Page last updated at 16:30 GMT, Thursday, 12 June 2008 17:30 UK

Lancastria dead gain recognition

By Kit Fraser
Political correspondent, BBC Scotland

The Scottish Government has issued its first ever medal to commemorate the thousands of service men and women who died with the sinking of the Lancastria almost exactly 68 years ago.

Lancastria (pic by Lancastria Association of Scotland)
Lancastria was attacked by German bombers in 1940

The loss of the converted Cunard liner was Britain's worst maritime disaster and the country's biggest single loss of life in World War II.

But it was hushed up and, for half a century, relatives and survivors have felt the sacrifice was forgotten.

The ship was lending support to the war effort, evacuating British Expeditionary Forces from France, when it was attacked by German bombers on 17 June, 1940.

Among more than 6,000 aboard the troop ship was Bill Walker - now 90-years-old.

"We were up on the top deck and, within a very short time, German planes came over," he recalled. "I saw the bombs leaving the plane."

Mr Walker was one of the lucky ones. For the thousands on the lower decks, escape was almost impossible as the Lancastria rapidly turned over and sank.


Survivors describe their experiences

"The top deck was a mess of blood," said Mr Walker. "Three bombs apparently hit it. They say one of them went down the funnel."

"Almost immediately she began to list. We jumped off, it listed away to one side.

"The Germans were back - they were strafing the water. Within a comparatively short time, she was away. It was unbelievable."

At least 4,000 died - 400 of them Scots. So soon after Dunkirk, then Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the event to be hushed up to protect national morale.

It remained a secret long after the war, but this led the bereaved to feel their sacrifice was ignored.

Before she ever knew him, Fiona Symon lost her father in the chaos and carnage of the evacuation of St Nazaire.

Now chairwoman of the Lancastria Association, she said the event had a shattering impact on her mother.

"Mother mourned my father for the rest of her life," she explained.

Lancastria (pic by Lancastria Association of Scotland)
The sinking of the Lancastria was hushed up for years after the war

"Really, right up until she died in 1992, she was still very sad and very bitter that, come November when it's Armistice time, and the words 'lest we forget' are in every paper, mother used to say, 'yes and rightly so, but they've forgotten about the Lancastria.'"

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has now given the bereaved families official recognition.

"It's bad enough to be connected with a disaster on this scale without harbouring a grievance that somehow the loss hasn't been recognised in the same way that other losses have been recognised," he said.

"To be able to do something about it is a rare privilege."

The move attracted cross-party support. Lib Dem MSP Mike Rumbles - a major who served in the Army for 15 years, said: "It's right and proper that it is recognised and that we've got this commemoration medal.

"I think the first ever occasion that the Scottish Government has done this. Its quite remarkable."

The medal states its recognition of the ultimate sacrifice of the 4,000 victims and the endurance of the survivors. Inscribed are the words - "we will remember them."

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