe. On 10 October 1932 Lancastria rescued the crew of the Belgian cargo ship SS Scheldestad, which had been abandoned in a sinking condition in the Bay of Biscay. In 1934 the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland chartered Lancastria for a pilgrimage to Rome. With the outbreak of the Second World War she carried cargo, and was then requisitioned in April 1940 as a troopship, becoming HMT Lancastria. She was first used to assist in the evacuation of troops from Norway.
Sinking and its aftermath
The Lancastria was sunk on 17 June 1940 off the French port of St. Nazaire while taking part in Operation Ariel, the evacuation of British nationals and troops from France, two weeks after the Dunkirk evacuation.
After a short overhaul, she had left Liverpool on 14 June under Captain Rudolph Sharp (born 27 October 1885) and arrived in the mouth of the Loire estuary on 16 June. She anchored 11 miles (18 km) south-west of St. Nazaire.
By the mid-afternoon of 17 June she had embarked an unknown number (estimates range from 4,000 up to 9,000) of civilian refugees (including embassy staff and employees of Fairey Aviation of Belgium), line-of-communication troops (including Pioneer and RASC soldiers) and RAF personnel. The ship's official capacity was 2,200 including the 375-man crew. Captain Sharp had been instructed by the Royal Navy to "load as many men as possible without regard to the limits set down under international law".
At 13:50, during an air-raid, the nearby Oronsay, a 20,000-ton Orient Liner, was hit on the bridge by a German bomb. Lancastria was free to depart and the captain of the British destroyer HMS Havelock advised her to do so; but, without a destroyer escort as defence against possible submarine attack, Sharp decided to wait.
A fresh air raid began before 16:00. Lancastria was bombed at 15:48 by Junkers Ju 88 aircraft from II. Gruppe/Kampfgeschwader 30. Three direct hits caused the ship to list first to starboard then to port, while a fourth bomb fell down the ship's smokestack, detonating inside the engine room and releasing more than 1,200 tons of crude oil into the Loire estuary. Fifteen minutes after being hit, Lancastria began to capsize and some of those who were still on board managed to scramble over the ship's railing to sit on the ship's underside. Lancastria sank within twenty minutes.
When German aircraft began strafing survivors in the water, the fuel oil which had leaked into the sea ignited, and was quickly transformed into a flaming inferno. Many drowned; others were choked by the oil, or were shot by strafing German aircraft.
Survivors were taken aboard other evacuation vessels, the trawler Cambridgeshire rescuing 900. There were 2,477 survivors, of whom about 100 were still alive in 2011. Many families of the dead knew only that they died with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF); the death toll accounted for roughly a third of the total losses of the BEF in France. She sank around 5 nmi (9.3 km) south of Chémoulin Point in the Charpentier roads, around 9 nmi (17 km) from St. Nazaire. The Lancastria Association names 1,738 people known to have been killed. In 2005, Fenby wrote that estimates of the death toll vary from fewer than 3,000 to 5,800 people although it is also estimated that as many as 6,500 people perished, the largest loss of life in British maritime history.
Availability of information
The immense loss of life was such that the British government suppressed news of the disaster through the D-Notice system, but the story was broken by the Press Association on 25 July, in the United States by The New York Times and in Britain by The Scotsman on 26 July, more than five weeks after the sinking. Other British newspapers then covered the story, including the Daily Herald (also on 26 July), which carried the story on its front page, and Sunday Express on 4 August; the latter included a photograph of the capsized ship with her upturned hull lined with men under the headline "Last Moments of the Greatest Sea Tragedy of All Time". As part of the government-ordered cover-up, survivors and the crews of the ships that had gone to the aid of Lancastria did not at the time publicly discuss the disaster.
However, there were earlier reports of the sinking and the scale of the disaster from survivors in local British newspapers. Mr H J Cooper is quoted in the Chelmsford Chronicle on 28 June: "I am afraid thousands died, but tell the world they sang 'Roll out the Barrel' as they died." Private Ronald Herbert Yorke (Sherwood Foresters) is quoted in the Ripley and Heanor News on 5 July: "Hundreds of my pals were imprisoned below. They had no chance, because the ship went down in 15 minutes. Those who got away were machine gunned in the water".
