I’ve added the account of Laurence Wakefield, who was in the Royal Engineers like my father, and on board the Lancastria too, after his son in law David Joy read this account and sent me his father in law’s war memoirs. I’ve also added the Wikipedia entry for RMS Lancastria.

Robert E. Hill

We seemed to take a long time to reach Angers. Some officers and other ranks went off to reconnoitre sites for landing strips but I can’t recall much was accomplished. We eventually reached Nantes where we backed up against thousands of others, Air Force personnel as well as Army. After two or three nights bivouacking outside the town we destroyed the G.1098 stores sabotaged any unnecessary machinery and marched in convoy to the port of St. Nazaire. We arrived on the 17th June at ten o’clock, having marched seven miles many of us in new boots taken from the G.1098 before it went up in smoke. We were tired, grumbling yet knowing nothing of the heroics that had been happening at Dunkirk a month before. At eleven o’clock we went aboard the Cunard’s Lancastria, grousing and grumbling at being among the last to board. We were assigned places on “A” deck aft.

About two o’clock, very hungry we went below and had a jolly good lunch of bangers and mash and hot tea, all the better enjoying silver service by uniformed waiters. Up on top again out in the warm sun, I took off my boots, which were torturing my feet and popped on my ‘plimsolls’. I rested on my kit bag we had been allowed to bring with us.

Teddy Perfect said, “Why the hell don’t we get cracking and weigh anchor we’re a sitting duck waiting here”. Several agreed but each seemed lost in his own thoughts to develop more conversation. Time dragged on. It had been obvious the last few days that we were escaping out of France. We had no news of any kind – just rumours. One of the French troops guarding St. Nazaire had spat at the feet of one of our officers when he wished them goodbye and good luck. With hind sight not a sensible thing to do.

RMS Lancastria, sunk on 17th June 1940

RMS Lancastria, sunk on 17th June 1940

At four o’clock in the afternoon several Stukas flew over. One dropped his bombs and missed by fifty yards, we cheered, and the gunners began to bang away with their ineffective popguns. Another Stuka flew in from the sun on portside. It zoomed low over the ship. We ducked down automatically, a confused chatter of guns a great bang and a smell of cordite. We straightened up and began to yell, “GOT the BASTARD!!” But he had got us. Amidships. Straight down the main staircase. No chance at all for those down there.

Within several minutes the Lancastria began to tilt to starboard. We were wearing life belts, or had lifebelts. I wore mine. Shouts of “OVER THE SIDE”!!! “EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF”!!! Large rafts were heaved over the side, I helped and waited until most had gone over, anyone in the water with one of them thrown on top would have no chance. A rope ladder was now over the side I got on that and went down as fast as I could boots and feet banging on my head, and one time trapping my hand. By this time the ship was at a terribly steep angle. It is said one sees ones life flash in front of one like a movie. Not so. I was too busy working out what to do and where to go.

By now the sea was full of swimming, paddling, struggling men. I pushed out for a life raft some yards away that was moving away from me faster than I could paddle. I was not a good swimmer. I had the support of the buoyant life jacket yet I did not seem to be able to reach the raft. The ship was towering above me. Spotting a raft surrounded with bobbing heads that seemed to be nearer I struck out for that and eventually grabbed a loop of rope. I was dragged along, next I was paddling with my right hand, then almost pushed down under the raft as it turned in the water. This went on for a very long time.

Temporarily safe I began to think of my family and friends. By now we were sufficiently away from the ship to take stock. The Lancastria had turned over completely with her bottom above the water. Men were scrambling about on her upturned hull. It was uncanny. Would she go down completely or was enough air trapped inside to keep her like that to save the men before they were sucked down. Oil was everywhere. To get far away from the ship to land was everyone’s goal. I was getting tired. A tiny rowing boat painted yellow slid alongside the raft taking people off. I would not let go until I was sure I was ready to get into the boat. In the end I was helped into it by someone grabbing the seat of my trousers as I grabbed the side and missed through sheer exhaustion.

War - the final moments of the Lancastria

War – the final moments of the Lancastria

The rowboat put us on to a French trawler; I stripped off my jacket to get dry. A frigate, HMS Havelock, hailed the trawler. As we scrambled up nets to get aboard I lost my jacket. A sailor had taken it from me indicating he would throw it up after me. He did, I missed catching it as the swell was so great the stern end of the trawler dipped down too much as he swung it up to the level of the Havelock deck. It missed by three feet and sank between the screws of both ships.

Gone forever were my papers except for a photograph that was in my shirt pocket tucked behind a metal mirror.

