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Contents

Lancastria lunch menu – 17th June 1940


H.M.T. Lancastria

Monday, June 17, 1940

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L U N C H E O N

Hors d’2 uvre, varie

Consomme Massena Thick Ox Tail Soup

Fried Fillet of Cod, Colbert

(Cold) Crab Salad, Mayonnaise

Macaroni au Gratin

Saute of Ox Tail, Nohant

To Order from the Grill:

Minute Steak, Maitre d’Hotel

Boiled Knuckle of Veal and Bacon, Parsley Sauce

Green Lima Beans

Baked Jacket and Mashed Potatoes

Cold Buffet:

Brawn Luncheon Sausage Ox Tongue

Roast Beef Roast Lamb

Lettuce Tomatoes Beetroot

Rusk Pudding Apricot Flan

Ice Cream and Wafers

Cheese Biscuits Coffee

KG30 – The Bombers


Kampf Geschweder 30

KG30

The Luftwaffe Unit responsible for sinking the Lancastria

The flight of Junkers 88 (A-4) bombers of One Kampf Geschweder 30 unit had already left their base in Amsterdam-Schiphol aerodrome, in occupied Holland on their way to attack targets of opportunity from the retreating Allied armies. The unit, known as the Umbrella Geschweder because of their distinctive crest, specialised in anti-shipping operations.

I / KG 30 had already seen action early in September 1939 where it attacked targets in Scotland, specifically the Orkney Islands which were regarded by the British as a major strategic naval base in the North Atlantic and home to the High Seas Fleet. Three of KG30’s aircraft were lost within a month due to the heavy defences in around the natural harbour at Scapa Flow. KG30 also suffered the first Luftwaffe loss of the war after one of their JU88s was shot down during an attack on the Forth Rail Bridge, north of Edinburgh.

Meanwhile the bombers headed South West on that warm summers day in June 1940. As they flew over France they could see Paris in the distance out their port windows. Five days later Adolf Hitler would visit Paris, touring the near empty streets, before ending up at the Eiffel Tower.

It is unclear whether this flight of bombers had been notified by earlier air patrols that two large liners were embarking troops in the Carpenter Sea Roads leading into St. Nazaire. Earlier that day another troop transport had arrived around eight in the morning. Like the Lancastria it too began loading men and refugees. The 20,000 ton Orient liner, the Oronsay, had been built on the Clyde in 1925. Now the vessel lay anchored less than half a mile from the Lancastria. At 1.48pm it came under attack.

A stick of four bombs were dropped around the ship. One of them made a direct hit on the ship’s bridge, wrecking the wheelhouse and destroying the navigational charts. Debris fragments shot out towards the Lancastria.

Men aboard Lancastria witnessed the attack and some decided that things might be healthier topside and so progressed towards the stairs, against orders. Like many soldiers many men had grabbed lifejackets believing that they would make good pillows for the long trip to the English coast. Some men from 663 company, Royal Engineers had managed to get themselves towards the fore deck of the ship next to the main hatches of numbers one and two holds.

The Bridge of the Oronsay was smashed and broken following the attack. The crew quickly got to work setting up the auxiliary steering. She was taking on water but the pumps were managing to cope. The explosion had destroyed the Oronsay’s Chart Room and it would take all of the Captain’s guile and skill to get the liner back to Plymouth. With the ship’s compass gone he eventually used an old hand compass to navigate home.

The Luftwaffe had concentrated its efforts on attacking the Oronsay, possibly because it had two funnels and not one single funnel like the Lancastria. Grattidge was quietly relieved that in comparison the Oronsay looked the more juicer of the two shipping targets to the German bombers. That relief would be short-lived.

At approximately 3.45 in the afternoon the sirens at the harbour in St. Nazaire sounded the alarm once more. On board Lancastria the crew blew whistles on the decks and below the electric gongs warned of the approaching enemy aircraft. The patchy cloud which had appeared overhead gave some cover to the attackers. Grattidge had just retired to his cabin. He was exhausted and desperate to sleep, but sleep would not come.

Above two bombers were beginning their attack, swooping down from around 3,000 feet and coming in at low-level. The first of the Junkers 88s passed diagonally from Port to Starboard about 150 feet in front of Lancastria’s bow and heading once again for the Oronsay.

Every available gun was firing away at it. Travelling at around 270 mph it made a very difficult target. It had a maximum bomb load of 6,614lb (3000kg). Its crew of five were tightly packed together knowing that in an instant they could be shot down by the barrage of metal which was being fired at them. The bombs were released missing both ships and sending huge flumes of water and vapour hundreds of feet into the sky.

The second bomber, the aircraft which was to sink the Lancastria, began its attack from approximately a South Westerly direction. Many eyes were still on the first aircraft as it banked steeply away and climbed out of danger. As the second Junkers 88 lined itself up for the attack the pilot and bombardier must have seen the decks were packed tight with troops. Thick black smoke from Lancastria’s funnel was trailing back some distance over her stern. Captain Sharp had given the order for the liner to be fully steamed and ready to go as soon as they received the signal.

Bren gunners were firing continually as the aircraft swung down over the stern. Some on board could see the Nazi insignia on the underbelly and then click. Four 500-kg bombs were released almost simultaneously. The Junkers had passed completely overhead by the time the bombs struck the Lancastria. One appeared to (but did not) go down the single funnel. Two of the bombs struck separately in Number 3 and Number 2 holds blowing the steel and wooden plated hatch covers, which were half the size of a tennis court, completely off. The fourth bomb landed in the water on the Port side but ruptured the plates, letting in many thousands of gallons of seawater.

The Junkers of Kampf Geschweder I/30 swooped away unsure whether they had done enough to sink the liner. A second wave of bombers was on its way, loaded with incendiary bombs. It is unclear whether these aircraft were from the same unit. What is clear now is that as the 16,000-ton ship began keeling over onto its portside the aircraft which had dropped the fatal bombs came sweeping in again strafing survivors, and soon to become victims, of the sinking troopship.

The aircraft’s gunner and engineer would have been behind the two MG81 machine guns firing 7.92mm rounds into the Lancastria. They would have known that the ship was finished, but continued firing. When the second wave of bombers approached loaded with incendiaries they immediately attempted to light the oil which was spewing out of Lancastria’s ruptured oil-fuel tanks. Lancastria was carrying around 1,400 tons of oil when she was hit; this was now posing a great risk to those survivors who were now struggling in the sea and in the few lifeboats which had managed to get away.

Thankfully most of the incendiaries which were dropped did not ignite the free-flowing oil. Because of the exceptionally low altitude which the bombers were coming in, the fuses had not been set properly to allow the bombs to be fully primed by the time they hit the water. It was not a mistake which the technicians who had armed the more conventional, high-explosive bombs which had hit the Lancastria had made.

Nonetheless the psychological affect on those survivors who witnessed this attack and who had been so ruthlessly targeted was severe and one which they would never forget nor forgive. Finally the skies fell silent and the Germans did not return again until night.

