Friday, June 18, 2010

RMS Lancastria - the forgotten tragedy

It was the worst single loss of life in British maritime history
and a Second World War tragedy that claimed upwards of 4000 lives,
more than the combined losses of the Titanic and the Lusitania.

From Tirial

About the Lancastria

The Lancastria was a converted Cunard liner, used as a evacuation ship during World War Two. Her name has gone down in history for the worst loss of life at sea, a tragedy greater than the losses on the Titanic and the Lusitania put together.

Four thousand people were known to have perished with the Lancastria. The true total may never been discovered. The British government sealed the records due to the potential damage to morale, which meant that until recently little was known about her loss.

Operation Ariel : the evacuation of France

The Lancastria was built as a Cunard Liner, but requisitioned at the start of the war. Originally used to carry cargo, she became a troop carrier and took part in the evacuation of Norway.

Two weeks after Dunkirk, another less well known evacuation took place. Operation Ariel was the evacuation of remaining troops and British non-combatants from occupied France. Less frantic than Dunkirk, the evacuation took place from Cherbourg and St Malo. Lancastria was pressed into service.

On 17th June 1940, the Lancastria dropped anchor three miles off the coast and waited for instructions.

Able to carry 2,200 people, the Captain was dismayed when instructed to take as many as he could fit. No count was kept of how many people pressed on board and some estimates say over 9,000 were on the ship. Civilians, troops and children were crowded on board, fleeing in front of the German advance.

At 1:50 The Lancastria was advised they could depart, but when they signaled for a destroyer escort none replied. U-boats were known to be active in the area. Overloaded and without an escort the Captain decided to wait for a second vessel to be loaded and set out together for protection.

The Bombing : the Luftwaffe against the Lancastria

At 3:45 the Luftwaffe arrived. The first Junkers-88 to target the Lancastria dropped four 500lbs bombs. They all found their target. Many accounts state that one went down the funnel by a freak chance, but this is untrue, as it is disputed by a survivor who was in the engine room during the attack. The bombs actually hit holds number 2, 3 and 4, and the last tore a hole in the port side below the waterline. The Lancastria was doomed.

As the ship listed and began to sink, the crew and passengers began to try to escape. Overcrowded, with many of their exits blocked by fire, few stood any chance. Those who got onto the hull and deck of the ship were strafed by the Luftwaffe, and covered in oil from the leaking fuel. Only a handful of lifeboats could be launched and many of those overturned.

Twenty minutes later and the Lancastria had gone down, taking with her thousands who had not managed to escape the ship.

The Luftwaffe attacks on the survivors : dropping incendiary bombs

Worse was to come. The survivors have detailed how, once the Lancastria was sinking, and the survivors were struggling in the water, the Luftwaffe began to firebomb them to set the fuel coating the sea ablaze.

Survivors on the hull, clinging to flotsam and struggling in the water were also machine gunned.

The lifeboats fared no better as they were strafed despite containing women and children, civillian non-combatants by any definition.

Rescuing the survivors : adrift in oil-soaked waters

While the Luftwaffe continued their attack, the other evacuation vessels began rescue attempts. The Cambridgeshire, a trawler, apparently managed to take onboard 900 survivors. Some survivors were rescued by small launches with French crews that took them to the waiting evacuation vessels.

Of the people onboard the Lancastria, only 2,500 survived.

The cover-up : preventing the survivors speaking

With the fall of France occurring at the same time, Churchill was concerned about the effects on British morale. He ordered that the records on the Lancastria be sealed, and issued a D-notice to prevent the survivors speaking.

These restrictions have in part worn off. It appears that the full record of what happened on the Lancastria will not be known until 2040, and the British Government refuses to release these restrictions. Across the Channel the French have built a monument to the Lancastria dead. None such exist in Britain.

In 2005, with 65 years passed and the first restrictions relaxed the Lancastria survivors were free to speak. The Lancastria Association was formed in Scotland, where the majority of the crew hailed from, to represent the survivors and their relatives. It has members from all over the world, New Zealand, Canada, France and Britain among the represented countries and is campaigning for a memorial to the Lancastria.

Not a war grave : no official recognition from the British Government

The site of the Lancastria is not protected as a war grave. The British Government has repeatedly refused requests for the site to be given that status. The records were unsealed in 2005 when the first petitions were put it. The request was rejected then and rejected again in 2007. It is suspected this is because the ship was overloaded and they do not want to be sued. The British government also refused to issue a medal to survivors.

The Scottish Assembly are fighting the decision, and talking about producing a pack for schools to ensure that the Lancastria is not forgotten. The Assembly also issued a commemorative medal for survivors.

The French Government has placed an exclusion zone around the wreck to protect it.

Marine GeoGarage Lancastria wreck position (Lat : 47°09,0555' N / Lon : 2°20,3961' W - WGS84 / depth : between 8 and 18 m)

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