Someone propelled me to the petty officers wardroom. We were fed hot tea and biscuits. We were well out at sea sailing for England when the ship’s ‘tannoy’ broadcast a message that the French Army had given up and Petain had signed the Vichy Agreement. We had little to say. It seemed we had run away. The relief of being alive over rode the gloom and sense of shame. It was all very daunting.

We drew into Devenport. As we tied alongside some well wishers on the dock had little sense. They threw tins of ‘bully’ and other food up to the deck with such vigour we were under a bombardment for a few minutes. One poor fellow having escaped unharmed had his head cut open with a tin of bully. Whilst on the Havelock I had taken off my sodden trousers, someone had taken them away to dry and I couldn’t get them back. I was given a ship’s blanket that I wrapped round me to go ashore. Going down the gangplank I trod on the trailing blanket, tripped and was grabbed by two Wren nurses at the bottom of the gangway. They were going to whip me away in an old world war one, canvas tilted, ambulance. The more I resisted the more convinced they seemed I was a ‘shock” case. I got away and followed the rest to the barrack block close at hand.

Whilst resting for a couple of days we received an issue of fresh uniform and basic gear. After we had been sorted out and our unit or regiment informed, I and a few others of the unit who fetched up at Davenport were detailed to report to Leeds. I telephoned my parents who were delighted. No leave was forthcoming. We were told that would be sorted once we reported to our unit. Leeds Town Hall a magnificent building. We bedded everywhere. I found a space on the stage near the organ console. Joy and sadness abound -ed as members of C. R. E. No.2 found each other. We learned nine personnel had been lost. One was dear old Captain Dennison. The staff sergeant had gone.

Another chap we all missed was ‘Mate’ a driver in H.Q. He had been friendly with all officers, NCOs, and the O. Rs. He was an incorrigible wag. At Nantes he had found some pornographic drawings, exquisitely drafted and beautifully coloured. They were works of art, e’en if very naughty. They were shown to all who wished to see and he had tucked them in his jacket swearing he would give them up to no one. Poor old ‘Matey’ with his pictures at the bottom of the sea. Teddy Perfect who I had last seen going down a rope over the side was his cheerful jolly self other than having both hands bandaged. He had burnt the skin off sliding down the rope.

We shared a posh billet. Our new headquarters were in a large house in Allerton Park. We were billeted in houses nearby. The excitement of going on ‘survivor’ leave was too much. Everyone wanted to know details of the road back from France. My story of the escape after Dunkirk of which people knew little seemed dramatic. The story of the Lancastria seemed a bit over the top. I stopped talking about it other than saying we came out down the Loire valley. “Oh, weren’t you at Dunkirk?” they asked, and lost interest when I said I came out of France at St. Nazaire. The disaster, the biggest loss of life at sea ever, almost 3,000 were lost. Churchill who thought it would be bad for morale suppressed news of the event. It was published seven years later.


Laurence E. Wakefield

Extract from the memoirs of the late Laurence Wakefield by permission of his daughter, Patricia Joy



Joined Territorial Army in Liverpool. Royal Engineers – army trade ‘Surveyor’. Training 3 evenings a week and some weekends. Living and working at Formby. Journey to TA in Liverpool (South) included train full length of overhead railway with view of the ships using the Port.


Went to Annual camp (2 weeks) at Halton near Lancaster on River Lune. Bridging camp – pontoons – folding boats – small box girder bridges. At end of 2 weeks kept at Halton – war was imminent. Embodied into Regular Army “Took the King’s Shilling”.


War declared. Returned to Liverpool from Halton. Transferred to similar unit at St Helens.


Sent to France with British Expeditionary Force. Various locations in France then settled on outskirts of Lille. Worked as a draughtsman on Detailing or Scheduling Steel Reinforcement for construction of strong points on the extension of the Maginot Line. 1940 Applied for a commission. Returned to England – went to York for interview re commission – was accepted BUT on account of my age (22) was told it would be Infantry commission NOT Royal Engineers. This I did not want so returned to France and rejoined my unit. Offered chance to transfer to another part of Royal Engineers “Establishment for Engineer
Services” which I accepted. Went on a course for a month in Brittany – very pleasant during spring – passed out as Engineer Draughtsman (L/Cpl) with indication that I could progress to Military Foreman of Works (S/Sgt). Posted to C.R.E (South) Advanced Air Striking Force at Rheims. Went by train to Paris and on from Gare de L’Est by ordinary passenger train to Rheims.