The Carpenter Sea Roads lay still. Thick oil, wreckage, dead fish, broken men and thousands of dead and dying troops floated on the surface.

 

Satellite image of Loire estuary

Satellite image of Loire estuary

 

The loss of life was overwhelming and ultimately the final death toll will never be fully known. What is known is that at least 36% of all BEF troops killed in action between September 1939 and June 1940 were lost during the sinking of the Lancastria. The death toll was at least twice that of the entire losses inflicted upon the BEF during the ten-day evacuation of Dunkirk.

According to German air station reports prepared by the Luftwaffe Operations Staff, 8 transports and one tanker were sunk that day. Four transports had been damaged. An estimated 91,000 tons of shipping had been sunk and 68,000 tons damaged.

None of the ships were named, but one report claimed to have sunk a troop ship estimated at 30,000 tons and described as a “fully loaded transport”. This, presumably, was the Lancastria.

That night Lord “Haw Haw” broadcast news that the Lancastria had been sunk. He had done this several times before and although it is unlikely that he would have known it, this time he was right.

Update:

There has continued to be much debate over exactly which unit sank Lancastria. Recently author Brian Crabb inferred that II/KG30 sank Lancastria in his book “The Forgotten Tragedy”. Interestingly however he wrote that as Junkers from II/KG30 approached and circled the Loire estuary where Lancastria was located a Junkers 88 “from another Gruppe of KG30 was shot down”. Certainly the Germans did not know that they had sunk Lancastria or air operations records would have reflected this. Is it possible that the KG30 Junkers 88 which Peter Stahl of II/KG30 saw was responsible for the attack on Lancastria?

Many survivors claim that Dornier 17’s were responsible or even Heinkel 111s. Some other survivors and authors claim that Junkers 87 Stukas were responsible, although the mode of attack swooping from bow to stern rather than the classical dive bombing technique of the Stuka rule this out, not to mention the fact that Stukas were not operational in the Loire area until the 23rd of June.

What is likely is that the pilot responsible for sinking Lancastria did not survive the war, such were the losses of the Luftwaffe from 1940 onwards.

Update 2

Below is the official German air operations summary for 17th June 1940 related to the action KG30 pilots were involved in. It indicates that KG30, Group IV carried out the attack. The summary also indicates that several of KG30’s pilots claimed to have hit and sunk shipping in the Loire that day, but clearly they are referring to the Lancastria, the only vessel in the vicinity at that time to have been sunk. It demonstrates that the accuracy of reports from pilots in action was subject to much variation and very much open to question. A translation of this report is noted at the bottom.

German_airforce_operations_report_18th_june_1940

73 Squadron take on KG30


Sgt. Alexander McNay, Flt Lt. Reg Lovett and Sgt John Brimble of 73 Squadron show off their trophies - the distinctive umbrella crest plate from the Ju 88 of 1/KG30 shot down near Bridlington. All three pilots would be dead within a month of this picture being taken.

Sgt. Alexander McNay, Flt Lt. Reg Lovett and Sgt John Brimble of 73 Squadron show off their trophies – the distinctive umbrella crest plate from the Ju 88 of 1/KG30 shot down near Bridlington. All three pilots would be dead within a month of this picture being taken.

Ground crew from 73 Squadron had been packed into Number 2 hold. Among the first to board they had been sent into the spacious but dark forward hold.

As Lancastria was hit one of the 500kg bombs smashed through the main hatch and exploded among the 800+ RAF personnel who had billeted themselves there. Most would not have had any conscious thought of what had happened.

Aircraft from 73 Squadron did appear on the scene later, but too late to affect any damage on the enemy bombers although one lone French Hurricane was seen. 73 Squadron’s Operations Record Book reported:

“Patrol off St. Nazaire of other section – time 1.40pm no enemy aircraft. 16.30 patrol over St. Nazaire, a ship was seen to be sinking, Lancastria. Enemy aircraft had disappeared before our aircraft went on patrol. Duration of patrol 1 hour 40 minutes.”

Two months later however as Kamf Geschweder 30 attacked airfields during the Battle of Britain, fighters from 73 Squadron finally met up with them. On the 15th of August 1940 a Junkers 88 from Kampf Geschweder I/30 which was known as the Umbrella Geschweder because of its distinctive crest, was shot down near Bridlington. The RAF pilots did not know at that point that the bomber had been from the same unit responsible for bombing the Lancastria and killing hundreds of ground crew from their Squadron

Lancastria’s Funnel


Did a bomb go down the funnel of Lancastria? The evidence suggests not.

Many eyewitnesses have claimed that during the attack on the Lancastria they saw one of the bombs going directly down the funnel. It is clear however that this did not happen.

Frank Brogden a member of Lancastria’s crew was an engineering officer at the time of the sinking. In his account of the sinking he dismisses the recurring claim that one of the four bombs dropped, went down the funnel. According to Brogden if this had happened the explosion would have destroyed the boiler room and engine room platform, immediately below the single funnel.

As he was standing on the engine room platform at the time the ship was hit he is perhaps best placed of all to discount the numerous witness accounts which claim that they had seen the bomb go down the funnel.

There is also the more technical issue of being able to drop a 500kg bomb directly down the funnel. Considering the Ju 88 was travelling at over 200 miles per hour and given the trajectory of the bombs as they fell, together with the sloping design of the funnel, even if the bomb had entered the upper portion of the funnel it would have almost certainly smashed through the relatively thin metal casing and ended up on the roof of the staircase housing, immediately in front of the funnel on the boat deck.

So why should so many of the survivors claim to have seen this? There are a number of possibilities. Firstly, many of the survivor accounts which state that this is what happened, if read carefully, do not actually claim that they witnessed it.

Only a Stuka dive bomber would have been able to drop a bomb vertically down the funnel of Lancastria, but Stuka’s were not responsible for the attack that day.
It is also possible, depending on exactly where survivors were located on the ship, that the bomb did appear to enter the funnel. Given the confusion at the time, the noise of many guns firing away at the attackers combined with the fact that the funnel was, for the most part, obscured by thick black smoke due to Captain Sharp’s order to have the liner ready with “steam up”, may well have led to many thinking that they saw the bomb enter the funnel.

It is more likely that this bomb actually fell very close to the funnel and entered hold number 4 immediately behind the bridge. It is likely that the Ju 88 of KG30, the unit which bombed Lancastria and who specialised in anti-shipping operations, were at least hoping to disable the ship by destroying the bridge as they had done with the Oronsay earlier that day. The other bombs landed in Number 2 hold, Number 3 hold and a fourth in the water on the Portside. This last bomb caused severe underwater damage and water could be seen flooding into a hole torn in the side of the vessel.

