The 17th of June is the date of a tragic maritime disaster. The story isn’t widely known, but it should be.
RMS Tyrrhenia was a 176 metre long cruise liner built in Scotland for the Cunard Line in 1920. Later renamed the Lancastria (easier for passengers to pronounce!) the ship was used for transatlantic voyages and as a mediterranean cruise ship.
When World War Two loomed RMS Lancastria was requisitioned by the Ministry of Defence and transformed into a troop ship. So far, so unremarkable.
Everyone knows the story of Dunkirk. Many of us, myself included, have relatives who were rescued from the beaches, or manned the flotilla of boats to save troops. The Dunkirk evacuation, named Operation Dynamo, took place in late May and early June 1940. Essentially a large scale retreat, Dunkirk was nevertheless publicised as an Allied victory, and has been included on school history syllabuses ever since.
But, just as D-Day is only remembered for Omaha Beach whilst large swathes of the operation are skimmed over, the same is true for the evacuations.
immediately following Operation Dynamo was Operation Cycle, this time centering on removing Allied troops from the coast around Le Havre, and then came Operation Ariel, which focussed on the ports of western France.
Whilst Operation Ariel ran fairly smoothly in St Malo and Cherbourg without much enemy interference, the troops at St Nazaire weren’t to be so lucky.
Five large troopships, including the RMS (now MHT) Lancastria were sent to St Nazaire, but it was difficult to get close. Instead, the ships anchored in a nearby bay whilst smaller vessels able to navigate easily in the Loire estuary ferried troops from the shore to the waiting ships.
There were thousands of Allied servicemen and civilians who needed to be evacuated to England and the order was given to ignore the official capacity guidelines (2,200 including 375 crew members) in light of the situation. Unfortunately, due to the following events, we will never know how many people boarded the Lancastria. The lowest estimate is 4,000, but survivors claim that many more were aboard, perhaps as many as 9,000 people.
At 1.50pm one of the other ships, the SS Oronsay, was hit by a German bomb during an air raid. The Oronsay was another former liner, built for the Orient Line, and in her former guise had sailed a route from the UK to Australia. Just like the Lancastria, she had been requisitioned for military use. The German bomb hit the bridge of the ship, destroying the steering and wireless controls as well as charts of the route back to the English coast. Several people were injured and killed, but the ship remained afloat. The Captain, nursing a broken leg, heroically managed to sail the damaged Oronsay back to England using a pocket sized compass.
Because of this disastrous air raid, naval commanders urged the Lancastria to sail, but the Captain didn’t want to leave until there was a naval destroyer to act as an armed escort. This, unfortunately, proved to be a mistake. At 1548 hours German aircraft returned. The Lancastria suffered from three direct hits and sank within 20 minutes. The sinking ship haemorrhaged over 1,400 tons of fuel which choked many of the survivors of the initial explosion, and to make matters even worse, strafing fire from the German aircraft ignited the oil.
“She was going down fast. Her bunker oil was released and spreading all over the water. We couldn’t escape it. At the same time the b*****ds were machine gunning us in the water and dropping incendiaries to try to set fire to the floating oil.” Michael Sheehan
2,477 people were rescued from the burning water. This means that between 1,500 and 6,500 people perished, depending on the estimates of those aboard. The number most often used in 4,00o. That means more people died aboard Lancastria than in the Titanic and Lusitania tragedies combined. So why does nobody know about it?
Well, the Titanic sank in peacetime and therefore was a huge news story. The tragedy of the vessel never completing its maiden voyage with the loss of 1,514 people is quite rightly commemorated.
The Lusitania sinking is mainly remembered as the catalyst that brought the United States of America into the First World War. Posters depicting drowned women urged young Americans to enlist and fight in Europe. The tragedy was used to prove that Germany was an evil force that must be defeated. The Lusitania caused a propaganda whirlwind that changed the course of history, and is again, quite rightly remembered.
So why not the Lancastria?
Top brass did not want the public to know what had happened for several reasons.
Any lists confirming who had actually boarded the ship had been taken to the bottom of the ocean. Official numbers were not known, and any reports of actual numbers or personalities killed would be pure speculation.
Just as Dunkirk was hailed as a great victory rather than a mass retreat, The government was very careful about how certain events in the war were publicised. There was no positive spin on the sinking of the Lancastria, and therefore Churchill issued a D-notice, which urged the newspapers not to publish the story. At a time when keeping morale high was paramount, such a tragedy would deeply affect both Allied servicemen and the millions of civilians suffering on the home front. As well as this, no-one wanted Germany to be able to boast about the large numbers of Allied dead. It was imperative not to give anybody the notion that Germany had succeeded in something.
A few papers ignored the D-notice, but the story never really took flight. Even survivors were reluctant to tell the story for fear of court martial.
However, the disaster happened 72 years ago. Why, so long after the war, has the truth never really been told?
There are memorials constructed in Clydebank, near where the ship was built, and at St Nazaire where she sank. Both were only erected after a lot of campaigning. The Clydebank memorial was only sanctioned two years ago. The British Government even refuses to declare the wreck site a war grave, a move which the MOD describes as ‘merely symbolic.’ However, in 2011 an estimated 100 survivors were still alive and many families still mourn the loss of a loved one to this day, and have no site to properly mourn them.
Even the National Memorial Arboretum only has a single tree. Executed military murderers got more than that.
There are but a handful of books on the subject, albeit very good ones, and to date only one documentary that I can find, which is difficult to get hold of.
I’m hoping that you’ve read this and have become inspired to know more. This site is excellent:
You will find survivor accounts and a list of all confirmed fatalities, as well as photos and a news section.
I’d love for this story to be more widely known so that the dead can be commemorated as they deserve to be, not just by a handful of relatives, campaigners and military historians. Please reblog and retweet this so that we can honour their memory. I hate to think that they lie forgotten and uncared for.
- They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
- Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
- At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
- We will remember them.