That was when it all started – there had not really been an active war before that. The train and others on the track were bombed and strafed. When raids finished the British Army other ranks from the train – 12 of us – all individual like myself travelling alone (no units) got together and, as the railway obviously could not function, decided to set out walking. We walked in a southerly direction for a long way and when it was dark we came to a farm which had been abandoned with doors left open – remains of the fire still burning in the grate – cows not milked – the occupants had obviously fled on this first day of the “real war”.

We made a meal and went to bed for the night taking it in turns to keep watch and by morning 6 of the group had gone on. We – the remaining 6 continued walking – 2 went off in another direction, and, after a while, we remaining 4 came up to a railway line and trains were running on that line. We followed it and came to a village where there was a large crowd all waiting to evacuate the area.

Trains came to the station and reversed back to wards Paris. When the French police saw the 4 of us in uniform they were very agitated (they drew their revolvers and we were forced into an air raid shelter alongside the station. A German plane was circling around overhead watching the proceedings. The crowd got much less as the people got away on the train until there were not many left and we thought the train then at the platform would be the last one, so we had to do something to get on that train. There was a van on the train with a sliding door not fully closed, so, as the train started up

slowly, we dashed out of the shelter – shouting – banging our tin hats and generally causing a commotion which took the police by surprise. We pulled the sliding door open and, as the train got going, we jumped into the van. The train got up a good speed and the German planes attacked it, but this time we were lucky and the bombs missed and the train rocked alarmingly, but stayed on the track and we got back safely to Paris where we were taken in for questioning. We were suspect as no British troops had been where we came from. After a few days in Paris, the unit I was trying to join was located at Troyes which was south of the push the Germans were making. I got to Troyes from Paris with no further trouble. The retreat from Dunkirk was in progress but we were south of it and read about it each morning in the papers.

After a short time in Troyes, we moved suddenly to a small village, Aulnay-La-Riviere, south of Paris near to Pithiviers and there we saw something of the evacuation of Paris in face of the German advance. The population came through the village in their thousands – first in cars, buses, lorries etc, then on cycles, pushing prams, handcarts, wheelbarrows – anything that would take some of their possessions – people on foot in all sorts of conditions.

Again we moved on by road – just a few vehicles – we were a small H.Q. unit. We went right across France generally following the Loire until we got to Nantes where we stayed for a couple of days – we were employed destroying documents etc. from British H.Q. at Nantes and then we moved on to an unfinished airfield between Nantes and St Nazaire. There were thousands of British troops there in the open subject to air raids. During the night, we walked on into St Nazaire and into the large transit sheds on the Docks. Our vehicles along with many others were put into a large square formation and were destroyed by fire.

In the morning 2 British destroyers came into the dock and and took off the troops. We went on one of them and thought we were going home – little did we know that most of us were on our last journey and were, in fact, “Going Home”. When we were well out of St. Nazaire (10 miles, I believe) we came to 2 large liners – the one I went to I recognised from the Liverpool Docks – it was a Cunarder “Lancastria”, the other was the Orient line “Oronsay”. When we boarded the Lancastria, we were sent down to the dining room where we had the best meal for weeks served by Cunard stewards. We were then sent back up to make way for the next sitting. With a few of our unit I went to the Shelter Deck (aft) on the starboard side. The ship was absolutely packed with troops plus a few civilians. During the late afternoon we were attacked by German planes – firstly the Oronsay was hit and damaged but remained afloat, then we were attacked. The bombs scored a direct hit and the ship began to sink. At first it seemed to be going on the starboard side, when everyone moved across she righted for a few minutes and then started to go over on the port side.

No life belts had been issued and I decided the only thing to do was to strip off and go in the water and try my luck by swimming. So I went over the side – part way down a rope ladder and jumped into the sea. I was not a good swimmer, but I had to do my best. There were hundreds of us swimming for our lives and the German planes were dropping bombs amongst us, strafing us, and they set fire to the oil which escaped from the sinking ship. I don’t know for how long I swam, but I was about all in when I suddenly came near to an open boat – a lifeboat from another ship. I managed to get up to it and hung on to the lifeline along the boat and, when I had recovered somewhat, I was pulled into the boat. I remember that my reaction was that I could not stop talking! I took over an oar and so helped to get the boat up to a British armed trawler, the “Cambridgeshire”.

The trawler was packed with survivors – some 600 I believe – on a trawler! The plan was to go back into St. Nazaire but the tide had gone out and the vessel would have grounded, so we were taken to the “John Holt” – a Birkenhead cargo ship. We were put in the hold and forbidden to show our faces. The hatches were put on and our luck was really in – we sailed round the occupied coast of Brittany and got to Plymouth without incident. We were taken to a hall of some sorts wrapped in blankets, which were thrown from the quay on to the ship. That blanket was all I possessed and it wasn’t really mine.