Interestingly both Captain Sharp and Chief Officer Grattidge have stated in their accounts of the sinking that the bomb went down the funnel despite the fact that neither was on the bridge at the time of the attack. This was not unusual in itself given that both men had been on duty during the overnight sailing down from Brest, however it does highlight the difficulty of accurately disseminating information from individuals who could be reasonably described as expert witnesses.

Immediately after the attack Grattidge heard crew on the bridge calling down to the engine room, but communications had been severed and this, together with misleading eyewitness accounts probably led both Sharp and Grattidge to presume that the engine room had suffered a direct hit. All of the crew in the engine room, situated two-thirds of the way down in the ship, escaped via an engineering duct which ran all the way up to the main deck of the ship.

The official report into the sinking of the Lancastria has never been located. Undoubtedly it would have some conclusions about what actually took place, who was ultimately responsible for issuing the order to disregard international law on passenger limits and why a liner of Lancastria’s size, over 16,000 tons, sunk in just 20 minutes when her bulkhead doors were meant to be closed. It had been believed that this report was held under the Official Secrets Act until 2040. However the Admiralty, Cunard, the MoD and the Official Records Office deny this, yet none are able to locate what has happened to the official report into the worst naval disaster in British history!

Harry Grattidge helped compile the Official Report into the disaster. Grattidge is categorical about the existence of such a report and in his own account published some years after the sinking he talks about meeting up with Captain Sharp in Liverpool and there “…we prepared the official report of how the Lancastria had gone to her death.” (Source “Captain of the Queens” by Harry Grattidge)

So the mystery of where that report is will remain, for the time being at least, exactly that – a mystery.

BEF Units on Lancastria


Royal Artillery:

53rd City of London Heavy AA Regiment, 153; 157;158; 159 Batteries.

12th AA Regiment.

50th AA Regiment.

73rd AA Regiment, 311 Battery.

2nd Mobile AA Regiment.

2nd Heavy AA Regiment.

37th Searchlight Regiment.
Royal Engineers:

29 Railway Survey Company.

62 Transportation Company.

156 Transportation Company.

190 Transportation Company.

7 Railway Company.

159 Railway Company.

153 Railway Operating Company.

CRE AASF (South)

CRE AASF (East)

Kent Fortress Troops.

116 Road Company

663 Artisan Works Company.

675 Artisan Works Company.

46 Field Company.

66 Field Company.

186 Field Company.

263 Field Company.

Port Operations Group.

RE HQ BEF

RE HQ Dieppe

RE Rennes Sub-Area
Royal Army Ordnance Corps:

No. 1 Base Ordnance Depot.

No. 2 Base Ordnance Depot.

No. 1 Base Workshops.

Advanced Ordnance Workshops, No. 7 Company
Royal Army Service Corps:

No. 1 Heavy Repair Section.

No. 2 Heavy Repair Section.

No. 4 Heavy Repair Section.

No. 1 Printing and Stationary Section.

No. 1 Base Supply Depot.

No. 5 Base Supply Depot.

No. 1 Field Bakery.

No. 2 Field Bakery.

Advanced Stationary Unit.

No. 2 (Rear) Motor Transport Company.

527 Company, attached 51st Highland Division.

RASC, Attached HQ BEF

RASC, Attached HQ Lines of Communication.

EFI AASF
Royal Armoured Corps:

No.1 Base Depot.

No. 2 Base Depot.

HQ, 7th Battalion.
Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps:

Companies numbered: 12,13,18, 26, 28, 39, 43, 46, 50, 53, 56, 61, 62, 67, 73, 75, 82, 93, 104, 106, 108, 113, 115, 150, 208, 233.

Base Depot Staff.

HQ Labour Control.

No. 1 Mauritius Company.
Infantry:

Sherwood Foresters 2nd and 5th Battalions.

Royal East Kent Regiment (The Buffs), 4th and 5th Battalions.

Fife and Forth Yeomanry, attached 51st Highland Division.

6th Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

Royal Welsh Fusiliers.

Cheshire Regiment, 7th Battalion.

No. 1 Infantry Brigade Depot.

No. 1 GB Depot.

Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.

Essex Surrey Regiment.
Royal Air Force:

HQ, British Air Forces France.

67 Wing.

70 Wing.

73 Squadron.

98 Squadron.

No. 2 Air Mission.

‘D’ Squadron.
Other Army Units:

Town Mayor’s Staff, Dieppe.

Sub-Area Staff, Dieppe.

Sub-Area Staff, Nantes.

RAMC Staff, Dieppe Sub-Area.

101 Transportation Control.

MPSC

Army Pay Corps, HQ BEF.

Army Pay Corps, Command Pay Office
Non-Military Bodies:

Church Army.

Salvation Army.

YMCA.
Civilians:

About 38 known civilians were believed to be aboard, 18 of whom were employees of the Fairey Aviation Company (Belgium).

Lifeboats found?


The first lifeboat

The first lifeboat

In June 1990 an article appeared in the Sunday Telegraph that indicated that one of Lancastria’s lifeboats did actually make it back. Survivor Norman Diver who went to check out the story was left in little doubt that the large beached boat at Walney Island off Barrow-in-Furness was from the Lancastria.

Examining the pink, bleached hull, which was intact except for a hole in its side, Norman Diver insisted “It’s from the Lancastria. There’s no doubt about it.” Norman had travelled from his home in Totington, Greater Manchester. It’s built the same way as those on the ship and has ’99’ carved on it – the number of men it could carry.”

The Lancastria had 32 lifeboats, each about 30 ft long. Author John West agreed with Mr Diver that the lifeboat at North Scale, Walney Island, was from the Lancastria. Mr John Littlewood who intended turning it into a houseboat rescued it around 1960 from a Barrow scrap yard.

One of Mr Littlewood’s friends, David Pollock said: “on its bow at one time was the inscription ‘Lancastria 99 men’.”

Recently Mark Hirst contacted Mr Pollock who still lives in Walney Island he said that the lifeboat was left at the bottom of the village, just up from the beach. It was in a poor state of repair with only the gunnels and outer skin left. The lifeboat had originally been double skinned.

Mr Pollock confirmed that Mr Littlewood, the owner of the lifeboat, had intended to transform the vessel into a houseboat, but it proved too big a job for him and after his death no more work was done on the boat. He also understood from Mr Littlewood that for a short time the lifeboat had been used on a smaller ship before ending up in the scrap yard in Barrow.

The second lifeboat

The second lifeboat

On the 11th of May 2001, Mark Hirst travelled down to North Scale, Walney Island to see the lifeboat for himself. His father, John, joined him for the 300 miles round trip. As they drove up towards the village of North Scale, they could see from the road a white and quite dilapidated boat shell, laid-up at the top of the beech near to the road.

The boat, which had obviously been there for some time was being used as a makeshift skip with empty gas bottles and old guard railings thrown inside.

No distinguishing marks were visible anywhere on the hull. The boat was of clinker construction with the outer boards running horizontally along its length. The rudder showed signs of major damage and generally the vessel was in a poor state of repair with numerous small holes along the rotting wooden sides. Two wooden posts were positioned near to both stern and bow and its possible that these would have been originally attached to the rigging of the davits.

