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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 February 2007, 13:24 GMT
Campaign for 'forgotten' heroes
By Douglas Marshall
BBC News

Survivors and victims' families say more should be done to recognise those who died in one of Britain's biggest World War II disasters.

HMT Lancastria
An estimated 4,000 people died when HMT Lancastria went down

A few miles off the coast of France lays the wreck of HMT Lancastria, sunk 67 years ago by German bombers.

It is a reminder of the afternoon of 17 June 1940, described as Britain's worst maritime disaster in history.

On that day an estimated 4,000 troops and refugees died when the 16,243-ton liner quickly went down.

"As the boat sank and turned over upside down, there were hundreds singing 'roll out the barrel'. They knew they were going to die," says Reg Brown, one of the 2,477 recorded survivors.

The ship, a requisitioned Clyde-built Cunard cruise liner, was five miles off the coast of Saint-Nazaire and being used in the evacuation of troops and refugees, including women and children, just two weeks after the morale-boosting Dunkirk evacuation.

Reg Brown
It is sacred, it is a grave
Reg Brown, survivor of HMT Lancastria sinking

When it was bombed there were between 6,000 and 9,000 people on board, differing estimates say.

It will never be known exactly how many people died as it went down.

Many were trapped on the lower decks and went down with the ship while many more drowned in the oily waters or died under machine-gun fire from German planes.

The loss of life was so devastating Prime Minister Winston Churchill banned news coverage of the disaster at the time although it was reported in the New York Times a month later.

Mr Brown, from Bedworth, Warwickshire, says: "The Germans, of course they knew what was going on.

"They could have bombed that ship two or three days before but they waited until it was full."

'Ultimate sacrifice'

Next week Mr Brown will hand over a petition, which currently has about 3,500 signatories, to ask the government to designate the wreck a war grave under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986.

The petition was set up by the Lancastria Association of Scotland, which campaigns to bring greater awareness of the disaster. It wants greater protection for the Lancastria after reports of divers visiting the wreck.

Mr Brown, 87, says: "It is sacred, it is a grave. I think it is disgusting to think of frogmen or whatever they are, going around messing with the ship."

Survivors from HMT Lancastria
Officials recorded some 2,477 survivors from the Lancastria

Mark Hirst, from the association, whose grandfather Walter was another survivor, says: "The aim is to bring awareness of these people who made the ultimate sacrifice.

"It has been forgotten by history and we are trying to address that."

In May 2006, the French government placed a 200m exclusion zone around the wreck to discourage diving.

The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) says it does not have legal powers to designate the Lancastria a maritime war grave because of the location of the wreck, inside French territorial waters.

"We have continued to explain this to the Lancastria Association of Scotland and to confirm that we nevertheless consider HMT Lancastria to be a military maritime grave," the MoD said in a statement.

"Given the location of the wreck, the only feasible and practical course of action was for the French authorities to extend their own legal protection to it; we very much appreciate their action in doing so last year."

But the association says many survivors and relatives of those who died believe more should be done to remember the disaster.

Mr Hirst says: "They feel the sacrifice has been forgotten. They just want formal acknowledgement of what they went through."


VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
An estimated 4,000 people died



SEE ALSO
War grave campaign in legal move
20 Nov 06 |  Tayside and Central
Lancastria: The secret disaster
01 Jun 00 |  UK News
Lancastria in pictures
01 Jun 00 |  UK News

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