The Lancastria sank in 20 minutes after the bombs hit her. The casualties were enormous – just over 2,000 survived – there is no accurate count of the number that perished as it was not known how many were on board, but it is thought that at least 4,000 lost their lives.

As she went down, singing could be heard across the water from those about to perish, “Rollout the barrel” and “There’ll always be an England”.

Our unit lost several members, but, because we were on the open deck, we were luckier than those who were below. They stood no chance. I owe my life to the fact that I could swim – albeit poorly, and the open boat which suddenly appeared – in answer to my prayers I’ll always believe.

The Lancastria sank on 17th June 1940 – a fortnight after the end of the Dunkirk evacuation. It was probably the worst maritime disaster in British history in terms of lives lost.

We were given basic clothing etc at Plymouth – the first thing the Army gave me was a razor!

We went by train to Leeds, spent the first night on the floor under the Town Hall and next day were taken to compulsory billets in the area – “How many bed spaces have you got, Missus? Right – next 3 in here!”. I went to a Jewish family in Chapeltown who treated me very well.

The unit reformed at Leeds. I was out-stationed at Lincoln and Sybil and I were married at Crewe Green on November 9th 1940 – I went back to Leeds.


20th-century British liner
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RMS Lancastria.jpg
A postcard of RMS Lancastria from 1927
 United Kingdom
  • RMS Tyrrhenia (1921–1924)
  • RMS Lancastria (1924–1940)
  • HMT Lancastria (1940)
BuilderWilliam Beardmore and Company
Launched31 May 1920
Maiden voyage19 June 1922
Out of service17 June 1940
  • as Tyrrhenia her crew called her
  • "Old Soup Tureen"[1]
FateSunk by German Bombers on 17 June 1940 off St. Nazaire
General characteristics
Tonnage16,243 GRT
Length578 ft (176 m)
Beam70 ft (21 m)
Height43 ft (13 m)
Draught31.4 ft (9.6 m)
Decks7 decks and a shelter deck
Installed power6 steam turbines, 2,500 nhp
Propulsiontwin screw
Speed16.5 knots (31 km/h; 19 mph)
  • 1,300 passengers
  • 3 cargo holds:
  • 438,000 cubic feet (12,400 m3) Grain Capacity
  • 400,000 cubic feet (11,000 m3) Bale Capacity
  • 29,000 cubic feet (820 m3) Refrigerated

RMS Lancastria was a British ocean liner requisitioned by the UK Government during the Second World War. She was sunk on 17 June 1940 during Operation Aerial. Having received an emergency order to evacuate British nationals and troops from France the ship was loaded well in excess of its capacity of 1,300 passengers.[2] Modern estimates suggest that between 4,000 and 7,000 people died during the sinking — the largest single-ship loss of life in British maritime history.[3][4]


RMS Lancastria (centre) at Funchal, Madeira, c. 1930.

The ship was launched in 1920 as Tyrrhenia by William Beardmore and Company of Dalmuir on the River Clyde for the Anchor Line, a subsidiary of Cunard. She was the sister ship of RMS Cameronia which Beardmore had built for the Anchor Line the previous year.[5] Tyrrhenia was 16,243 gross register tons (GRT), 578 feet (176 m) long and could carry 2,200 passengers in three classes. She made her maiden voyage, Glasgow–Quebec CityMontreal, on 19 June 1922.[6]

In 1924 she was refitted for two classes and renamed Lancastria after passengers complained that they could not properly pronounce Tyrrhenia; (viz: RP /tjˈrniɑː/ as per the crew's nickname of the ship: the "Old Soup Tureen".

She sailed scheduled routes between Liverpool and New York until 1932, and was then used as a cruise ship in the Mediterranean Sea and Northern Europe.[7] On 10 October 1932 Lancastria rescued the crew of the Belgian cargo ship SS Scheldestad, which had been abandoned in a sinking condition in the Bay of Biscay.[8] In 1934 the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland chartered Lancastria for a pilgrimage to Rome.[7][9] In May 1936, she undertook a specially commissioned cruise to visit war memorials at Malta, Salonika, Gallipoli and Istanbul.[10][11][12] The passengers on this voyage included Admiral of the Fleet Roger Keyes, Field Marshal William Birdwood and Commodore Edward Unwin.[13][14]