In July 2007 another request for documents held by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) related to the sinking was rejected by the British government. The Lancastria Association of Scotland made a further request in 2009. They were told that release under the FOIA would not be given because of several exemptions.[Note 2]
Status of the wreck
The British government has not made the site a war grave under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986, stating that it has no jurisdiction over French territorial waters. Early in the 21st century the French Government placed an exclusion zone around the wreck site.
The Lancastria Association of Scotland began a campaign in 2005 to secure greater recognition for the loss of life aboard Lancastria and the acknowledgment of the endurance of survivors that day. It petitioned Downing Street to have the wreck site designated an official maritime war grave. The British Government did not do so as it was within French territorial waters, outside the jurisdiction of the Act. The campaign received support from MPs, Lords, MEPs and MSPs from all parties, but the MoD said that such a move would be "purely symbolic" and have no effect. In 2006, 14 additional wrecks sunk at the Battle of Jutland were designated as war graves, but the Lancastria was not.
The MoD stated in 2015 that "as the French Government has provided an appropriate level of protection to the Lancastria through French law and it is formally considered a military maritime grave by the MoD, we believe that the wreck has the formal status and protection it deserves."
All service personnel killed during the Second World War are recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and where known that they lost their lives on the Lancastria. 1,816 burials are recorded, over 400 of them in France.
- Survivors’ and relatives’ associations
After the war, the Lancastria Survivors Association was founded by Major Peter Petit, but this lapsed on his death in 1969. It reformed in 1981 as The HMT Lancastria Association and continues the tradition of a parade and remembrance service at the Church of St Katharine Cree in the City of London, where there is a memorial stained glass window. The Lancastria Association of Scotland was formed in 2005 and holds its annual service at St George's West Church in Edinburgh.
The Lancastria Association of Scotland has members throughout the UK, France and the rest of Europe as well as members in North America, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. It also organises the largest memorial service for the victims in the UK. The service, which is attended by survivors and relatives of both victims and survivors together with representatives of the French and Scottish Governments and a number of veterans organisations and is held on the Saturday closest to the anniversary of 17 June each year at St. George's West Church, Edinburgh.
In 2005 and 2007 the Association held a special exhibition at the Scottish Parliament to highlight the loss. MSPs also signed a special hand-bound book of remembrance. The Association maintains the largest online archive of Lancastria material on the internet. The website received over 250,000 hits in 2007.
In June 2010 to mark the 70th anniversary of the sinking, special ceremonies and services of remembrance were held in Edinburgh and St. Nazaire. As the 100th anniversary of the RMS Titanic sinking took place in 2012, fresh calls were made for "official recognition" of the loss of the Lancastria by the British Government. The day of the 75th anniversary of the loss of Lancastria was marked in the Westminster Parliament on 17 June 2015 at Prime Minister's Questions by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, who was standing in for the Prime Minister. Osborne said of the sinking; "It was kept secret at the time for reasons of wartime secrecy, but I think it is appropriate today in this House of Commons to remember all those who died, those who survived, and those who mourn them."
Lancastria Commemorative Medal
In 2007 the Lancastria Association of Scotland began a petition to the Scottish Parliament, calling for a special commemorative medal to be commissioned and awarded to all those who were aboard the ship that day. In December 2007, following a debate in the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Government said it had held talks with the British Government to try and persuade them to introduce a commemorative medal as a symbol of official recognition and acknowledgement for all those who had been aboard Lancastria. In a letter sent to the Scottish Parliament's public petitions committee in December 2007, Des Browne, the Secretary of State for Defence, stated that the event "must never be forgotten" but that there was "no tradition in the United Kingdom to offer medals to commemorate specific incidents like the sinking of the HMT Lancastria". No campaign medal was ever awarded for the Battle of France, but any serviceman who had spent "a single day, or part thereof" in France or Belgium between 10 May and 19 June 1940 qualified for the 1939–1945 Star.
On 12 June 2008, at a ceremony at the Scottish Parliament, First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond presented the first batch of medals to survivors and relatives of victims and survivors; the HMT Lancastria Commemorative Medal, which represented "official Scottish Government recognition" of the Lancastria disaster. 150 survivors and relatives gathered from across the United Kingdom and Ireland for the event. The medal was designed by Mark Hirst, grandson of Lancastria survivor Walter Hirst. The inscription on the rear of the medal reads: "In recognition of the ultimate sacrifice of the 4000 victims of Britain's worst ever maritime disaster and the endurance of survivors – We will remember them". The front of the medal depicts the Lancastria with the text "HMT Lancastria – 17th June 1940". The medal ribbon has a grey background with a red and black central stripe, representative of the ship's wartime and merchant marine colours.
