This 17,000 ton ship was launched as the “Tyrrhenia” by the Cunard Steamship Company in May 1920, then renamed “Lancastria” in 1924 after conversion to a cruise liner. However, my story begins early in 1940 when I joined the Lancastria at the start of its wartime service as a troopship. During the months up to June we played our part carrying troops between Glasgow and Iceland, thence on to Narvic (Norway) for that evacuation. In the first days of June we returned to Liverpool for conversion into a hospital ship, during which time the crew were given leave in two divisions.
Those on leave, Saturday 15th June, were suddenly recalled to the ship (immediately) and told to prepare for sailing on the next full tide in approximately four hours time. The following morning we arrived at Plymouth and there re-ordered to proceed immediately to sea – destination unknown -just follow that ship, which was a destroyer. During the next few hours we were joined by our sister ship the Franconia and the Oronsay. By this time our landfall was to be France and our objective to evacuate as many forces’ personnel and civilians as possible with all speed. Our final destination turned out to be St. Nazaire. To those services’ personnel, our arrival was a feeling of joy and relief, for the majority were the vanguard of those left behind at Dunkirk. At last they were making their way home -back to Blighty! No wonder some of them actually kissed the ship’s deck for they were full of emotion. To them it was ‘Home’.
From early morning on Monday 17th June, embarkation took place whilst the ship lay anchored at St. Nazaire on that glorious summers day. Little did anyone envisage the tremendous tragedy that was about to unfold and for many, relief and joy turn to horror – recalling once more their suffering at Dunkirk. I was below deck and at 2.45p.m. heard a thud, thud, thud as three German bombs hit the ship. How ironic, that just as they were feeling safe after all they had been through, so many suffered such horrible deaths by drowning, burning or fatal wounds.
For fifty eight years the true story of the Lancastria has been more or less a state secret and the actual number of lives lost has never been made public. Over the years various figures have been quoted but none equate to the actual number. In fact, I personally have only ever met two survivors of the ship’s crew which numbered 900. In all these years there has been little news or mention of this tragedy – the greatest maritime disaster of all time. Although much has been made of the sinking of the Titanic – a tragedy in its own right — by the media and film industry, it bears no comparison to the sinking of the Lancastria in which, it can now be reported, that well over 5000 souls were lost.
Thursday 1st October 1998 saw a fitting climax to this saga and to all members of the Merchant Navy who served throughout World War Two. This was the Inauguration Ceremony of “The Merchant Navy Convoy” on the National Forest site at Alrewas, where a tree representing every ship sunk during the war years has been planted – a total of 2,535 in all. The service was attended by almost 1,500 people including Coastguards. Fishermen, Merchant Navy Personnel, various army regiments (particularly local ones) and survivors and families of the Lancastria.