At the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, Lancastria was in the Bahamas. She was ordered to sail from Nassau to New York for refitting as she had been requisitioned as a troopship, becoming HMT Lancastria. Unnecessary fittings were removed, she was repainted in battleship grey, the portholes were blacked out, and a 4-inch gun was installed. She was first used to ferry men and supplies between Canada and the United Kingdom. In April 1940, she was one of twenty troopships in Operation Alphabet, the evacuation of troops from Norway, and was bombed on the return journey although she escaped damage. Shortly afterwards, Lancastria carried troops to consolidate the invasion of Iceland. Returning to Glasgow, the captain requested that surplus oil in her tanks be removed, but there was insufficient time before she was ordered to Liverpool for a refit. Crew members were either discharged or sent on leave.[15]


Lancastria sinking off Saint-Nazaire

Lancastria was sunk on 17 June 1940 off the French port of St. Nazaire while taking part in Operation Aerial, the evacuation of British nationals and troops from France, two weeks after the Dunkirk evacuation.

Outward voyage

Within hours of berthing at Liverpool, Lancastria was urgently recalled to sea; loud-speaker announcements at the main railway station successfully recalled nearly all the crew members;[16] she arrived in Plymouth on 15 June to await orders. She was originally sent to Quiberon Bay as part of Operation Aerial, which was the evacuation of the remainder of the British Expeditionary Force which had been cut-off to the south of the German advance through France, amounting to some 124,000 men, mostly logistic support troops, from various ports in western France. Accompanying Lancastria was the 20,341-ton liner, Franconia. Finding that she was not required for the evacuation from Lorient, the captain of Lancastria, Rudolph Sharp, was sent on towards the port of St. Nazaire, where many more troops were waiting to be lifted, On the way, an air raid damaged Franconia which returned to England for repairs, leaving Lancastria to continue alone. She arrived in the mouth of the Loire estuary late on 16 June. Because the port has to be accessed along a tidal channel, Lancastria anchored in the Charpentier Roads, some 5 miles (8.0 km) south-west of St. Nazaire, at 04:00 on 17 June,[17] along with some thirty other merchant vessels of all sizes.[18]


Early in the morning, three RNVR officers came aboard to ask how many troops Lancastria could take. Her normal complement in troopship configuration was 2,180 including 330 crew; however, Captain Sharp had brought 2,653 men back from Norway, so he replied that he could take 3,000 "at a pinch". He was told that he should take as many as he possibly could "without regard to the limits of International Law".[17] Troops were ferried out to Lancastria and the other larger ships by destroyers, tugs, fishing boats and other small craft,[18] a round trip of three or four hours, sometimes being machine-gunned by German aircraft, although apparently without casualties.[19] By the mid-afternoon of 17 June she had embarked an unknown number (estimates range from 4,000 up to 9,000)[4] line-of-communication troops (including Pioneer and Royal Army Service Corps soldiers) and Royal Air Force personnel, together with about forty civilian refugees, including embassy staff and employees of Fairey Aviation of Belgium with their families.[20] People were crowded into whatever spaces were available including the large cargo holds. One Royal Engineers officer reported that he had been told by one of Lancastria's loading officers that over 7,200 people had come aboard. Captain Sharp estimated the number to be 5,500.[21]

At 13:50, during an air-raid, the nearby Oronsay, a 20,000-ton Orient Liner, was hit on the bridge by a German bomb. Lancastria was free to depart and the captain of the British destroyer HMS Havelock advised her to do so; but, without a destroyer escort as defence against a possible submarine attack, Sharp decided to wait for Oronsay before leaving.[22]


Lancastria sinking off Saint-Nazaire as seen from a rescue ship.

A fresh air raid began at 15:50 by Junkers Ju 88 bomber aircraft from Kampfgeschwader 30. Lancastria was hit by three or possibly four bombs. A number of survivors reported that one bomb had gone down the ship's single funnel which is most likely, given the speed with which the ship sank – about 15–20 minutes. The testimony of an engineering officer, Frank Brogden, who was in the engine room at the time contradicts this. Brogden's account states that one bomb landed close to the funnel and entered No. 4 hold. Two other bombs landed in No. 2 and No. 3 holds while a fourth landed close to the port side of the ship, rupturing the fuel oil tanks, though even with this damage, the ship should have stayed afloat for longer unless the report of the bomb in the funnel was true.[23] As the ship began to list to starboard, orders were given for the men on deck to move to the port side in an effort to counteract it, but this caused a list to port which could not be corrected.[24] The ship was equipped with sixteen lifeboats and 2,500 life jackets;[19] but many of the boats could not be launched because they had been damaged in the bombing or because of the angle of the hull. The first boat away was filled with women and children but it capsized on landing in the water and a second had to be lowered for them. A third boat had its bottom stoved in by landing too fast. A large number of men who jumped over the side were killed by hitting the side of the hull or had their necks broken by their life jackets on impact with the water.[25] As Lancastria began to capsize, some of those who were still on board managed to scramble onto the ship's underside. According to some accounts, these were heard to be singing 'Roll Out the Barrel' and 'There'll Always Be an England', though some survivors strongly deny this.[23] The ship sank at 16:12, within twenty minutes of being hit,[26] which gave little time for other vessels to respond. Many of those in the water drowned because there were insufficient life jackets, or died from hypothermia, or were choked by fuel oil.[27] According to Jonathan Fenby in his book The Sinking of the Lancastria, the German aircraft strafed survivors in the water.[28]

