Today Weekdays 6-9am and Saturdays 7-9am

  • News Feeds
Page last updated at 11:21 GMT, Friday, 2 July 2010 12:21 UK
Lancastria: Britain's forgotten disaster

The Lancastria after being hit by German bombers off the coast of France in 1940
The Lancastria was sunk by German bombers off the coast of France in 1940

By Andrew Walker
Today programme

Britain's worst ever maritime disaster, the 1940 sinking of the troopship Lancastria, which claimed the lives of between four and six thousand men, has all but been erased from history. But survivors and campaigners are keeping the memory alive.

Most people have heard of the Titanic, the Transatlantic liner which sank on its maiden voyage in 1912 and was immortalised in James Cameron's blockbuster 1997 movie.

And the Lusitania, torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1915, is still remembered as the ship which brought the United States into World War I.

But have you heard of the Lancastria? Perhaps not. Because the sinking of this liner in 1940, an event which claimed the lives of more victims than the Titanic and the Lusitania combined, almost disappeared from history, a victim of the propaganda war which underlay Britain's fight against Nazi Germany.

Built on the Clyde, the 16,243 ton, 578 foot-long Lancastria - originally named the Tyrrhenia - could carry up to 2,200 passengers.

Following her maiden voyage on 1922, she served as a liner on the Transatlantic route, as well as a cruise ship in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe, before being requisitioned in April 1940 as a troopship.

The Lancastria in peacetime
The Lancastria in peacetime

She saw action assisting in the evacuation of troops from Norway and then sailed to the French port of St Nazaire to rescue troops following the Nazi invasion and the near miraculous escape of 338,000 Allied troops from the Dunkirk beaches just two weeks before.

James Cowan, now 89 years old, made it to St Nazaire ahead of the German advance and saw the Lancastria from the quayside. "The sun was reflecting off the ship and it looked white, and I thought to myself 'what a target, what an easy target,'" he says.

Also on board was Charles Napier: "I was lying on the top deck," he recalls. "A man came out and he didn't see me, I don't think. And anyway I said to him 'you're looking awful worried'.

"And he said 'well, I am very worried... I'm the purser, there's between eight and nine thousand people on this ship and there's only life saving equipment for about two-and-a-half thousand.'"

On the afternoon of 17 June 1940 the Lancastria came under attack from the Luftwaffe. After receiving three direct hits from a Junkers 88 bomber the liner sank in just 20 minutes.

Churchill quite simply thought the newspapers had had enough bad news."
Jonathan Fenby

Jacqueline Tillyer was two years old, eating lunch with her family below decks when the ship was attacked. "Mother said she just picked me up and ran to the stairs... the soldiers parted and let us up on deck.

And Dad said when we got on deck they put us in a lifeboat but it sunk. So they just looked at each other and said 'What do we do? Swim.' Luckily they were very good swimmers."

Another survivor, Jack Lumsden, recalls "people all round in the sea and also things like coconuts floating about. But these turned out to be the heads of drowned people".

Estimates of the number of dead vary. What is known is that up to 9,000 troops may have embarked on the Lancastria when she left St Nazaire, and some say that more than 6,000 lives could have been lost.

A wreath is laid at the Lancastria memorial, Saint Nazaire
A wreath is laid at the Lancastria memorial, Saint Nazaire

But the general consensus is that the disaster claimed around 4,000 victims. This is not only the worst single disaster in British maritime history but the largest single loss of life for British forces in the whole of World War II.

But the British government immediately placed a wartime D Notice on news of the sinking, meaning that newspapers and the BBC were unable to report the disaster, thus ensuring that the story of the Lancastria has remained largely forgotten by the history books.

Journalist Jonathan Fenby, author of The Sinking of the Lancastria: Britain's Greatest Maritime Disaster and Churchill's Cover-up, explains: "It was a very bad moment in Britain's history. France was collapsing, Mussolini had entered the war, Hitler and Mussolini were planning further conquest.

"Weygand, the French chief-of-staff, said Britain 'is a chicken whose neck will be wrung shortly by Hitler'. Churchill, as he said afterwards in his memoirs, quite simply thought the newspapers had had enough bad news."

Today, the Lancastria Association of Scotland is at the forefront of a campaign to persuade the British and French governments to recognise the liner's final resting place as a war grave.

And, earlier this month, representatives of the association laid a wreath at a memorial to the Lancastria in St Nazaire, in tribute to the thousands of men who died, unrecognised, during that tempestuous summer of 1940.

And you can hear a Radio 4 documentary, The Sinking of the Lancastria, at 1.30pm on Sunday.

Ajibola Lewis (right) with her daughter Police custody 'scandal'
A charity calls for a public inquiry into the number of people who die while being held by police.

Christmas tree Mass Observing the season
The spirits of Christmases past, as seen by the British people

Children selling low-value goods at the roadside are a familiar sight in Liberia Catch-22
Evan Davis examines Liberia's attempt to rebuild its economy following the recent civil war.


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific