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The Greatest Maritime Disaster in British History
In June 1940, a British troop ship, HMT Lancastria, was sunk, causing the deaths of approximately 5,000 people. Winston Churchill, however, ordered a news blackout on the subject as he feared that it would damage the nation’s morale.
The Lancastria, then known as the Tyrrenhia made her maiden voyage in 1922 and throughout the 1920s and ‘30s the ship made the trans-Atlantic journey from Scotland to Canada. In 1939, the ship was commandeered by the Royal Navy, and her name was changed to HMT Lancastria. Due to her great size, the Lancastria was kept busily engaged transporting cargo and troops across the North Atlantic, but when the Norwegian campaign began in 1940, the Lancastria was used to evacuate troops from Harstaad. Returning to Britain full of weary soldiers, the Lancastria was spotted by a German aeroplane which attempted to bomb her but failed, and the Lancastria was able to return to Liverpool for a refit.
These repairs were, unfortunately, delayed when a telegram arrived containing orders for the Lancastria to sail for western France. Guided into the sea lanes of the Loire estuary, the ship lay anchored about ten miles off St Nazaire on the morning of Monday 17th June. Troops, including units from the Army and RAF, and civilians - men, women and children - quickly arrived and were fed together.
At about one o’clock in the afternoon, a German dive-bomber attacked a fellow ship, the Oronsay, scoring a direct hit but failing to sink it. At three o’clock, the captain of the Lancastria, afraid that the Luftwaffe would soon return in force, decided that he could not risk taking any more people aboard but also that he could not leave safely without an escort.
Within half an hour the enemy had returned as feared, and bombs struck the Lancastria on all sides, on of them rupturing her fuel tanks and causing her to pitch and roll dangerously from side to side; further bombs penetrated the holds and killed many hundreds of troops.
All occupants of the ship who still could, scrambled frantically to get out, non-swimmers grasping desperately at anything that floated since many lifeboats could not be released due to the angle of the ship. Any stragglers left stranded on the upturned hull were soon the target of enemy strafing and very few left in that position survived. Within twenty minutes, the last traces of the Lancastria had sunk.
It is not known exactly how many people were on the Lancastria when it was first hit, estimates range between seven and nine thousand, but of them only 2,477 survived to be rescued by fishing boats and vessels of the Royal Navy.
Churchill decided immediately to hide the news from the public, especially after Dunkirk he felt that "The newspapers have got quite enough disaster for today." As a result of this, it has never been recognized that this was the greatest maritime disaster in British history - more people were killed on the Lancastria than on the Titanic and Lusitania put together.
Of the 2,477 men rescued from the Lancastria, a hundred are still alive today and the HMT Lancastria Association was founded with the aim of remembering and honouring all those who lost their lives in the disaster, and helping those survivors who did return many of whom feel that their sacrifice has not been properly understood.