Seventy-five years ago this month, on June 17, 1940, the troopship Lancastria, a former Cunard liner, sank within 20 minutes in the turbid waters off St Nazaire on the French Biscay coast. It was Britain’s biggest maritime catastrophe, with uncounted victims estimated to number at least 4,000, mainly British servicemen, but also including French and Belgian families fleeing the oncoming Panzers.
The crowded vessel was grossly overloaded when she was struck by four bombs dropped by a German Junkers JU 88. Her master, Cunard veteran Captain Rudolph Sharp, immediately realised he had a major crisis on his hands. One of the bombs had exploded in No 2 hold, where 800 RAF ground-staff had been accommodated for the journey across the Channel.
Captain Sharp knew that the carnage caused in such an enclosed space would be fearful. All he could do was ensure as many lives were saved as possible. He immediately gave the order to clear away the Lancastria’s lifeboats. The water surrounding the stricken vessel was soon thick with fuel oil leaking from the liner’s tanks, and full of people seeking to keep their heads above the reeking tideway.
As the liner heeled over, others climbed on her hull. They even managed to sing, striking up with Roll Out the Barrel, but when their perches became more precarious as the ship heeled over, before overturning and settling in 72ft of water, they changed to There’ll Always be an England.
Towards the end, only one voice, a pure tenor, continued the singing.
German aircraft swooped, spraying men, women and children with machine-gun bullets, and sought to set the oil slick afire with incendiary bombs.
Lancastria had been overloaded by order of the War Office or the Admiralty, perhaps both. Soon after she dropped anchor after crossing the Channel, three Naval officers arrived and asked Captain Sharp how many he could take aboard. “About three thousand at a pinch”, he replied.
He was then told: “You’ll have to take as many as you possibly can without regard to the limits of international law”. Capt Sharp complied, and one estimate puts the number aboard at 9,000. This scramble was precipitated by the rapid progress of the German Panzers, who were already astride the Loire and closing in on St Nazaire.
The miracle of Dunkirk had finished nearly a fortnight earlier, on June 4; alas, there was to be no miracle of St Nazaire.
There were, however, actions of supreme courage, one of them involving a former trawler, the Cambridgeshire, that had been commandeered by the Royal Navy.
She was built at Smiths Dock, Middlesbrough, North Riding, and before the war fished out of Grimsby. Despite attention from the Luftwaffe, she plucked 700 survivors from the wreck, and three members of her crew were decorated for gallantry.
Cambridgeshire performed a further service to the nation that day. Still grubby from her heroics in the estuary, she collected Lt Gen Alan Brooke and his staff from St Nazaire and returned them to England. As a Corps commander, Brooke had already distinguished himself at Dunkirk, and had been sent back to France to take command of remaining British forces to the south of the country.
Churchill accepted his advice that they, too, should be withdrawn, Brooke subsequently had a vital role in the war, standing shoulder to shoulder with Churchill as Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Later, as Viscount Alanbrooke, he called Churchill a genius, adding that although the Prime Minister could be difficult he would not have missed the chance of working with him for anything on earth.
Cambridgeshire saw out the war, and later fished out of Hull under a new name, Kingston Sapphire, as part of the Kingston Steam Trawling Company. She was scrapped in 1954.
Brooke’s predecessor as CIGS was Field Marshal Sir John Dill. Churchill missed at meeting with him as he was preparing a speech to give to the House of Commons later that day.
However, it is widely believed that it was he who decided that the sinking of the liner, and the loss of upwards of 4,000 lives, should remain a secret. A D-Notice was issued to muzzle the Press because he feared the impact on national morale.
The news did eventually get out, first in the New York Times, then in The Scotsman on July 26. On August 4 the Sunday Express published a picture of the capsized ship with the caption, “Last moments of the greatest sea tragedy of all time.”
Repercussions rumble on, even after 75 years. On May 29 this year The Times published a letter from, among others, the chairman of the Lancastria Association of Scotland, calling for the wreck to be designated a war grave to supplement memorials at St Nazaire, in Glasgow, where the ship was built, and at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. The letter also made the point that there is no clear understanding of what actually happened because documentary evidence remains unavailable, and may not be released until 2040.
Even then there may not be anything to see. No documents relating to the disaster are listed as being held under the Official Secrets Act. The official report on the loss of Lancastria seems no longer to exist.
Captain Sharp, who did not leave his ship until water was lapping at his bridge, survived the sinking. He went on to captain Laconia, another commandeered Cunarder, and when she was torpedoed and sunk on September 12, 1942, he is said to have stood on the deck smoking as the last of the lifeboats got away. Then he disappeared, along with 1,600 other victims.
As the 75th anniversary of the Lancastria disaster approaches, it would surely not be an insurmountable problem for the Government to release what, if anything, remains in the archive, and to ask the French to agree to the wreck being designated a war grave. The ghosts of Captain Sharp and the men, women and children who perished on that day of high summer in the estuary of the Loire deserve the last scraps of secrecy surrounding their sacrifice to be dispelled.
• Malcolm Barker is a former editor of the Yorkshire Evening Post.