Survivors were taken aboard other British and Allied evacuation vessels, the trawler HMT Cambridgeshire rescuing 900.[29] Capt WG Euston recommended several of his crew for awards, including Stanley Kingett for "making repeated journeys in a lifeboat to pick up exhausted men from the water while under machine-gun fire from enemy planes", and William Perrin for "keeping up continuous machine-gun fire in an attempt to prevent enemy planes machine-gunning men in the water."[30] Rudolph Sharp survived the sinking and went on to command the RMS Laconia, losing his life on 12 September 1942 in the Laconia incident off West Africa.[31]

Estimated casualties

There were 2,477 survivors, of whom about 100 were still alive in 2011.[4] Many families of the dead knew only that they died with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF); the death toll accounted for roughly a third of the total losses of the BEF in France.[4] She sank around 5 nmi (9.3 km) south of Chémoulin Point in the Charpentier roads, around 9 nmi (17 km) from St. Nazaire. Lancastria Association names 1,738 people known to have been killed.[32] In 2005, Fenby wrote that estimates of the death toll vary from fewer than 4,000 to 6,500 people although it is also estimated that as many as 7,000 people perished, the largest loss of life in British maritime history, sometimes it is considered the second worst loss of life at sea (though with the estimates of the worst shipwrecks like the Goya also being 7,000, it is unknown which is worse.[3]

Availability of information

The immense loss of life was such that the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, immediately suppressed news of the disaster through the D-Notice system,[33] telling his staff that "The newspapers have got quite enough disaster for today at least". In his memoirs, Churchill stated that he had intended to release the news a few days later, but that events in France "crowded upon us so black and so quickly that I forgot to lift the ban".[34]

The sinking was announced that evening during the English-language Nazi propaganda radio programme, Germany Calling by its presenter William Joyce, better known as "Lord Haw-Haw"; however his claims were notoriously unreliable and had little public credence.[35] The story was finally broken in the United States by the Press Association on 25 July,[36] in The New York Times, and the next day in Britain by The Scotsman, more than five weeks after the sinking. Other British newspapers then covered the story, including the Daily Herald (also on 26 July), which carried the story on its front page, and Sunday Express on 4 August; the latter included a photograph of the capsized ship with her upturned hull lined with men under the headline "Last Moments of the Greatest Sea Tragedy of All Time".[4] All the photographs of the sinking were taken by Frank Clements, a volunteer storeman aboard HMS Highlander, who was exempt from the regulations prohibiting the use of cameras by service personnel.[33]

However, there were earlier reports of the sinking and the scale of the disaster from survivors in local British newspapers. Mr H J Cooper is quoted in the Chelmsford Chronicle on 28 June: "I am afraid thousands died, but tell the world they sang 'Roll out the Barrel' as they died."[37] Private Ronald Herbert Yorke (Sherwood Foresters) is quoted in the Ripley and Heanor News on 5 July: "Hundreds of my pals were imprisoned below. They had no chance because the ship went down in 15 minutes. Those who got away were machine-gunned in the water".[38]

In July 2007 another request for documents held by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) related to the sinking was rejected by the British government. Lancastria Association of Scotland made a further request in 2009. They were told that release under the FOIA would not be given because of several exemptions.[39][a] In the face of continued campaigning by relatives, the MoD stated in 2015 that all known documents had long since been released through the National Archives.[40] On 17 June 2010 (70th anniversary of the sinking) Janet Dempsey gave a lecture at The National Archives entitled "Forgotten Tragedy: The Loss of HMT Lancastria". This drew on all known information held at Kew. A transcript and podcast are available from The National Archives website.[41]

Wreck status

The Government of the United Kingdom has not made the site a war grave under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986, stating that it has no jurisdiction over French territorial waters.[42] Early in the 21st century the French Government placed an exclusion zone around the wreck site.[citation needed]

