The Lancastria disaster. Ever heard of it? Neither had I. Very few people know about it, despite the fact that the sinking of the HMT Lancastria killed at least 3,000 people, and possibly closer to 6,000.i It remains Britain’s worst disaster at sea; more people died during the June 1940 sinking of the Lancastria than in the Titanic and Lusitania sinkings combined.ii
Figure 1: HMT Lancastriaiii
But you may have heard of Dunkirk: the massive maritime evacuation of Allied soldiers from France during World War II. Dozens of books and movies chronicle the daring evacuation of over 330,000 Allied soldiers who were trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, with the German army steadily closing in on them. Churchill sent rescue boats, almost one thousand of them, ranging from massive ships to civilian-operated fishing vessels to collect the soldiers and bring them home.iv
So, what does Dunkirk have to do with the sinking of the Lancastria two weeks later?
Well, it turns out that not all soldiers were rescued at Dunkirk. Some 150,000 were still desperately making their way to the coasts in the hopes of rescue. Effectively told that it was now every man for himself,v soldiers walked for days in the oppressive June heat, often with little food and water to make their way to one of the French coastal ports.
In my grandfather’s words:
“Once across the river they did all of their marching at night for the roads were being constantly machine-gunned and the people they met were not too friendly. For this they could not be blamed, for who would be happy under the circumstances, to see their homes going up in smoke and all of their worldly possessions being stolen or scattered to the four winds. Add to that the misery of trudging for miles, frequently jumping in and out of roadside ditches, the blistering heat of the sun, the crying of hungry children, then the sight of dead and dying people at the roadside.”vi – Frank Palmer
Tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians, including women and children, made it to the port of St. Nazaire, where they lined up for miles, waiting their turns to board rescue vessels.vii
“Arriving at St. Nazaire, all was in confusion, nobody seemed to be in control. The troops stretched back for miles in one long broken column, every so often there would be a break in the lines as the bombers came down the line, machine-gunning everything in sight.”viii – Frank Palmer
One of those rescue ships was the HMT Lancastria, a Cunard cruise liner meant to carry a maximum of 2,200 people. Throughout the day of June 17th, soldiers and civilians climbed aboard the ship. Desperate to return as many people as possible to England, the Captain was ordered to take on as many people as possible. They quickly surpassed the maximum capacity and gave up counting altogether at around 5,000 passengers even though many more continued to load after this. Estimates figure there were between 6,000 and 9,000 soldiers and civilians on board.ix
“The ferry took the troops out to the Lancastria that was laying off the port in the deep water. She was already crowded with troops who were up in the rigging, on the masts and superstructure, anywhere they could gain a foothold.”x – Frank Palmer
Around 3:45pm, a German JU 88 bomber appeared in the sky overhead and before anything could be done, it dropped four bombs directly onto the overloaded Lancastria.xi The bombs tore through the decks, instantly killing hundreds. The sea became full of bodies, wreckage, and fuel. Soldiers leaped into the sea, some breaking their necks as they did so when their solid cork lifejackets hit the water.xii
“There were 5 of us standing together with lifebelts and the first 4 jumped from the deck in front of me wearing their belts. But as I looked over to see how they had done I saw that they appeared to be unconscious or dead. The lifebelts had risen up as they entered the water and broken their necks. I decided then to throw my lifebelt into the sea and jumped in after it.” xiii – Cyril Cumbes
Those who could, swam desperately through the thick oil towards other rescue vessels, but the German bombers returned, strafing survivors in the water.xiv Oil slicks caught on fire, burning men as they drowned. The sea was afloat with moments of heroism and madness.
“After entering the water a seemingly crazed man tried to remove my lifejacket, but I managed to fight him off. I was in the water for around 2 hours before being picked up. At one point a large Labrador dog swam past which I later discovered belonged to some Belgian refugee children who did not survive the sinking.” xv – Walter Hirst
“A lone Bren gunner somewhere unseen on one of the decks kept popping off short bursts at the German planes that kept sweeping, its wing-guns lashing out at the men bobbing about and struggling in the oil-smeared sea. This brave man, could have, like those around him, made an attempt to leave the ship to save himself, but he chose to stay at his weapon even as the water closed in over him.”xvi – Stan Scislowski
Soldiers on nearby rescue vessels could only watch and listen as men trapped on the upturned keel of the Lancastria sang “Roll out the Barrel” and “There’ll Always Be An England” as they sank beneath the waves.xvii Survivors would be haunted by those songs for years.xviii
Figure 2: The sinking of the Lancastriaxix
So why is this tragedy virtually unheard of? When people think of maritime disasters, it’s the Titanic that comes to mind, not the Lancastria. Essentially, Churchill didn’t want to expose Britons to any more bad news. Tail between its legs, England had just beat a hasty retreat from the fighting lines in France: “The newspapers have got quite enough disaster for today, at least,” Churchill said.xx He imposed a 100-year Defence Notice (D-Notice), silencing soldiers and media alike.xxi
And so, the story of the Lancastria slipped into oblivion, just as the ship sank beneath the sea.