According to official guidance issued by the Scottish Government, medal recipients are permitted to wear the medal in public along with their other campaign medals. The medal is subject to formal application and open to all survivors who were aboard the Lancastria on 17 June 1940. Relatives of victims are also eligible to claim for the medal, so long as they can provide supporting evidence that their relative was aboard the ship. An estimated 400 Scots were amongst the 4,000 killed when Lancastria was attacked and sunk. The Scottish Government decided to proceed in light of the "unique scale" of the tragedy and because survivors "have had to endure a lack of recognition of the events of that June day from a succession of Governments". The closing date for applications for the medal was 15 May 2015, by which time almost 400 had been issued.
A memorial on the sea-front at St Nazaire was unveiled on 17 June 1988, "in proud memory of more than 4,000 who died and in commemoration of the people of Saint Nazaire and surrounding districts who saved many lives, tended wounded and gave a Christian burial to victims".
The missing British military dead from the sinking of the Lancastria (those whose bodies were not recovered or were unable to be identified) are commemorated on a number of Commonwealth War Graves Commission memorials (those identified were buried in cemeteries and are marked with Commission headstones). Around 700 missing of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) are commemorated on the Dunkirk Memorial. The missing dead who served in the Navy are commemorated on the naval memorials at Chatham, Plymouth and Portsmouth, with missing merchant seamen named at the Tower Hill Memorial, and the missing airmen who went down with the ship, listed on the Runnymede Memorial.
In October 2011 the Lancastria Association of Scotland has erected a memorial to the victims on the site where the ship was built, the former Dalmuir shipyard at Clydebank, Glasgow, now the grounds of the Golden Jubilee Hospital.
The wreck site of HMT Lancastria lies in French territorial waters and is therefore ineligible for protection under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986; however, at the request of the British Government, in 2006 the French authorities gave the site legal protection as a war grave.
In popular culture
The 2001 novel Atonement by Ian McEwan includes a passage that describes the subject of the book, Briony Tallis, having to nurse badly wounded survivors from the Lancastria, but sets it during the earlier Dunkirk evacuation, probably a deliberate inaccuracy to make the event fit the narrative. The 2007 film version of that book, also called Atonement, repeats the error, having Robbie Turner arrive at Dunkirk a day after the Lancastria sinks and his superior officer tells him about it.
The autobiography of Lucilla Andrews, No Time for Romance (1977), describes nursing Lancastria survivors at St Thomas' Hospital in London, which McEwan used as a source for his novel. Andrews also wrote a fictionalised account of this event in her novel A Hospital Summer (1951).
Alastair MacLean's collection of short storiesThe Lonely Sea includes several factual stories. One is entitled Lancastria and recounts the events leading to and during the loss of the ship, and some details of the aftermath. In his book The Dark Crusader Ms.Hopeman's parents drowned inside Lancastria.
In Archyology, a collection of Don Marquis's popular Archy and Mehitabel tales, Archy, Mehitabel, and Marquis all travel from New York City to Paris on the ship during its early days, when it was still named Tyrrhenia.
When the British TV personality Amanda Holden appeared on the TV show Who Do You Think You Are?, she learned that her grandfather Frank Holden, a psychiatric nurse, was on the Lancastria when it sank, and committed suicide many years later after witnessing thousands drown in the disaster.
- "RMS" stands for Royal Mail Ship; HMT stands for His Majesty's Transport
- Section 36; prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs; Section 40(2); contains personal information; Section 40(3); Release would contravene section 10 of the Data Protection Act 1998: "processing likely to cause damage or distress"; Section 41; supplied in confidence; Section 44; Exempt from disclosure under the Human Rights Act 1998.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Lancastria (ship, 1922).|
- Britain's Worst Sea Disaster Recalled; BBC News, 17 June 2005
- Lancastria archive; Official Lancastria archive, 17 June 2005
- IWM Interview with survivor Victor Nutting
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- IWM Interview with survivor J.F. Sweeney
- IWM Interview with survivor Fred Coe
- IWM Interview with survivor Tom Kelly
- IWM Interview with survivor Samuel Bardell
- IWM Interview with survivor Morris Lashbrook
- IWM Interview with survivor Harry Higton
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- Video search from Bing