After taking some photographs of the vessel Mark spoke with a man who was about to take his own boat out for a spot of fishing. He asked him if he knew anything about the vessel. He said he knew the owner, a David Douglas, and that he was intending to break up the remains of the boat over the next few months as it was beyond repair. Mark asked if it was a lifeboat from the Lancastria, which the fisherman confirmed. When Mark mentioned that John Littlewood had been the owner, the gentleman denied this and said that

Littlewood did have an old lifeboat which had come off a dredger, but it was up at the top end of the village.

Around 60% of the boat was completely missing but the stern section was largely intact. The outer skin construction of the boat was unknown to them but certainly not clinker built. The outer planks ran vertically down at the stern. Rusty rope rings were still hanging at regular intervals along the side and large metal rolex could still be seen. This vessel, at one time, had been a far more substantial boat although it had clearly taken a battering over the years.

Another man working on his yacht, alongside the wreck, confirmed that it had once belonged to John Littlewood and since his death the boat had been left to fall into its current state.

At the time and considering the evidence available it did seem likely that this was indeed what remained of a lifeboat from Lancastria. The survivor statements in the 1990 Sunday Telegraph article, the claim by David Pollock, Littlewood’s friend that originally the boat had the name “Lancastria” on her side and the high quality construction, all pointed to the fact that the second lifeboat they saw had come from the Lancastria.

However once Mark compared the still images with original photographs of Lancastria’s lifeboats it became apparent that the second boat did not fit the construction type of Lancastria’s lifeboats which were clearly of clinker construction.

Mark then went back to the first lifeboat and using Imaging Software superimposed a close-up of the bow with a photograph of one of Lancastria’s original lifeboats. They matched.

So now they had two lifeboats with a Lancastria connection. Serious doubts now began to be raised as to how the eyewitnesses could be so wrong. It is possible that when those Lancastria survivors visited North Scale in 1990 and came across the first lifeboat, visible from the road, they mistakenly thought it belonged to Littlewood, but convinced by the design and colour of the vessel were able to give a ‘positive identification’.

It is also possible that the unnamed gentleman with whom Mark spoke to next to the first boat was mistaken as to the ownership and its origin. There is even a possibility that neither of the boats at North Scale came from the Lancastria.

There are also questions about how the lifeboat would have made it back after the sinking. According to Captain Sharp only five or so lifeboats were successfully lowered before the Lancastria sunk. Once the men inside these had been disembarked on to larger vessels such as the Oronsay what would have happened to the empty lifeboats? Would they simply have let them float away?

After the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912, the Carpathia, the liner which picked up most of the survivors, strapped the empty lifeboats to her side before heading for New York. It does seem logical that once the Lancastria’s lifeboats were emptied following the sinking, that some attempt would be made to secure the boats to the larger vessel, particularly in the case of the Oronsay which, like Lancastria, was heavily overloaded.

a_barrow_lifeboat

The second lifeboat shows its age, this picture was taken in 2005

There are gaps in the story of the lifeboat, or boats, at North Scale. According to Littlewood’s account he picked them up around 1960 at a scrap yard in Barrow. So where was the boat from 1940 to 1960? The second boat fits the description given in the Telegraph article, however the construction does not match the design of any of the lifeboats from the historical photographic archives. The second lifeboat was identified as once belonging to Littlewood by the yachtsman Mark spoke with.

Lack of any kind of identifying marks on either lifeboat leaves a certain degree of doubt.

If one of Lancastria’s lifeboats does actually exist at North Scale then it is likely to be the first of the two boats examined.

In any event the mystery may never be solved. Weathering and tide are gradually reducing the second lifeboat to a few unidentifiable pieces of timber and the first lifeboat, the most likely of the two, is to be broken up by its owner later this year.

Lancastria, it seems, does not give up its secrets easily.

UPDATE:

Speculation about the origins of a wrecked lifeboat at Barrow-In-Furness continues.

A visitor to this website who lives in Cumbria contacted the Association, initially with doubts over whether the lifeboat wreck was from the Lancastria. Brian Singleton initially contacted Mark Hirst to say that the boats came from the breaker’s Barrow facility in the early 1950s by Thomas Ward the well known shipbreakers. It was thought at first they came from the SS Duke of Lancaster. Brian’s brother spoke to the man who bought the second of these boats which he converted to a cabin cruiser which is thought still to be in use.

The lifeboat at North Scale is now showing its age after years of neglect.

The second boat now rests at North Scale and is the one seen in the photographs.

Brian said: “According to the local part time coast guard at Walney, Brian Person, the lifeboat at North Scale did come off a ship broken up at Wards in the early 50s, but the lifeboat itself had originally come from the Lancastria and still carried the name.

“Apparently during the war years it was common practice to fit different ships with additional lifeboats from ships that had been sunk in action. The coastguard also said that a piece of wood from this lifeboat was to sent to Australia to be presented to a survivor of the Lancastria and due to the strict Australian quarantine rules on plant and fruit it had to get special permission to be imported! Due to the historical significance however permission was finally granted.

Lifeboat drill aboard Lancastria. This rare photograph shows Lancastria crewmen preparing for the worst. On the 17th of June 1940 less 10 of Lancastria's 32 lifeboats got away in time according to Captain Sharp.

Lifeboat drill aboard Lancastria. This rare photograph shows Lancastria crewmen preparing for the worst. On the 17th of June 1940 less 10 of Lancastria’s 32 lifeboats got away in time according to Captain Sharp.

“The other lifeboat which was converted is no longer in Barrow. It was purchased by a buyer from elsewhere. Its name was the “Largo” and it was bought in the 1980s.”

Certainly this does seem to fit with the local news story but the evidence, limited though it is, suggests this lifeboat could indeed be from the Lancastria.

Book Reviews


THE FORGOTTEN TRAGEDY

The story of the sinking of HMT Lancastria, by Brian Crabb – 2003

You can obtain copies of this book and contact Brian direct by visiting his website http://briancrabbmaritimebooks.co.uk/

Brian also has a large library of photographs of headstones of Lancastria victims which you can obtain from him on request.

Review by John Armstrong, Thames Valley University

This well-illustrated volume is not aimed at an academic readership but rather at the survivors of this tragedy, their families and friends, and the relations of the many who perished when this liner was sunk. Thus it is a form of memorial to that loss and a labour of love on the part of the author, who had no direct or indirect involvement in the incident, but became determined to tell the story of the disaster.

The story is soon told. In June 1940, as part of the withdrawal from France in the face of the invading German army, the Cunard White Star liner, Lancastria was sent to Charpentier Roads, just outside the port of St Nazaire, to embark soldiers and airmen and bring them back to Britain. While anchored there and virtually fully laden with troops a German JU88 bomber scored several hits on the Lancastria, including one bomb down the funnel and a couple in the holds. As a result the liner rolled over onto her port side and sank in about twenty minutes. The precise number who died cannot be known. The ship was carrying about 6000 people and at least 2000 are known to have perished, but given the circumstances accuracy is impossible. What is certain is that this incident rates as the worst ever maritime disaster to take place to a British merchant ship in the Second World War, indeed ‘the worst disaster in Britain’s maritime history’.

