Image of RMS Lancastria
In the early morning of April 15, 1912, the largest ocean liner in the world, RMS Titanic, sank to the bottom of the Atlantic, taking with her over 1500 passengers and crew. The disaster, one of the largest maritime disasters in history, shocked the world and brought about dramatic changes to improve maritime safety; however, as the world grew increasingly tumultuous, there would be many other ships who would unwillingly carry the majority of their crew and passengers to a watery grave. Just a few years after RMS Titanic's sinking, on the afternoon of May 7, 1915, RMS Lusitania was torpedoed by a U-boat off the coast of Ireland. She sunk in just eighteen minutes and with her, 1,198 passengers and crew in just eighteen minutes and sparked an international outcry that would play a part in swinging American public opinion against Imperial Germany and eventually, joining the war on the side of the Entente.
You know of these two ships already, you've seen them in books, documentaries, they are the centre of many conspiracy theories and controversies. Both these ships and the loss of life that went with their sinking brought about enormous and lasting change to the entire world. These two names are storied and everyone knows what you're talking about when you say their names. What if I were to tell you that there was a ship, whose sinking cost more lives than both of these tragedies combined, and unlike Titanic or Lusitania, its story is not well known and only in recent years have efforts been made to bring this tale to light. This is the tragedy of HMT Lancastria.
Launched as RMS Tyrrhenia made her maiden voyage on June 19, 1922. She was 16,243 t and 578 (176 m) long. Built for Anchor Line, a subsidiary of Cunard, she could carry 2,200 passengers in three classes at just under 17 knots. She was no Blue Ribband ship. Passengers complained that they couldn't pronounce Tyrrhenia, which, as any marketer will tell you, isn't a good thing. So, in 1924, when she was refitted for two classes, she was renamed Lancastria and started shuttling passengers between Liverpool and New York until 1932, by which time the Great Depression had taken hold and she served as a cruise ship in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe.
At the outbreak of WW 2, Lancastria was used to ferry cargo until April 1940 when she was requisitioned as a troopship and redesignated Hired Military Transport (HMT) Lancastria. Her first job as a troopship was evacuating troops from the ill-fated Norway campaign.
Before we move on with Lancastria's story, it's important to bring up Dunkirk for one important reason: not all British forces were at Dunkirk. Many also forget that there were Belgians and French among the evacuees there. The forces at Dunkirk were those that had been cut off from the south by the German's "race to the sea", leaving them isolated and stranded. In the rest of France were many thousands more, not only soldiers but British Nationals who wanted to get out of the war zone and back home and many French and Belgian troops who needed evacuation as well.
There were three major operations for the evacuation of Franch: Operation Dynamo (Dunkirk), Operation Cycle: the evacuation from St. Valery and La Havre in upper Normandy; and Operation Ariel, the evacuation from numerous ports along the Atlantic coast.
Operation Dynamo began May 26, 1940, and lasted until June 4th. Over 300,000 were successfully evacuated from Dunkirk but the ships and troops in the sea were bombed relentlessly by the Luftwaffe, costing many lives and sinking over 200 ships and small boats. Operation Cycle lasted from June 10th to the 13th and was conducted mostly at night, evacuating approximately 12,000 more British and French troops. Finally, Operation Ariel began on June 15th, and it was in this operation that Lancastria would take part.
Up until June 14th, Lancastria had been in Liverpool undergoing a small overhaul. By June 17th, she had traveled to Saint-Nazaire under the command of Captain Rudolf Sharp. One of the largest ship in the flotilla assembled to evacuate over 60,000 troops that remained in the city, she was rated to carry about 1,700 passengers (some sources say 2,200) and 375 crew. However, Sharp was ordered to "load as many men as possible without regard to the limits set down under international law". By the afternoon, Captain sharp was told that over 6,700 were embarked. Among the military personnel were over 40 civilians, among them, Embassy staff, men from the Belgian aircraft manufacturer Avions Fairey, and their families.
For the tired soldiers coming aboard, Lancastria was a refuge. After being on the run from the rampaging Panzers, bombarded by ceaseless bombing and haunted by the howling of Jericho Trumpets, they finally felt safe aboard the big ship. That soon ended at 13:50, when the port was hit by another air raid. As the captain watched an arial battle above and then watched a bomb strike the 20,000 ton orient liner SS Oronsay half a mile away, destroying her bridge. Lancastria was free to depart and the captain of the destroyer HMS Havelock, advised Captain Sharp to do so immediately. Captain Sharp, however, was worried about U-boats and didn't want to leave without a destroyer escort, but the destroyers were still needed to guard the port and so he decided to wait.
