Other Post The Worst British Maritime loss ever


Mi General
MI.Net Member
Feb 29, 2004
HMT Lancastria

The Lancastria is the highlighted cruise liner this issue. As stated in the title the sinking of the Lancastria is the worst loss of life that Britain has ever suffered from one vessel and yet how many of you thought that dubious distinction belonged to the much-acclaimed Titanic?

This 16,243 ton Cunard liner was built by William Beardmore & Co, Dalmuir Glasgow, making her maiden voyage under the name of Tyrrhenia, from Glasgow to Montreal on 13 June 1922. Refitted just two years later with a plush new interior and a new name, Lancastria, she spent many years leisurely cruising the world’s oceans. Her final peace-time cruise in the idyllic waters of the Bahamas was made in September 1939, and ended with the ship docked in New York, and the world at war. Here she underwent a radical change - her portholes were blacked out, drab grey military paint daubed all over her and guns mounted near to the once splendid swimming pool! Her cruising days were over forever as she took on the role of one of Her Majesty’s troopships.

After successfully dodging Luftwaffe bombs in the North Sea while helping with the evacuation of troops from Norway the Lancastria then took part in Operation Aerial where she was required in St Nazaire, France, to evacuate more British troops. At 0400 on the 17 June 1940 she anchored slightly off St Nazaire at Charpentier Roads and began evacuating soldiers from the British Expeditionary Force along with some RAF men and a few civilians. There were so many people to evacuate that the afternoon arrived and the ferrying to and fro was still continuing. British Reserve Naval officers had coordinated the embarkation of evacuees with Sharpe. When the captain was asked how many troops his ship could take he replied “3,000 at a pinch”. By mid afternoon counting had ceased at 4000 and still the loading continued. There is no accurate figure for the number aboard but it is estimated that there were over 7000 people. The Lancastria was literally overflowing.

Then the bombing began. German Dornier Do17 aeroplanes flew overhead and, being trained for shipping attacks, were both delighted and amazed to see the enormous cruise ship undefended and stationary, just waiting for their arrival! It nevertheless took the enemy planes almost 2 hours to strike the Lancastria. Four bombs hit in total, one was a bull’s eye, dropping straight down the funnel and exploding in the engine room. At 1615, less than 20 minutes later, the Lancastria rolled onto her port side and made her way bow first to her grave on the seabed.

The reason the Lancastria’s history is not well known is that Winston Churchill felt the country’s morale could not bear the burden of such terrible news and newspapers were ordered not to print the story. Survivors were forbidden under the King’s Regulations to mention the disaster and people killed were listed as “missing in action”. This led to the assumption by most bereaved relatives that they probably died during the bloody retreat through France. However, the story of the sinking finally broke in New York newspapers on 26th July 1940 and was soon afterwards taken up by the British press. The official report however is still sealed until the year 2040 under the Official Secrets Act. If it could be proved that Sharpe was ordered by Ministry of Defence Officials to ignore his maximum load restriction there could be considerable grounds for compensation claims against the British Government. Currently the evidence for this remains under lock and key for another 40 years.


Similar threads