RMS Lancastria (later HMT Lancastria) was a British Cunard liner commandeered by the UK Government for war, sunk on 17 June 1940 during World War II sending 4,000 people to their deaths, possibly many more. It is the greatest ever loss of life in the sinking of a single British ship, claiming more lives than the combined losses of the RMS Titanic (1,523 passengers and crew) and RMS Lusitania (1,200 passengers). It had also the highest death toll for UK forces in a single engagement in the whole of World War II.
The ship was launched in 1920 as Tyrrhenia by William Beardmore and Company of Glasgow 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-foot (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 just 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 Scheldestad which had been abandoned in a sinking condition in the Bay of Biscay. In 1934, the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland chartered the Lancastria for a pilgrimage to Rome. With the outbreak of the Second World War, she carried cargo before being requisitioned in April 1940 as a troopship, becoming the HMT Lancastria. She was first used to assist in the evacuation of troops from Norway.
The sinking and its aftermath Edit
She was sunk 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 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, employees of Fairey Aviation of Belgium), line-of-communication troops (such as 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 1350 hrs, 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 against possible submarine attack, Sharp decided to wait.
A fresh air raid began before 4 p.m. Lancastria was bombed at 1548 hrs by Junkers Ju 88 aircraft from II. Gruppe/Kampfgeschwader 30. Three direct hits caused the ship to list first to starboard then to port; she rolled over and sank within twenty minutes. Over 1,400 tons of fuel oil leaked into the sea and was set partially on fire, possibly by strafing. Many drowned, were choked by the oil, or were shot by the 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 lists 1,738 deaths.
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 in the United States by The New York Times and in Britain by The Scotsman on 26 July, more than five weeks after the incident. 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 its upturned hull lined with men under the headline "Last Moments of the Greatest Sea Tragedy of All Time", but the full story of the Lancastria never came out. Due to the government-ordered cover-up, survivors and the crews of the ships that had gone to the aid of Lancastria did not discuss the disaster at the time due to the fear of court martial. The British Government has refused to make the site a war grave under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 although documents obtained under Freedom of information legislation (FOIA) show that it could be done. Early in the 21st century the French Government placed an exclusion zone around the wreck site. In July 2007 another request for documents held by the Ministry of Defence 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]
Rudolph Sharp survived the sinking and went on to command the RMS Laconia, losing his life on 12 September 1942 when that ship was torpedoed and sunk off West Africa.
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.
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 Katherine 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.
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". Lancastria is represented at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire by a Sessile oak tree and a plaque.
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 refused to do so as it was within French territorial waters and therefore outside the jurisdiction of the Act. The campaign received support from MPs, Lords, MEPs and MSPs from all parties but the MoD claimed 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 war graves; the Lancastria was again omitted. In 2007 the Association began a second petition, this time 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 February 2008 the Scottish Government confirmed it would present the medal to all those who were aboard the Lancastria that day. The Lancastria Association of Scotland is also fundraising to establish a major memorial to the victims of the Lancastria which is to be erected on the site where the ship was built in Clydebank. In October 2010 the local Council approved a planning application to have the memorial erected. In June 2010 to mark the 70th anniversary of the sinking, special ceremonies and services of remembrance were held in Edinburgh and St. Nazaire.
Official recognition Edit
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 represents "official Scottish Government recognition" of the Lancastria disaster. 150 survivors and relatives gathered from across the UK and Ireland for this historic 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. Hundreds of medals have been issued to survivors and relatives across the world.
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 MoD continues to refuse to officially commemorate the victims of the Lancastria or the survivors who endured that day. 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 the Lancastria was attacked and sunk. The Scottish Government decided to proceed in light of the "unique scale" of the tragedy and because successive British Governments refused to commemorate the disaster.
The Lancastria Association of Scotland is also working to have a significant lasting memorial erected to the victims at Clydebank, Glasgow – where the vessel was built.
Scottish Ministers have provisionally said they will back the proposals. 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.
The Association 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.
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.
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 acknowledgment for all those who had been aboard Lancastria. The MoD rejected that proposal in January 2008 and said they had no plans to commemorate the disaster.
The Lancastria Association of Scotland has erected a memorial to the victims on the site where the ship was built, the former Dalmuir shipyard on the Clyde, now the grounds of the Golden Jubilee Hospital.
As the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking took place in 2012, fresh calls were made for official recognition by the UK Government of Britain's worst ever maritime disaster, the loss of the Lancastria.
In September 2013 a plaque was unveiled at Liverpool's Pier Head by Lord Mayor Gary Millar commemorating the loss of the ship.