Two hours passed as the nearly 7,000 people aboard ship sat crammed like sardines while Sharp decided to wait at anchor and leave with SS Oronsay, possibly to navigate her home with her charts and wireless room destroyed. Suddenly, air-raid sirens keened and eyes looked up at the sky again. At approximately 15:48, Ju 88s screamed overhead. The port's Hawker Hurricanes acting as air cover, were at the far end of their patrol line, 30 miles away. The bombers were free to descend on their prey and unleashed their payloads. Everyone could only look up in horror as the iron eggs fell. Bombs slammed onto Lancastria exploding and killing scores in the holds where men were taking shelter. The ship began to list as the hull buckled and water flooded the inside. A fourth bomb plunged right down her funnel and exploded in the engine room, causing tons of crude oil to leak out into the estuary.
The call was given to "clear away boats" and everyone who heard headed for the lifeboats. Everyone who didn't.... well it wouldn't matter. Remember when I mentioned the Titanic earlier? Do you know what one of the lessons learned from that disaster? It was to make sure you had enough lifeboats for everyone on board. Lancastria had enough for a number of people she was rated to carry on, but she was far overloaded and the ship was sinking fast. To add insult to injury, some of the lifeboats had been destroyed in the bombing and even ones that seemed intact ended up sinking when they hit the water. The call was given: "every man for himself".
Some men in life jackets jumped off the ship and broke their necks upon hitting the water, those that didn't die instantly were forced to swim in the 1,200 tons of crude oil leaking from the ship into the water. But even if you were somehow managing to stay alive then, remember, there's still enemy bombers flying above your heads. The Luftwaffe strafed the survivors with machinegun fire and then fired flares into the water, igniting the oil and turning the sea into an inferno, burning men alive. One of the civilian survivors recalled: "if there was hell, this was it."
While this was happening, HMT Lancastria started to roll over. Passengers still on the deck, climbed over the rails onto the ship's side where they could see men trapped inside the portholes. Those unable to swim began singing. "They were singing There'll Always Be an England and Roll Out the Barrel." Said Harry Harding in a 2005 interview. He was 19 at the time. "For a long time afterwards, I didn't want to hear those songs. Then I looked and it had gone down so quickly there was nothing, just a void."
Numerous small boats rushed to aid the survivors but it was not fast enough for some. As time passed, many succumbed to exhaustion or despair, slipping beneath the waves. About 2,477 were rescued in the end and brought home to Britain. The actual death toll is highly debated. Some estimates as low as 3,500 and some over 6,000. Some survivors even insist that over 9,000 had embarked on Lancastria when she was hit. Some of the survivors were carried home by the battered SS Oronsay, and her Captain, Norman Savage, navigated the ship home with nothing but a pocket compass, a sketch map, and a sextant.
So why do we never hear of this great tragedy? Why is it only in recent years that this story has come to light? Well, Titanic and Lusitania were both well publicized, both in Britain and abroad, but Lancastria was the subject of a massive government coverup. You see, shortly after her sinking on June 17th, on June 22nd, 1940, the French signed an armistice with the Nazis. Operation Ariel would continue until June 25th and unofficial evacuations would continue into August, but that crushing news, which drowned out nearly all other events, is partly the reason Lancastria's sinking is forgotten, but that news also contributed to the more direct reason.
Winston Churhill was afraid that news of the disaster would ruin British morale, especially in the wake of France's capitulation. Thus, the whole affair was part of a massive government coverup. Survivors and observers were forbidden to speak of it under penalty of court martial and publications of it were prohibited. This didn't stop the press association, however, with the event appearing in papers on July 15th in New York and on the 26th on the front page of some British papers. Despite this, the scope of the disaster was never revealed. In fact, documents on Lancastria remained classified by the Ministry of Defense until 2015.
In 2005 the Lancastria Association of Scotland started a campaign for greater awareness and recognition of the event. As of today, the wreck is considered a War Grave and protected under French law. There are a few memorials of it around and gradually more people are becoming aware. It will never have the fame of the Titanic or the Lusitania, but we must never forget such a loss of life, and I hope that by posting this, I've done my part.