So, this November 11th, as part of our Remembrance Day display, we’ll read my grandfather’s memoirs about his evacuation from St. Nazaire and the Lancastria sinking. We will remember.
Find out more about the HMT Lancastria:
- Visit the Lancastria Archive
- Watch a YouTube documentary by a descendant of one of the survivors
- Read Jonathan Fenby’s 2005 book The Sinking of the Lancastria: Britain’s Greatest Maritime Disaster and Churchill’s Cover-up. London, England: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-7432-5930-9
- Watch Who Do You Think You Are? as they reveal to British entertainer Amanda Holden how her grandfather survived the sinking of the Lancastria but was forever haunted by what he witnessed.
i Lancastria Archive & Mark Hirst, Lancastria Archive: We Will Remember Them (http://www.lancastria.org.uk : accessed 1 August 2017).
ii “Britain’s worst sea disaster recalled,” BBC News, 17 June 2005, HTML edition, archived (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/4104996.stm : accessed 2 November 2018).
iii Chapman, James, “Sinking of the Lancastria is marked at last: Wartime loss of troop ship that cost 4,000 lives to be commemorated 75 years on,” The Daily Mail, 17 June 2015, HTML edition, archived (https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3128991/Sinking-Lancastria-marked-Wartime-loss-troop-ship-cost-4-000-lives-commemorated-75-years-on.html : accessed 2 November 2018).
iv “Operation Dynamo: Things You Need to Know About the Dunkirk Evacuation,” English Heritage (https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/dover-castle/history-and-stories/operation-dynamo-things-you-need-to-know : accessed 1 November 2018), “History and Stories”.
v Palmer, Marie, transcriber, “Molly & Frank: Letters, Photos, Journals, Memoirs & Family Histories, 2nd edition,” p. 101; copy in possession of Marie Palmer, [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE], British Columbia, Canada, 2018. Ms. Palmer is the granddaughter of Frank Palmer.
vi Palmer, “Molly & Frank,” 102.
vii “WW2 People’s War,” BBC (https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/56/a4103056.shtml : accessed 1 November 2018), “The Sinking of the Lancastria – 1940”.
viii Palmer, “Molly & Frank,” 104.
ix Lancastria Archive & Mark Hirst, Lancastria Archive: We Will Remember Them.
x Palmer, “Molly & Frank,” 104.
xi “Forgotten Tragedy: The Loss of the HMT Lancastria,” The National Archives (https://media.nationalarchives.gov.uk/index.php/forgotten-tragedy-the-loss-of-hmt-lancastria/# : accessed 1 November 2018).
xii Clayton, Tim, “Historical Notes: News of ‘Lancastria’ Sinking Supressed,” The Independent, 3 December 1999, HTML edition, archived (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/historical-notes-news-of-lancastria-sinking-suppressed-1126875.html : accessed 2 November 2018).
xiii Lancastria Archive & Mark Hirst, Lancastria Archive: We Will Remember Them (http://www.lancastria.org.uk/survivor-memories : accessed 1 November 2018), “Survivor Accounts.”
xiv “Lancastria: The Forgotten Tragedy of World War Two,” BBC News, 13 June 2015, HTML edition, archived (https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-33092351 : accessed 2 November 2018).
xv Lancastria Archive & Mark Hirst, Lancastria Archive: We Will Remember Them, “Survivor Accounts”.
xvi “WW2 People’s War,” BBC, “The Sinking of the Lancastria – 1940.”
xvii Dancocks, Raye, “The Lancastria – a Secret Sacrifice in World War Two,” BBC, 17 February 2011, HTML edition, archived (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/lancastria_01.shtml : accessed 3 November 2018).
xviii Dancocks, “The Lancastria – a Secret Sacrifice in World War Two.”
xix “Lancastria: Britain’s forgotten disaster,” BBC, 2 July 2010, HTML edition, archived (http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_8782000/8782971.stm : accessed 4 November 2018).
xx Dancocks, “The Lancastria – a Secret Sacrifice in World War Two.”
xxi Lancastria Archive & Mark Hirst, Lancastria Archive: We Will Remember Them.
xxii Corner, Natalie, “’The trauma was too much for him’: Amanda Holden discovers the heartbreaking story behind her grandfather’s suicide as she learns of his involvement in the worst maritime disaster in British history,” Daily Mail, 22 November 2016, HTML edition, archived (https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-3957428/Amanda-Holden-discovers-heartbreaking-story-grandfather-s-suicide-learns-involvement-Lancastria-disaster.html : accessed 3 November 2018).
xxiii Chapman, James, “Sinking of the Lancastria is marked at last: Wartime loss of troop ship that cost 4,000 lives to be commemorated 75 years on.”