This tragedy has never been written up properly and Crabb’s book although not the first volume devoted to this topic is the most comprehensive. It is a combination of narrative from the author and statements from the survivors, some of which have appeared in print before, but this is the first time that all the data has been gathered together in one place. The book, as befits a tribute to the memory of heroism and courage as well as disaster, has a roll of honour of all those who are known to have lost their lives in the calamity, a listing of all honours awarded as a result of the incident, the captain’s career details, newspaper reports, and even a menu of the lunch that day, which seems quite out of place. There is an impressive bibliography of both manuscript sources from the PRO, Guildhall Library and other sources, and also a list of relevant published works. There are full picture credits, but no referencing system to show where the quotes and precis come from, which detracts from its academic value.

The book is very successful, in that it achieves what it set out to do, namely to provide in one volume all that is recorded and remembered about this terrible loss. Its target audience should be pleased with its comprehensiveness, sensitivity, and attention to detail. It is a fitting memorial to those who lost their lives and testimony to the acts of bravery, defiance and endurance which occurred. The eye-witness and participant statements give the text an immediacy and vividness.

It is also important to stress that although this was the worst disaster to occur to a British merchant ship in the Second World War, it was not the worst of the war. That unhappy distinction goes to a number of German ships which were sunk in 1945, sustaining casualty figures two or three times those of the Lancastria. These tragedies included the loss of the Goya, Cap Arcona and Wilhelm Gustloff. Crabb acknowledges these in an appendix but it might have been stressed in the text itself. It, of course, in no way lessens the tragedy, but puts this case study in a wider context.

Are there other wider lessons to be learnt from this event? The glaring one is how vulnerable ships were to air attack and how essential it was to have air cover. The second is the need for easily launched rafts and adequate numbers of life-belts or jackets and the third was the danger involved with carrying large quantities of fuel oil. Nothing could be done about any of these in the short run and, given the speed and magnitude of the German attack, risks were taken to bring the British troops home.

Webmaster review:

Brian Crabb’s book will undoubtedly prove to be the seminal and definitive story of the sinking of the Lancastria. The research and work which Brian has put into this book can be seen on every page. The Forgotten Tragedy tells the full story of the Lancastria and is the perfect starting point for anyone wishing to know all of the aspects to this horrific disaster. As a historical resource it is truly immeasurable and contains for the first time a full list of all those victims known to have been aboard Lancastria on the 17th of June 1940.

If you only ever read one book about the Lancastria, make sure you read this one. – Mark Hirst

 


Other recent titles by naval historian Brian Crabb

 

BEYOND THE CALL OF DUTY
The loss of British Commonwealth mercantile and service women
at sea during the Second World War
by Brian James Crabb

Review by Simon Harding Western Daily Press, July 2006


Bristol garage-owner and naval historian extraordinaire Crabb has carved a unique career documenting some of the forgotten tragedies of World War II at sea. His definitive work on the SS Khedive Ismail opened a whole new subject for him – the role of the many brave women who put to sea alongside male colleagues and ran the gauntlet of U-boat and air attacks.
Hours after Britain and France had declared war on Germany , the Donaldson liner Athenia was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat in the Atlantic with the loss of four stewardesses (Simon had put men!)
Although the book is truly massive in scope, and the appendices apparently endless, it is never dull and the all-too human detail is at times frightenly imaginable – for instance, out hearts go out to the plight of the poor woman dragged into a lifeboat after one merchant ship sank to find that all four of her children were missing.
In fact, it is the suffering of the youngsters who occasionally found themselves adrift for days or even weeks, that stand out like beacons in the relentless descriptions of bombings and sinkings.
A fascinating and worthy tribute, filled with Crabb’s trademark eye for human tenderness and the will to survive at all costs.

Click here for more titles from Brian Crabb and information on how to order your copy


 

THE SINKING OF THE LANCASTRIA
Britain’s Greatest Maritime Disaster and Churchill’s Cover-Up
by Jonathan Fenby
Published by Simon and Schuster UK Ltd May 2005, £14.99 in hardback – paperback out soon
A superbly gripping re-creation of the greatest maritime disaster in British history: the sinking of the Lancastria during the fall of France in 1940.
The sinking of the Lancastria led to the greatest loss of life in British maritime history –
yet because of the government cover-up ordered by Churchill himself, the disaster it is a story that has never been properly told
· To put the scale of the tragedy in to perspective, more people died on the Lancastria than on the Titanic and the Lusitania combined
· Publishing in May, The Sinking of the Lancastria will commemorate the 65th anniversary of the 17th June 1940 tragedy
· The book also brilliantly describes the amazing chaos and panic of the days after Dunkirk – when around 150,000 British troops were still in France
A fortnight after the evacuation at Dunkirk some 150,000 British troops were still stuck in France. As the German advance thundered west these Allied soldiers and airmen were faced with a mad dash to the coast in the hope that a troopship awaited them there. One such vessel was the Lancastria, a 16,000-ton liner pressed into service and now anchored off the port of St-Nazaire. On the 17th June 1940, ready to head for home, the ship was bombed by the Luftwaffe. As she sank, between 3,500 and 4,000 of those on board lost their lives.
Re-creating this extraordinary episode with great narrative flair, Jonathan Fenby shows us not just the human stories behind the disaster but the cover-up that followed – as Churchill ordered a blanket ban on news stories for the sake of the country’s morale.
Gripping and moving, LANCASTRIA tells one of the great forgotten stories of the Second World War.
Jonathan Fenby is a former editor of the OBSERVER and of the SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST. He is the author of several books including the acclaimed ON THE BRINK: THE TROUBLE WITH FRANCE and GENERALISSIMO: CHIANG KAI-SHEK AND THE CHINA HE LOST.
For further information please contact Digby Halsby
on 020 7316 1981 or email
Digby.Halsby@simonandschuster.co.uk


Bond, G., LANCASTRIA, Oldbourne, 1959.
Arguably one of the most detailed written accounts published and the first book ever published on the subject.

 

This book which is now sadly well out of print, comprises of numerous individual accounts which have been seamlessly weaved together by the book’s author Geoffrey Bond.

 

The book also contains a large number of photographs. Well worth checking out the library archive to see if they have a copy gathering dust, where some have been known to rest undisturbed for decades.


 

Grattidge, H., CAPTAIN OF THE QUEENS, Oldbourne, 1951
This is a very personal account of a sailor’s life by the former Chief Officer of the Lancastria, Harry Grattidge.

