RMS Lancastria

RMS Lancastria

The RMS "Lancastria" was a British Cunard liner sunk on June 17, 1940 during World War II with the loss of an estimated 4,000 plus lives. It is the worst single loss of life in British maritime history and the bloodiest single engagement for UK forces (in terms of lives lost) in the whole conflict, claiming more lives than the combined losses on "Titanic" and "Lusitania".


Launched on the Clyde, Scotland, in 1920 as the "Tyrrhenia" for the Anchor Line, a subsidiary of Cunard, the 16,243 ton, 578 foot (176 m) liner could carry 2,200 passengers in three classes and was built by William Beardmore and Company of Glasgow, Scotland. She made her maiden voyage on June 19, 1922.

She was refitted for just two classes and renamed "Lancastria" in 1924, after American passengers complained that they could not properly pronounce Tyrrhenia. She sailed scheduled routes from Liverpool to New York until 1932, and was then used as a cruise ship in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe. With the outbreak of the Second World War, she carried cargo before being requisitioned in April 1940 as a troopship, becoming the HMT "Lancastria". She was first used to assist in the evacuation of troops from Norway.

The sinking and its aftermath

After a short overhaul, she left Liverpool on June 14 under Captain Rudolf Sharpe, and arrived in the mouth of the Loire river estuary on June 16. By the mid-afternoon of June 17, she had embarked an unknown number (estimates range from 4,000 up to 9,000) of civilian refugees and RAF personnel. The ship's official capacity was 2,200. She was sunk off the French port of St. Nazaire while taking part in Operation Ariel, the evacuation of British nationals and troops from France, two weeks after the Dunkirk evacuation.

She was bombed at 15:48 by Junkers 88 aircraft from II. Gruppe/Kampfgeschwader 30. Three direct hits caused the ship to list first to starboard then to port and she rolled over and sank within twenty minutes. Over 1,400 tons of fuel oil leaked into the sea and was set partially ablaze, possibly by strafing. Many drowned, were choked by the oil, or were shot by the strafing German aircraft. There were 2,477 survivors. The death toll accounted for roughly a third of the total losses of the British Expeditionary Force in France. She sank around 5 nm (9 km) south of Chémoulin Point in the Charpentier roads, around 9 nm (17 km) out of St. Nazaire. The Lancastria Association Victim list of 1,738 can be found here at [http://www.lancastria.org.uk/Victim_List/victim_list.html] .

The immense loss of life was such that the British government banned any public announcements of the disaster through the D-Notice system, but the story was broken by the New York Times and The Scotsman newspaper on July 26. The British press did then cover the story, including front pages of the Daily Herald (also on July 26th) and Sunday Express on August 4; the latter included a photograph of the capsized ship with its upturned hull lined with men under the headline "Last Moments of the Greatest Sea Tragedy of All Time". Due to the imposition of the D-Notice, survivors and the crews of the ships that had gone to the aid of "Lancastria" did not discuss the disaster at the time due to the fear of court martial. The British Government is refusing to make the site a war grave under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 despite Freedom of Information documents proving this could be achieved, although the French Government recently placed an exclusion zone around the wreck site. In July 2007 another request for documents held by the MoD related to the sinking was rejected by the British Government.

Rudolf Sharpe survived the sinking and went on to command the "Laconia", losing his life along with many Italian POWs on September 12, 1942 when the ship was torpedoed off West Africa, rolled over, and sank stern first.


In 2005 the Lancastria Association of Scotland began a campaign to secure greater recognition for the loss of life aboard Lancastria and acknowledgement for the endurance of survivors that day. It petitioned Downing Street to have the wreck site designated an official maritime war grave. The British Government refused to do so however. The campaign received support from MPs, Lords, MEPs and MSPs from all parties but the MoD claimed that such a move would be "purely symbolic" and have no effect. In 2006 they moved to designate 14 additional wrecks sunk at the Battle of Jutland, but still refused to designate the Lancastria. In 2007 the Association began a second petition this time to the Scottish Parliament calling for a special commemorative medal to be commissioned and awarded to all those who were aboard the ship that day. Campaigners believe this would represent, at last, formal recognition of what still remains a "forgotten tragedy". In February 2008 the Scottish Government confirmed it would present the medal to all those who were aboard the Lancastria that day. The medal is in recognition of the endurance of survivors and ultimate sacrifice of the victims.

Official Recognition

On 12 June 2008, at a historic ceremony at the Scottish Parliament First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond presented the first batch of medals to survivors and relatives of victims and survivors the HMT Lancastria Commemorative Medal which represents "official Scottish Government recognition" of the Lancastria disaster. 150 survivors and relatives gathered from across the UK and Ireland for this historic event.

According to official guidance issued by the Scottish Government medal recipients are permitted to wear the medal in public along with their other campaign medals. The MoD continues to refuse to officially commemorate the victims of the Lancastria or the survivors who endured that day. The medal is subject to formal application and open to all survivors who were aboard the Lancastria 17th June 1940. Relatives of victims are also eligible to claim for the medal, so long as they can provide supporting evidence their relation was aboard the ship. An estimated 400 Scots were amongst the 4000 killed with the Lancastria was attacked and sunk. The Scottish Government decided to proceed in light of the "unique scale" of the tragedy and because successive British Governments refused to commemorate the disaster.

