HMT Lancastria: part one

Dear readers,

For this post, we sail away from Central America in the direction of France, almost 80 years back in time. It is a personal story, that took place at the beginning of World War Two, involving my grandfather. I’ve only recently learned about the Lancastria, kind of by mistake, after watching the Christopher Nolan movie Dunkirk, released last year; one of my favourites as a matter of fact.

For those not in the know, Dunkirk is a true story about the evacuation of British and Allies forces off the beaches in north east France between 26th May and 4th June 1940, after the German army pushed them into a corner; a surrender or die situation. Many troops were killed merciless, burned in barns or shot from the skies. However, British civilians in yachts and show boats helped save the stranded soldiers; 338,226 to be exact, while over 68,000 Allies troops perished or were captured. It’s believed many boats came voluntarily, but it turns out many were captained by the British army. Up to 933 ships took part in the evacuation, according to data from BBC.

Through rolls and rolls of propaganda, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill managed to change a military embarrassment into an act of bravery.

My grandmother told us the story. She told us my grandfather was in line waiting for a boat to send him home. There were three or four people in front of him when the line was cut and he was unable to board; the ship was full. Moments later, it was sunk, with many of his friends dying before him. My grandmother told us he suffered for years with post traumatic stress. He died in 1985 when I was five. My grandmother died in January of 2002. Arthur and Betty Rogers.

I always assumed my grandfather was on those Dunkirk beaches. However, after telling my Dad I’d watched the movie and how personal it was, he informed me that my grandfather at Saint Nazaire in north west France waiting to board the Lancastria on 17th June 1940. A surprise it was, but more so because of the scale of the tragedy. In the last couple of months I’ve delved into what happened, reading accounts and also contacted a few organisations that work to preserve the memory of the disaster and those who died, which was kept silent at the time and for many years later, for reasons I’ll mention in a second post.

But what actually happened? Let’s go back in time a little first.

The HMT Lancastria was actually born RMS Tyrrhenia, A Cunard liner part of the Royal Mail Service, built in Glasgow on the River Clyde, ans made its maiden voyage in 1920. However, the name was changed in 1924 to Lancastria after it was found that Tyrrhenia was difficult to pronounce. In 1940, it was requisitioned by the UK government to help in Operation Ariel, which was to evacuate British nationals and military stranded in western France, even though it only had a capacity of 1,300 people (increased to 2,200 for the operation), with more than 9,000 waiting to be saved. Captain Rudolph Sharp was given the instructions to fill the ship with as many men as possible, without regard for international regulations.

The ship left Liverpool on 14th June and arrived at the Loire estuary on the 16th, some 11 miles south west of St Nazaire. By the 17th, mid-afternoon, the Lancastria was being loaded, with between 6,000 and 9,000 people on board. Around 1:50pm, the nearby Oronsay liner was bombed in a German air-raid. The captain of the destroyer HMS Havelock advised that the Lancastria depart but without the defence of the destroyer as soon as possible. However, Sharp decided to wait, in case of submarine attack.

Then it happened, around 4pm, the Lancastria was hit four times by Junkers Ju 88 bombers, with one going down funnel and detonating in the engine room, spilling burning hot oil into the waters. People on board jumped from sinking ship into the waters, only for the German planes to return to fire strafing into the oil infested water, ignited the fuel and engulfing all those within it.

There were 2,477 survivors. There are only approximations regarding those who died. The Lancastria Association names 1,738 people known to have been killed, although other estimates say anywhere between 3,000 to 6,500 died, claiming more lives than the combined losses of the RMS Titanic (1,517 passengers and crew) and RMS Lusitania (1,198 passengers), making it the largest loss of life in British maritime history.

Learning of such a tragedy always takes a while to take it in. The disaster isn’t really widely known.

I am obviously thankful my grandfather didn’t die in this tragedy. I wouldn’t be here today otherwise. However, those who did lose their lives should be recognised, and I’ll focus on this in a second post in the coming days.

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About Nicholas Rogers

I am an English journalist/copywriter living in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and I have been here since 2011. I originally came to work with Casa Alianza, which supports street kids and vulnerable youths. I then stayed on, after meeting Pamela Cruz Lozano, who calls me her adopted Catracho. I work freelance journalism and I have my own translation business. Why did I come here? For the challenge, to open my mind and get out of my comfort zone. I love literature and I've written a book with street kids. I write novels, short stories and poetry, all of which you will find on this blog, as well as a lot of information about Honduras. View all posts by Nicholas Rogers

2 responses to “HMT Lancastria: part one

  • tegusdinners

    Nick, I really liked this pice and look forward to Part 2. Well-written, but also poignant in that it was both a family anecdote for you and that it illuminates an major disaster lost amidst the chaos of World War 2. The sinking of the Lancastria reminded me of two other similarly forgotten catastrophic sinkings that today are also nearly forgotten, but these both happened instead near the end of the war, in 1945…

    a) The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis: The greatest recorded loss of life to shark attacks happened as survivors hanging onto floating wreckage over the 4 days & nights were attacked and eaten. Maybe it was karma, because this cruiser had secretly delivered the final components of the atomic bomb, then was sunk by a sub as it returned. The whole mission was top secret, so no one knew it was missing and no one searched for survivors. Hundreds were eaten. I edited a TV news interview with a survivor in the 1990s- it was really shocking to hear it in first person, so I researched it more. It’s a truly hair-raising story, here is a BBC story on it: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-23455951

    b) The Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff: This one is quite obscure, but it should not be. This is because with over 10,000 fatalities, the loss of the Gustloff is the all-time, number one most deadly maritime disaster, either peacetime or wartime, multiple Titanics worth. The Gustloff disaster was almost forgotten until Nobel Prize winner Gunter Grass wrote “Crabwalk”, a novel that tells the story of this sinking. The Gustloff was evacuating ethnic German civilians from the German-majority area of Poland fleeing ahead of the Soviet army when it was sunk by a Soviet Sub in the Baltic. Maybe it’s forgotten because the Nazis didn’t want to add to their bad news or because the Soviets didn’t want the bad press for knowingly slaughtering thousands of civilians or because the other Allies had no sympathy for dead Germans during wartime. But it is worth knowing about, so I found you an article on it:
    http://militaryhistorynow.com/2014/04/16/the-gustloff-incident-historys-deadliest-and-forgotten-ship-sinking/

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