 

Numerous references to the Lancastria throughout the book give an indication of the impact on Grattidge who went on to become Captain of the Queen Mary and finally the most senior position within the Company as Commodore of Cunard. This book is also sadly long out of print.


West, J.L., THE LOSS OF THE LANCASTRIA, Millgate, 1988
A collection of predominantly survivor accounts. The book is worth reading although numerous typographical errors do make it hard going at times. Copies regularly appear at reduced rate on Amazon and other book sellers.


 

Boutin, E., Les Grand Naufrages de l’estuary (The great disasters of the estuary [Loire]) ISBN 2-907967-92-4 – 1992

Fascinating and insightful. Emile Boutin’s account of the sinking, written in French of course, includes a number of survivor accounts and a significant number of accounts written by the skippers of the French rescue craft which took part in the operation to save survivors and recover victims. Well worth a read if you get the chance.

Emile is one of the region’s most celebrated authors and historians with a range of books under his belt. His research has been meticulous and his contribution significant to better understanding this period of history.

 


 

Perruchon, J., Juin 1940 – Sur les Cotes charentaises, 2005

A very interesting French account of the retreat through France by the British Army which also chronicles the cemeteries around the coast which hold victims of Lancastria.

 


Clarke, C., HMT LANCASTRIA NARRATIVES, 1998
There are now two sets of survivor and eyewitness narratives which have been put painstakingly together by Colin Clarke.

 

These accounts give a very good impression of the events of 17th June and are an ideal primary source of information for anyone wishing to research the story further.


 

Johnston, Ian, BEARDMORE BUILT, Clydebank District Libraries and Museums 1993, ISBN 0 906938 08 2 – 2004
A very detailed account of the Dalmuir Yard on the River Clyde with a number of pictures of the Lancastria (then the Tyrrhenia) during her construction.

 

The book’s author appears to be unaware of what became of the Lancastria and there is no mention of the disaster. Nonetheless this book is a very good read with numerous pictures of Lancastria’s birthplace and very good close-up shots of Lancastria being fitted out.

 


Goss, C., THE LUFTWAFFE BOMBERS’, Crècy, 2000, ISBN 0 947554 82 3 – 2001
An absorbing book about Luftwaffe air operation during the early part of the war. Chris Goss, the book’s author is a serving officer with the RAF and his detailed research gives an idea of the mentality of bomber crews during that time.

 

Still in print and available.

 


 

Butler, D.A, The Age of Cunard ISBN 1-57785-348-2

They say imitation is the greatest form of flattery, so the webmaster felt very flattered when he read Daniel Butler’s account of the Lancastria sinking in this book which covers the history of Cunard. The book is endorsed by the company and covers the 160-year history of the shipping line which operated Lancastria. The webmaster bought a copy at £22 and quickly went to the section covering Lancastria only to discover that it was taken, virtually word for word, phrase for phrase from this website…! There is however one, never before published photograph of Lancastria taken in her cruising all white colours, only one of two known to have been published. The rest of the book is interesting, but if you are researching only the Lancastria, then save yourself £22 and read the original pages on this website.

Parliment Exhibition


Warning! Some of this information is outdated. We are currently going through our site and trying to update everything we can. Thanks!

Above: Footage of the Scottish Parliament hearing which considered the petition calling on MSPs to commission a commemorative Lancastria medal

“It’s a long way to Tipperary” and the Scottish Parliament it seems – Mark Hirst reviews the success of the Lancastria exhibition at Holyrood in November 2005
1000km lie between Edinburgh and the wreck of the Lancastria but at 10:30 on the 10th of November 2005 the two were connected when Yves Beaujuge, Captain of the Couronnée IV sounded the ship’s horn above the wreck of the Lancastria to mark the opening of a very special exhibition at the Scottish Parliament.
The Lancastria exhibition organised by the Association in Scotland sought to raise wider public awareness of the sacrifice aboard Lancastria on the 17th of June 1940 and bring increased focus on the issue of designation of the wreck as an official war grave, which the British government for reasons best known to themselves apparently wish to obstruct.
This was also the first in a series of events and activities which the Lancastria Archive have planned over the course of the next year and by any measure it was a huge success with positive feedback from those who attended the exhibit, many journalists and also Scottish politicians of all colours.
The exhibition consisted of a newly commissioned Lancastria banner stand, archive photographs, lists of known victims and Lancastria artefacts from before the war along with books and other material.
Fiona Symon, whose father was lost aboard Lancastria had a personal collection of photographs and letters and she was joined on the exhibit stand by John Hirst whose father Walter survived the disaster.
The French documentary “Lancastria – Histoire d’un naufrage confidential” by French film director Christophe Francois was also shown and Christophe had flown over to Scotland especially for the exhibit and allowed extracts of his film to be shown on Scottish Television, Grampian and BBC Scotland TV news bulletins which ran throughout the day.
The exhibit was also covered with bulletins on BBC Radio Scotland, GMTV news bulletins, BBC online and BBC teletext and was featured in the political round-up programme at the weekend, “The Politics Show”. The Scottish Press Association ran bulletins throughout the week and the story was featured in a number of local and national Scottish newspapers.
Kit Fraser, BBC Scotland’s Political correspondent said it had been the best-facilitated campaign story for television he had ever experienced and highlighted the need to “spread the word further”.
The Association is especially grateful to survivor Charles Napier (Ex-663 Artisan Works Company, Royal Engineers) who conducted a series of television and newspaper interviews and helped give a first hand impression of that day and the sacrifice made.

 

Members of the Association in the Chamber of the Scottish Parliament with the book of remembrance signed by MSPs, from left to right Rita and Jim Hingle, Jimmy Robertson, Fiona Symon, Christine Grahame MSP, Christophe Francois and Councillor John Mitchell.

Members of the Association in the Chamber of the Scottish Parliament with the book of remembrance signed by MSPs, from left to right Rita and Jim Hingle, Jimmy Robertson, Fiona Symon, Christine Grahame MSP, Christophe Francois and Councillor John Mitchell.

The focus of the exhibit was the Lancastria Book of Condolence which the Association had commissioned in conjunction with the Beardmore Conference Hotel in Glasgow. The Beardmore now sits on the site where Lancastria’s keel was laid on the Clyde in 1920.