The Lancastria Association of Scotland began a campaign in 2005 to secure greater recognition for the loss of life aboard Lancastria and the acknowledgement of the endurance of survivors that day. It petitioned the British Government to have the wreck site designated an official maritime war grave. The Government did not do so as it was within French territorial waters, outside the jurisdiction of the Act.[43] The campaign received support from all parties, but the MoD said that such a move would be "purely symbolic" and have no effect. In 2006, 14 additional wrecks sunk at the Battle of Jutland were designated as war graves, but Lancastria was not.[citation needed]

The MoD stated in 2015 that "as the French Government has provided an appropriate level of protection to Lancastria through French law and it is formally considered a military maritime grave by the MoD, we believe that the wreck has the formal status and protection it deserves."[40]


Lancastria and Operation Chariot memorials

All service personnel killed during the Second World War are recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and were known that they lost their lives on Lancastria; 1,816 burials are recorded, over 400 of them in France.[44]

The missing British military dead from the sinking of Lancastria (those whose bodies were not recovered or were unable to be identified) are commemorated on a number of Commonwealth War Graves Commission memorials (those identified were buried in cemeteries and are marked with Commission headstones). There are a number of Commonwealth war graves (some with named dead soldiers from the Pioneer Corps but many commemorated as unknown) in fishing ports on the French islands of Île de Ré and Île d'Oléron (cemeteries at Saint-Martin-de-Ré, Saint-Trojan-les-Bains, Saint-Clément-des-Baleines, Ars-en-Ré and others) with graves dated 17 June 1940. It is likely that the bodies of these men were recovered from the Bay of Biscay by French fishermen and brought back to their home ports to be interred. Around 700 missing from the British Expeditionary Force are commemorated on the Dunkirk Memorial. The missing dead who served in the Navy are commemorated on the naval memorials at Chatham, Plymouth and Portsmouth, with missing merchant seamen named at the Tower Hill Memorial, and the missing airmen who went down with the ship, listed on the Runnymede Memorial.[45][46]

After the war, the Lancastria Survivors Association was founded by Major Peter Petit, but this lapsed on his death in 1969. It reformed in 1981 as The HMT Lancastria Association and continues the tradition of a parade and remembrance service at the Church of St Katharine Cree in the City of London, where there is a memorial stained glass window.[47] The Lancastria Association of Scotland was formed in 2005 and holds its annual service at St George's West Church in Edinburgh.[48]

The Lancastria Association of Scotland has members throughout the UK, France and the rest of Europe as well as members in North America, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. It also organises the largest memorial service for the victims in the UK. The service, which is attended by survivors and relatives of both victims and survivors together with representatives of the French and Scottish Governments and a number of veterans organisations and is held on the closest Saturday to the anniversary of 17 June each year at St. George's West Church, Edinburgh.[citation needed]

In June 2010 to mark the 70th anniversary of the sinking, special ceremonies and services of remembrance were held in Edinburgh and St. Nazaire. As the 100th anniversary of the RMS Titanic sinking took place in 2012, fresh calls were made for "official recognition" of the loss of Lancastria by the British Government.[49] The day of the 75th anniversary of the loss of Lancastria was marked in the Westminster Parliament on 17 June 2015 at Prime Minister's Questions by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, who was standing in for the Prime Minister. Osborne said of the sinking: "It was kept secret at the time for reasons of wartime secrecy, but I think it is appropriate today in this House of Commons to remember all those who died, those who survived, and those who mourn them."[50]

In June 2008, the first batch of commemorative medals was presented to survivors and relatives of victims and survivors; the HMT Lancastria Commemorative Medal, which represented "official Scottish Government recognition" of the Lancastria disaster.[51] The medal was designed by Mark Hirst, grandson of Lancastria survivor Walter Hirst.[52] The inscription on the rear of the medal reads: "In recognition of the ultimate sacrifice of the 4000 victims of Britain's worst-ever maritime disaster and the endurance of survivors – We will remember them".[51] The front of the medal depicts Lancastria with the text "HMT Lancastria – 17th June 1940". The medal ribbon has a grey background with a red and black central stripe, representative of the ship's wartime and merchant marine colours.[citation needed]

RMS/HMT Lancastria, commemorative plaque in Liverpool, unveiled in 2013 on Pier Head

A memorial on the sea-front at St Nazaire was unveiled on 17 June 1988, "in proud memory of more than 4,000 who died and in commemoration of the people of Saint Nazaire and surrounding districts who saved many lives, tended wounded and gave a Christian burial to victims".[48]

The bell of Lancastria (still bearing the ship's original name of Tyrrhenia) on display in St Katharine Cree, London.

