Certainly most of us had not heard of the Lancastria before, but the story David Glossop had to tell was a sad and shocking tragedy, a catastrophe which has been largely forgotten. It involved 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 (1,517 passengers and crew) and RMS Lusitania (1,198 passengers). It had also the highest death toll for UK forces in a single engagement in the whole of World War II.
David started by showing a photograph, of the Lancastria looking its best, “dressed overall”, and went on to say that on 17th June 1940, when it anchored at the entrance to the French port of Saint Nazaire, the weather was good, the sun was shining, and, therefore, the approaching German threat was not seen or expected.
She was taking part in Operation Ariel, the evacuation of British nationals and troops from France, two weeks after the Dunkirk evacuation. By the mid-afternoon of 17 June she had taken on board 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”.This he proceeded to do
The Lancastria then received three direct hits from Junkers bombers, and sank in twenty minutes. She overturned and spewed out an immense amount of oil. German fighters then appeared and proceeded to machine gun survivors.
Historical and political events, in particular the need to portray the relief of Dunkirk in a positive light as showing British heroism and the fear of the negative effect on public morale of such a disaster, resulted in Churchill putting a D Notice on the event: Due to this and the fact that war details were sometimes not released for years, the Lancastria has become rather a forgotten (or not known about) event of war. No real record of those on board was kept, and the large number of victims has never been definitively ascertained.
There were, however, 2447 survivors, and we were shown photos of survivors covered in oil, some swimming in the oily water, others having made it to ship or shore. To make sure that this event is not forgotten, Memorials have been placed at the Clyde Shipping site, and St. Nazaire.
Prior to WW2 the Lancastria was one of the Cunard Fleet and made regular transatlantic runs but under another name. Tyrrhenia. Many found this difficult to remember or spell and so it was changed at the start of WW2. Most sailors will tell you that this is an unlucky move.
The talk was followed by many questions and answers from the audience. An interesting and thought-provoking talk – much appreciated by all in attendance. We thank David Glossop for his talk and his time.