The hand made leather bound book which is inscribed on the front cover in gold leaf simply reads “Lancastria – 17th June 1940”. The inside text says “In memory of the 4000 plus victims of the Clyde built Lancastria who died 17th of June 1940 – Signed by Members of the Scottish Parliament 10th November 2005. We will remember them.”
During the course of the day MSPs from all political parties including many independent members came and signed the book. These included party political leaders, Scottish Ministers of State, the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament the Rt Hon George Reid as well as his two deputies, a member of the Lords, Lord James Douglas Hamilton and many more.
Many spontaneously left personal messages along with their signature; Rosie Kane a Scottish Socialist Party MSP simply wrote “Its time for remembrance, recognition and dignity”; Fiona Hyslop of the Scottish National Party wrote “with remembrance and respect”; Labour’s Christine May wrote “Thank you for your sacrifice. We will remember you”; Holyrood’s SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon added “In memory of all who lost their lives to safeguard our way of life.” Independent MSP Dr Jean Turner wrote “They should never be forgotten” and Liberal Democrat MSP Eleanor Scott added, “Never forget the courage, the sacrifice, the lessons to be learned. May we honour their sacrifice by making a peaceful world.” Scottish Conservative leader Annabelle Goldie signed and added “In memory of the Lancastria” before revealing that her mother had been a passenger aboard Lancastria during one of the many peacetime cruises Lancastria undertook during the 1930s. Indeed Ms Goldie has said she will pass copies of photographs taken aboard Lancastria during this cruise to the Association in due course for our archives.
The Lancastria Book of Condolence will, sometime early in the New Year, be passed to the National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle where it will remain for all time.
Before that however it will be placed on public display at the National Maritime Museum at Braehead, Glasgow as part of a wider Lancastria exhibit which the Lancastria Archive has secured. The exhibit of Lancastria material will be the first ever staged by the museum. We hope to bring the exhibit to Aberdeen maritime museum in the latter part of 2006.
The week before the exhibit Christine Grahame MSP lodged another parliamentary motion at the Scottish Parliament which again sought to raise awareness of the sacrifice aboard Lancastria. It also received overwhelming cross party support.
A large number of relatives of victims and survivors travelled to Edinburgh during the course of the day. Jim and Rita Hingle travelled all the way up from West Yorkshire, whilst brother and sister Jane (Leiper) and Ernie Archibald left Aberdeenshire at 5:30am to take the arduous road and rail journey to the Holyrood complex. Granddaughters of survivor Charles Napier, who are studying in Edinburgh, also attended. Many other relatives turned up during the course of the day and a number of MSPs said it was the best-attended exhibit that had been held at the Parliament.
In the evening Christine Grahame hosted a dinner in the members restaurant at the Scottish Parliament for relatives and special guests, including the French Consul General in Scotland M. Pierre-Antoine Berniard. M Berniard has offered his assistance in pressing the case for designation of Lancastria as an official war grave by the British government.
Presently the UK Government is persisting in citing potential “diplomatic” difficulties, but this is refuted by official French government contacts the Association maintains in both France and Scotland. Documents obtained from the British Government by the Association under Freedom of Information legislation also indicate the “difficulties” are purely on the part of UK Ministers for the time being. More details on how members of the association can challenge this are available below.
All in all the exhibit was a great success and achieved what it set out to do; to increase awareness for the memory of the victims of the Lancastria who have effectively remained forgotten. All of us understand however that this is just one step in a process.
Following the publicity around the exhibition many more people have come forward with a direct connection to the Lancastria. Many others with no connection to Lancastria have been clearly touched on learning of this unknown sacrifice and want to help in pressing the case for official recognition and designation by the UK government to ensure the Lancastria is given proper acknowledgement.
Next month the Lancastria Archive will be going back to the Scottish Parliament to ensure a lasting memorial is commissioned in memory of the victims. That memorial may be in the form of a specially commissioned Lancastria medal to be awarded posthumously to the victims (their relatives) and survivors and/or it may be in the shape of a major lasting memorial. An overwhelming majority of MSPs have now signed the book of condolence; we now expect them to support us in our call for a lasting permanent salute to their ultimate sacrifice.
There are a number of ways you can help directly in the campaign to bring about official recognition for the Lancastria. You can write to your local MP and ask him to support the campaign.
You may wish to highlight that in Scotland we have support from ALL of the political parties in the Scottish Parliament including Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats – parties currently represented in Westminster. Crucially we have support from Scottish Ministers and former senior members of the British Armed Forces.
This is not in any way a party political issue as the cross party support in Scotland suggests, but is about doing the right thing in memory of the victims of the Lancastria who died, irrespective of political belief or outlook, religion or class, age or status.
It is the position of the Lancastria Archive that those of us alive today have a duty to ensure their sacrifice is not forgotten. We have had more than 65 years of official silence, indifference and hand ringing from officials and successive governments in London. That situation cannot continue.
The UK Government have themselves a duty to ensure that our war dead are given the maximum dignity and protection that can be afforded. That is the very least that should be expected. It is highly regrettable that we are left to campaign for this at all and formal acknowledgement in the shape of designation of the wreck should have occurred years ago. It may be “purely symbolic” and “inappropriate” for the British Government but that is not a view shared by our members.
We are not asking them to re-right the history books, but give the dead of the Lancastria their rightful place and honour.
I urge you all to act.

Fiona Symon Article


Fiona Symon, whose father Andrew Richardson was one of Lancastria’sandrew-richardson victims gives an insight into her motivations and her work with the Association.

Thinking back over the last year I realized what a momentous one it has been for the Lancastria Archive and for me personally. In a book I recently read I came across these words:

Vision to see
Faith to believe
Courage to do

As I read them it struck me how closely they apply to the work of the Association. Initially, it needed the vision of a few and of one man in particular, Mark Hirst, to see the need for a Scottish Association. An Association to set in motion a totally different agenda from the HMT based on a driving need to have the Lancastria Tragedy, the last resting place of so many and the scene of the death of thousands, officially recognized and the site designated as a war grave so that it would have the ultimate possible protection.

As in so many situations in life, one has to have faith to believe that certain things are possible and can be achieved.

We have the faith that ultimately we will succeed with our campaign and, with all our members working together, have the courage, despite setbacks, to continue to work towards our goal of persuading the British Government to do the right and honourable thing and designate the Lancastria as a war grave.
Personally, it has been one of the most amazing years of my life.

It is said that you never miss what you have never had. NOT TRUE! I was ten months old when my father died in the Lancastria disaster and all my life I have missed the presence of a father.

As a small child it was a puzzled feeling of being somehow different – the only child in my class without this person called a father. As a teenager, sad and angry at missing out of the relationship my friends enjoyed. Through the years people who had known him would talk of him to me. My mother couldn’t.

So I came to terms with a situation I couldn’t change. I married, brought up my son Andrew, named after my father, and my daughter, Jill and put the Lancastria out of my mind as I had become convinced I would never learn any more. fiona

FENBY BOOK
However, in May 2005, I went to Aberdeen to listen to Jonathan Fenby talk about his book” The Sinking of the Lancastria”. Since then my life has been transformed.

For the first time in my life I met and was able to talk with others in the same situation. Now, at last, through the Lancastria Archive I can do something for the wonderful, talented and greatly loved man my father was and also for all those who died with him.

FATHER’S DIARY
Before he sailed to France in February 1940 my father wrote in his diary of how he had always tried to maintain honour and the bond of his pledged word. I wonder what he would think of his country’s governments over the last sixty-five years. I do know that, had he lived, he would have been in the forefront of our fight for justice. Although the result is often sleepless nights, I am grateful for the opportunity to work for justice for all those involved in the tragedy.

