It was Britain’s worst ever-maritime disaster claiming over 4000 lives in just 20 minutes but now researchers are trying to discover what happened to one Bolton victim of the tragedy after his medals and commemorative scroll were discovered in Scotland.
The troopship Lancastria, a former Cunard liner, was helping to evacuate the remainder of the British Expeditionary Force from France in June 1940 when she came under attack by German bombers and was sunk 9 miles off the French coastal town of St. Nazaire. The loss of life turned out to be the highest single sacrifice of British troops in the whole of World War 2, claiming more victims than the Titanic and Lusitania disasters combined. Prime Minister Winston Churchill banned all news coverage of it for fear it would undermine the public’s morale.
Now researchers are looking to track down details of one Bolton victim of the tragedy after his war medals and a scroll, commemorating his death and awarded to his family after the war, were discovered in Scotland.
44-year-old Joseph Heath Sherlock was serving with the Royal Army Service Corps when he boarded the Lancastria on the 17th June 1940. Like most of the men they hoped the 16,424-ton liner was going to take them home to comparative safety, but it was not to be.
Hundreds of different units had started to board the ship from early morning after the Captain had been ordered to load “as many men as possible without regard to the limits set down under international law”. For the majority of the 6000+ troops who boarded on that summers day it was to prove a fateful decision.
It is not known when Private Sherlock’s company boarded Lancastria, but researchers believe it is likely that he did so in the morning and that his unit were sent below into the depths of the vessel. Grandson of a survivor of the sinking and the researcher who rediscovered Sherlock’s medals, Mark Hirst said:
“It is very probable that Private Sherlock’s unit embarked around early morning and were ordered below decks like hundreds of others. The Royal Army Service Corps, the regiment to which Sherlock belonged, suffered particularly big losses that day, due in large part to the fact that so many of them were below decks when the attack came. Lancastria sank in just 20 minutes and eyewitness accounts speak of the sheer horror and terror which was taking place as first fire, then sea rushed in and claimed literally thousands of victims.”
Mr Hirst, who is also Secretary of the Lancastria Archive says the search to find more about Private Sherlock is important as it helps keep the memory of the sacrifice alive and brings it to a wider public that know little or nothing of the loss of Lancastria. He added:
“Our members come from across the UK and from virtually every corner of the world. I find it incredible that after 66 years there are still relatives and survivors coming forward to tell their stories or simply to learn more about how their brother, son or father was lost.
“I recently acquired Private Sherlock’s medals and scroll in an online auction and the seller had no connection to the victim. The only clues we have from the Commonwealth War Graves list is that he was born and resided in Bolton. His surname is relatively common in this part of the world but it would be great to know more about this particular victim.”
Private Sherlock’s body was never found and is believed to rest to this day aboard the Lancastria.
The Lancastria Archive are presently campaigning to have the wreck site designated an official maritime war grave under the Protection of Military Remains Act, but so far Government officials have not been persuaded, claiming such a move would bring “undue attention” to the wreck. Campaigners have however started a petition which has already attracted several thousand signatures and which they plan to hand in to Downing Street next year. Readers can sign the petition electronically by visiting the Association’s official website at: www.lancastria.org.uk