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.