Lancastria is represented at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire by a sessile oak tree and a plaque.[53] St Katharine Cree church in the City of London has a memorial window to Lancastria. It also has a model of the ship in a glass case and the ship's bell is also in the church.[54] Scouting Ireland's national campsite Larch Hill has an anchor memorial to Lancastria, commemorating the legacy of the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland's pilgrimage in 1932.[55]

In October 2011, the Lancastria Association of Scotland has erected a memorial to the victims on the site where the ship was built, the former Dalmuir shipyard at Clydebank, Glasgow, now the grounds of the Golden Jubilee Hospital.[52] In September 2013, a plaque was unveiled at Liverpool's Pier Head by Lord Mayor Gary Millar commemorating the loss of the ship.[56][57] The site of Lancastria wreck lies in French territorial waters and is therefore ineligible for protection under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986; however, at the request of the British Government, in 2006 the French authorities gave the site legal protection as a war grave.[58]

After a postponement because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a commemorative service was held at Church of Our Lady and Saint Nicholas, Liverpool on 27 June 2020.[59]



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  1. ^ Section 36; prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs; Section 40(2); contains personal information; Section 40(3); Release would contravene section 10 of the Data Protection Act 1998: "processing likely to cause damage or distress"; Section 41; supplied in confidence; Section 44; Exempt from disclosure under the Human Rights Act 1998.


  1. ^ .mw-parser-output cite.citation{font-style:inherit;word-wrap:break-word}.mw-parser-output .citation q{quotes:"\"""\"""'""'"}.mw-parser-output .citation:target{background-color:rgba(0,127,255,0.133)}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-free a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-free a{background:linear-gradient(transparent,transparent),url("//")right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-limited a,.mw-parser-output .id-lock-registration a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-limited a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-registration a{background:linear-gradient(transparent,transparent),url("//")right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-subscription a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-subscription a{background:linear-gradient(transparent,transparent),url("//")right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}.mw-parser-output .cs1-ws-icon a{background:linear-gradient(transparent,transparent),url("//")right 0.1em center/12px no-repeat}.mw-parser-output .cs1-code{color:inherit;background:inherit;border:none;padding:inherit}.mw-parser-output .cs1-hidden-error{display:none;color:#d33}.mw-parser-output .cs1-visible-error{color:#d33}.mw-parser-output .cs1-maint{display:none;color:#3a3;margin-left:0.3em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-format{font-size:95%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-left{padding-left:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-right{padding-right:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .citation .mw-selflink{font-weight:inherit}Talbot-Booth, EC (1937). Merchant Ships. London: Sampson-Low and Marston.
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Further reading

  • Fantom, Paul (2021). A Forgotten Campaign: The British Armed Forces in France, 1940 - From Dunkirk to the Armistice. Warwick: Helion & Co. ISBN 9781914059018.
  • Sheridan, Robert N. (1989). "Question 23/87". Warship International. XXVI (3): 311. ISSN 0043-0374.

External links

.mw-parser-output .side-box{margin:4px 0;box-sizing:border-box;border:1px solid #aaa;font-size:88%;line-height:1.25em;background-color:#f9f9f9}.mw-parser-output .side-box-abovebelow,.mw-parser-output .side-box-text{padding:0.25em 0.9em}.mw-parser-output .side-box-image{padding:2px 0 2px 0.9em;text-align:center}.mw-parser-output .side-box-imageright{padding:2px 0.9em 2px 0;text-align:center}@media(min-width:500px){.mw-parser-output .side-box-flex{display:flex;align-items:center}.mw-parser-output .side-box-text{flex:1}}@media(min-width:720px){.mw-parser-output .side-box{width:238px}.mw-parser-output .side-box-right{clear:right;float:right;margin-left:1em}.mw-parser-output .side-box-left{margin-right:1em}}

Coordinates: .mw-parser-output .geo-default,.mw-parser-output .geo-dms,.mw-parser-output .geo-dec{display:inline}.mw-parser-output .geo-nondefault,.mw-parser-output .geo-multi-punct{display:none}.mw-parser-output .longitude,.mw-parser-output .latitude{white-space:nowrap}47°10′26″N 2°19′15″W / 47.17389°N 2.32083°W / 47.17389; -2.32083 (Location of the sinking of the troopship RMS Lancastria)


Lancastria links

HMT Lancastria Association The HMT Lancastria Association remembers and honours all those who were present or who lost their lives in the Lancastria disaster.
HMT Lancastria Archive The HMT Lancastria Archive has many survivor accounts of the disaster.

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