As a member of the Lancastria Archive I pledge my word to do all in my power to ensure that my father and the thousands who died with him are at last acknowledged and remembered with honour for all time by the country they gave their lives for.

WAR GRAVE REFUSAL
The disaster, coming as it did, between the triumph of Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain at a time when France was capitulating to Germany may not sit well with the Government but we cannot accept their refusal to give The Lancastria war grave status.

ROOSEVELT
To quote US President Theodore Roosevelt from his speech at Illinois on July 4th 1903:
“A man who is good enough to shed his blood for his country is good enough to be given a square deal afterwards. More than that no man is entitled to and less than that no, man should have”

Also in a letter in 1900 Roosevelt wrote-
“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though chequered by failure than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much or suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows not victory nor defeat”

Poem by E. Archibald


The following poem was written by Lancastria survivor Ernest Archibald whilst recovering from injuries sustained during the sinking of the Lancastria. The poem was passed to the Lancastria Archive by Mr Archibald’s son who now lives in Aberdeen.

The 17th of June:
It was the 17th of June; the Dunkirk scene was past,
The bulk of Britain’s fighting men had landed home at last,
But still there were some thousands who waited there in France,
Standing at the harbours, waiting for a chance.

The chance did come one morning, ‘Twas the 17th of June,
We saw a ship come gliding near, by the early moon.
The orders then were given – Stand by! Get ready to sail!
That ship it held six thousand, packed from funnel to rail.

Each man was happy, knowing that altho’ they had to run,
That ship would give another chance to beat the dirty Hun!
‘Twas the 17th of June when we were out at sea,
We heard the drone of planes on high and knew who they would be!

Nearer yet they came and nearer, four planes from out the sky,
We didn’t think then, that of us, four thousand were to die!
The guns were manned, we waited tense, we knew what had to come;
Then diving low, they fired at us, their bullets did get some.

Then back they came, roaring low, dropping all they had,
One by one they did the same, it was like Hell gone mad!
‘Twas the 17th of June, that ship was sinking fast,
The ship that was to take us home had met her fate at last!

The lifeboats then were lowered, crammed full enough to sink!
And men with full packs on, they jumped – they had no time to think.
The sea was then a mass of men, of dead men and of dying.
And many more were drowning fast – too tired to keep on trying.

But now they sleep on the bottom deep, these men who gave their all,
They died for one and each of us, these men who answered the call.
We’ll think of them as years roll by when the sea’s lit up by the moon,
When they sank the proud LANCASTRIA on the 17th of June!

By Ernest Archibald, 1940

French Eyewitness Accounts


Below are a collection of eyewitness accounts from local French people who witnessed the disaster from various points around the shore and overlooking Lancastria’s position, 5 miles away.

Madam Alice Evain, whose father was British:
“About June 10th 1940, my mother, brother and myself were refugees from Paris and travelled to Pornichet, a few kilometres from St. Nazaire. I was 18 at the time. One day we suddenly heard a regimental band coming from La Baule towards St. Nazaire, all very determined, some of the boys on stretchers as a big hotel at La Baule had been occupied as a hospital. They were singing military marches, “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”, for instance, with all their heart.
“The next thing I remember was the bombing of St. Naziare and we heard the bombs and saw black clouds. We were all horrified. Some day afterwards as we walked along the sea we were shocked to see a naked body, all white amongst the dark rocks. During the day an old truck stopped in front of our house, probably to gather more corpses. These were thrown among a pack of bodies the next day.
“The next day another body had been deposited by the sea, face down in the sand. A German officer came down from the road to look at this dressed British soldier. He stayed a while to examine the body. It is extraordinary to recall these terrible days after a long silence. We learned recently that these events had been hidden from the British people.”

Emile Boutin :
“The first bodies came ashore here at Le Moutiers on June 28th and there were many of them on June 28th. After that date there was practically none, and then very many more on July 11th .
“There had been a storm and this had stirred and sent back bodies to the shore, then there were quite a few, I have the exact figures at home, I have all the arrival dates. Sometimes one body arrived, sometimes 16 arrived at once, you see, other times there were four days, five days without anything….
“On a sea dike near to my home they were washed up. Well this dike protected the land at the back, so that the sea could not damage anything. Theoretically. So this is where we made the cemetery for the victims, just behind the wall.
“It was very basic, a communal grave and we put them all in it together, that’s it. And they stayed here until the end of the war. Moutiers people never talk, never talked about the Lancastria, but about the cemetery of the British.
“Locally when we refer to the cemetery of the British, it was not the one that is in the municipal cemetery in the village, where the victims were taken after the war, it was down at the shoreline, near to the dike.
“Hundreds of bodies arrived that summer on the coast, from Piriac to the Island of Ré, but especially in Saint-Nazaire, La Baule, La Pointe Saint Gildas, Bourgneuf bay, Noirmoutier and the Island of Yeu.”

Michel Lugez:
“On June 17th, 1940 I am in the Old Pornichet square and general commotion: everybody is talking about the German planes dropping bombs on the ships that are in the bay.
“At first, I head for the shore to see and indeed we saw the planes that were dropping bombs on the ships in the bay. There was an enormous amount of ships embarking the troops again: cruise ships, small ones…. and cargo boats as well.
“And then in the afternoon, this is when we also found out that the Lancastria was sinking, we went back to see and from here we really saw what was happening: all the small boats that were going to try and rescue them…unfortunately, we could do absolutely nothing.
“The bodies did not reach the shore immediately after the ship sank but by July the bodies came ashore in large numbers. Here in Pornichet for example, there were two or three at each tide. At the Pointe du Bec there were others. At Sainte Marguerite, all along the coast there were corpses that were given back by the sea. At each tide, there were corpses being washed up on the beach…”

Claude Gourio:
“We were placing them on the dock at the slipway in Pornic. We were placing them on the dock and after they were brought to the morgue to be identified. In France, in the French navy we wear bracelets on our wrists to identify the seaman. There they had chains around their necks with their ID plates on it, with their name and their number. They practically all had it and this helped with the identification. Many of the bodies had lost the arms and the hands and if they had been French it would have been impossible to identify them. That was something that shocked everybody and that’s why we do not talk about this event any more, it was too horrifying.”

Charles Merlet:
“We walking along the coast on December 2nd. That’s when we noticed that there were bones, more bones and military clothing.
“And in these clothes that had really deteriorated and were damaged, we collected the wallets of these poor men who drowned… And then the many bones, we never collected them; it was not possible there were so many all over…
“But the wallets, all the papers, my brother collected them; there were about fifteen, 14 or 15 perhaps 16…..
“He kept them all during the war at home, and finally he gave them to the allies who came on shore from the torpedo boat the Iroquois which came to the Island of Yeu at the time of the Liberation. He had put them in an envelope or in a bag, and he gave them to the Canadians.
“For what purpose? Well to give them to the authorities, to pass on to the families.”