The Lancastria Association of Scotland is also working to have a significant lasting memorial erected to the victims at Clydebank, Glasgow - where the vessel was built.

Scottish Ministers have provisionally said they will back the proposals. The Association is also in talks with civil servants about introducing an educational pack for schools so pupils learn more about the events which led to the loss of the Lancastria. In 2005 and 2007 the Association held a special exhibition at the Scottish Parliament to highlight the loss. MSPs also signed a special hand bound book of remembrance. The Association maintains the largest online archive of Lancastria material on the internet which can be found at [http://www.lancastria.org.uk/] Last year the website received over 250,000 hits in 2007. See December 2007 BBC article on Scottishrecognition of Lancastria dead at [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/7129896.stm] .

The Association also organises the largest memorial service for the victims in the UK. The service, which is attended by survivors and relatives of both victims and survivors together with representatives of the French and Scottish Governments and a number of veterans organisations and is held on the Saturday closest to the anniversary on 17 June each year at St. George's West Church, in Edinburgh's West End.

The Lancastria Association of Scotland has members throughout the UK, France and the rest of Europe as well as members in North America, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. It has no formal connection with the HMT group.

In December 2007 following a debate at the Scottish Parliament the Scottish Government said it had held talks with the British Government to try and persuade them to introduce a commemorative medal as a symbol of official recognition and acknowledgement for all those who had been aboard the Lancastria. The MoD rejected that proposal in January 2008 and said they had no plans to commemorate the disaster.

The Lancastria Association of Scotland are also planning to build a memorial to the victims on the site where the ship was built, the former Dalmuir shipyard on the Clyde, now the grounds of the Golden Jubilee Hospital. The monument is expected to be unveiled in June 2010.


* Christophe Francois, "History of a secret sinking", Atlantic TV / France 3
* Brian Crabb "The Forgotten Tragedy: The story of the loss of HMT Lancastria" ISBN 1-900289-50-4
* Jonathan Fenby, "The Sinking of the "Lancastria": Britain's greatest maritime disaster and Churchill's cover-up", Simon and Schuster 2005 ISBN 0-7432-5930-0
* " [http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F50E1FFD3558127A93C4AB178CD85F448485F9 LANCASTRIA'S END TOLD BY SURVIVORS; Italian and Nazi Planes Said to Have Shot at Swimmers and Fired Oily Waters MANY CAUGHT BELOW DECK Rescue Craft Reported Set Ablaze--Victims Include Women and Children] " New York Times, Jul 26, 1940, Friday

ee also

*List of shipwrecks in 1940
*List of ship and ferry disasters
*SS Cap Arcona
*SS Wilhelm Gustloff
*RMS Laconia
*SS General von Steuben
*SS Armenia
*HMT Rohna
*Junyō Maru
*Ukishima Maru

External links

* [http://lancastriabritfilm.co.uk/ The first one hour British Film made from Lancastria survivors interviews]
* [http://www.lelancastria.com/ French Lancastria site]
* [http://www.lancastria.org.uk/ Lancastria Association of Scotland/ Largest online archive of Lancastria material on the web]
* [http://members.iinet.net.au/~gduncan/maritime-1.html Maritime Disasters of World War II]
* [http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/lancastria_01.shtml The 'Lancastria' - a Secret Sacrifice in World War Two]
* [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4104996.stm Britain's worst sea disaster recalled] (BBC News, 17 June, 2005) -also [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/4576916.stm] ).
* [http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-2053663,00.html 23rd Feb 2006,Times - her bell]
* [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/6414155.stm Petition submitted to 10 Downing Street]
* [http://news.scotsman.com/politics/Browne-rejects-plea-for-medals.3628782.jp MoD reject Lancastria commemoration]
* [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/7129896.stm Scottish Government honour Lancastria dead]
* [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/6759523.stm Service remembers Lancastria dead]
* [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/tayside_and_central/6164630.stm Legal move over war grave status]
* [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/tayside_and_central/5209604.stm Website remembers Lancastria disaster]
* [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/5089510.stm Scots remember sea disaster]
* [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/4576916.stm Disaster memorial call]
* [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/coventry_warwickshire/6385027.stm Campaign for forgotten heros]
* [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/glasgow_and_west/5270424.stm War grave petition]
* [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/edinburgh_and_east/6761895.stm Poppies salute to Lancastria dead]
* [http://www.shippingtimes.co.uk/itm110_lancastria.htm Shipping Times article on Scottish Government decision to honour Lancastria victims and survivors]
* [http://edinburghnews.scotsman.com/uk/Time-to-remember.3477901.jp The Scotsman newspaper front page Time To Remember marks the start of a campaign by the paper]
* [http://edinburghnews.scotsman.com/comment/Wartime-loss-that-has-been.3318397.jp Mark Hirst explains why the Lancastria should be remembered]
* [https://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/letters/article4174143.ece Letter to The Times "Lancastria disaster no secret" downplaying suggestions that the sinking was covered up]

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Look at other dictionaries:

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