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
An international petition has been launched by the Lancastria Archive which aims to bring about official legal designation of the wreck of the Lancastria by the UK Government. The sinking of the Lancastria in June 1940 was the worst disaster in British maritime history and claimed over 4000 lives, twice the combined number lost on Titanic and the Lusitania. Members of the Association from across the UK, France, Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand have begun gathering signatures demanding that the UK Government reverse 66 years of official silence and proceed with formal designation of the wreck under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986.
Previously the British Government has argued publicly that Lancastria could not be designated under the Act because the wreck lies in French territorial waters, but campaigners have now obtained email communications between the Royal Navy and Government legal officials which show Lancastria could be designated under the Act. Mark Hirst (37) whose grandfather Walter survived the sinking on 17th June 1940 said:
“The documents we have obtained under Freedom of Information and after some considerable resistance on the part of the MoD clearly show that Lancastria could indeed be designated under the Act. In fact the email we have obtained between senior officials at the Royal Navy and MoD legal staff suggests that not only could Lancastria be designated but so too could every other British vessel lying in foreign territorial waters.”
Mr Hirst added: “The Veterans Minister has told us that Lancastria is a ‘prima facia’ case for designation under the Act, but to do so would be ‘purely symbolic’.
“Some in the MoD will no doubt continue to say our campaign and this petition are purely symbolic gestures. Some others could argue the same for the 200th Trafalgar celebrations which took place last year, or the pardoning of long since dead veterans of the First World War which happened only last week.
“The sinking of the Lancastria is the worst maritime disaster in British history, the worst single loss of life for British troops in the whole of the Second World War and a sacrifice which consecutive Governments from 1940 onwards have tried to keep quiet.
“The petition we have launched this week will garner signatures from across the world and calls on the British Government to match the commitment made earlier this year by the French Government who provided additional legal protection for the site. The petition calls on the UK Government to use the powers it has to legally and finally declare Lancastria an official maritime war grave.
“The only formal recognition most relatives of victims have is a telegram notifying them that their brother, son, husband or father had been lost in action aboard Lancastria, and for many that news did not come until years after the event. Our Association is committed to campaigning for the formal legal recognition that these men deserve and which should have been granted automatically decades ago.”
The Association aim to have the completed petition handed over to Downing Street later in the year. To order petition forms visit the Lancastria Archive website at www.lancastria.org.uk