RMS Lancastria was a Cunard Liner that was requisitioned at the beginning of the Second World War. The ship was involved in the evacuation of British troops from Northern France in the summer of 1940. Whilst crammed with troops escaping the advancing Wehrmacht, the Lancastria was attacked and sunk. The death toll is estimated to be around 4000 lives, making this the largest maritime loss of life suffered by the British navy. The loss of RMS Lancastria was heavily censored during the war and at the time of writing there remains no official commemoration of the tragedy.
Blitzkrieg and the evacuation of Northern France and the Low Countries
As Blitzkrieg led to rapid advances of the Wehrmacht in France and the Low Countries the British were forced to evacuate mainland Europe. Famously, they fought a rearguard action at Dunkirk and saw thousands of men boarding the ‘little ships’ to the safety of the South East of England. Less well known is that other British troops along with French soldiers and RAF personnel were evacuated from other parts of France.
After the end of the Dunkirk evacuation on 4th June 1940 there were still tens of thousands of servicemen in France. The evacuation of these men was intended to take place from major ports. One of these was St. Nazaire on the Loire-Atlantique coast. St. Nazaire is a major French port, home of dockyards that have constructed some of France’s largest ocean going liners. It was ideally suited to ferrying troops to vessels.
RMS Lancastria and Operation Ariel
On 14th June 1940 RMS Lancastria set sail from Liverpool. Her mission was to sail to the French port of St. Nazaire to participate in Operation Ariel. This operation was the evacuation of British and French soldiers, staff from the British Embassy, some civil servants and British civilians caught in after the fall of Dunkirk.
The Lancastria arrived at St. Nazaire on 17th June. Her Captain, Rudolph Sharp, set about loading the ship with as many refugees and soldiers as possible. Indeed, the orders were to disregard conventional limits on the safe number of passengers that could be carried. The usual limit was 2200 including a crew of 375. On 17th June 1940, around 9000 were squeezed on board.
Though the Lancastria was full and permission was granted to depart from St. Nazaire, Captain Sharp chose not to do so immediately. There were two risks for him to weigh up. One was from the air as the Luftwaffe had already hit RMS Oronsay, the other was from German U-Boats. Few liners would stand a chance against U-Boats if unaccompanied by Destroyers. At St. Nazaire there was a lower risk of that. The risk from the air would be present either in port or at sea. At least at St. Nazaire there was additional anti-aircraft guns. On balance it was decided that waiting for the Destroyer escort was safest.
Sinking of the Lancastria
At 3.48pm on 17th June 1940 a Junkers Ju88 attacked the Lancastria. In total four bombs hit the target. One exploded in the engine room. The explosions opened the fuel tanks which poured into the water around the now listing vessel. This had horrific consequences. Many of those who jumped from the ship found themselves in Crude Oil. This is incredibly hard to swim in, causing some to drown. Worse still, the Luftwaffe then strafed the seas around the Lancastria. This ignited the oil, creating a blaze in the sea. Within 20 minutes of being bombed, the Lancastria had sunk.
Death Toll and Survivors
No precise numbers are available for the number of dead. As the ships were being overloaded, accurate counts were not made. Estimates of losses vary from a lower end of 3500 to an upper end of 6500.
It is known that 2477 survived the sinking. 900 were picked up by one trawler. Other vessels in the area were able to save others.
As the losses were so high the news of the sinking was censored. Families of those who perished in the Lancastria knew only that their loved ones had died whilst serving with the British Expeditionary Force in France.
Lancastria Wreck Site and Memorials
RMS Lancastria sank in the estuary of the Loire River. This is inside French territorial waters and so has not been designated as a war grave by the British Government. The French Government have placed an exclusion zone around the wreck.
Their is no official memorial to the dead of the sinking of the Lancastria in the United Kingdom. An Association has been formed for those who are survivors or related to those who perished.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has records of the graves of 1816 servicemen who died on the Lancastria.