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News of the Lancastria’s sinking was hushed up in June 1940

Posted in Disasters, Historical articles, History, Ships, World War 2 on Friday, 1 June 2012

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This edited article about the sinking of the Lancastria originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 716 published on 4 October 1975.

Lancastria sinks, picture, image, illustration

The sinking of the Lancastria off St Nazaire in June 1940, by John S Smith

Whenever Dunkirk is mentioned, people automatically regard the heroic evacuation operation as the be-all and end-all of the withdrawal of British troops from France in 1940.

In actual fact, although the mammoth task of snatching 340,000 British soldiers from the closing jaws of the Nazi panzers was rightly hailed as a stupendous achievement, equally hazardous and heroic evacuations were conducted as long as a couple of weeks later, when the French finally surrendered.

A typical case to point to is the story of the Cunard liner, Lancastria, which in the company of several other ships and a host of small craft was lying off St Nazaire, at the mouth of the Loire, on June 17th, 1940. The task of this motley collection of craft was to evacuate British troops, nurses and refugees.

German air raids suddenly developed, and the Lancastria was ruthlessly attacked by Stuka dive bombers. She was hit repeatedly and sank in a sea of burning oil with a loss of 3,000 lives. This was a shocking occurrence, but not all that unusual in that terrible hour in our history.

Two events, however, separated it from the usual tragedies of that period.

First, contrary to the British tradition of the sea, very little assistance was given by the other vessels, especially the smaller craft.

There were certain obvious reasons why very little help was given. The burning oil on the waters made the task of rescuing the survivors a difficult one, and the other ships were themselves under attack. Even so, the circumstances were such as to make Churchill set up a Board of Enquiry. There was no satisfactory outcome to this enquiry, a fact that worried Churchill for the rest of his life.

The second reason for the event being unique was that the news of the sinking of the Lancastria, with such an appalling loss of life, was hushed-up.

The British public had been told that Germany invariably kept bad news from her people, whereas we were always told everything. In this case, however, it was decided that we had been bombarded with so much bad news since the evacuation from France, that the additional burden of learning of the terrible tragedy of the Lancastria could only lower morale to a dangerous level. For this reason the news of the sinking of the Lancastria was suppressed.

The Lancastria came into being in the early twenties, as a result of the Cunard line deciding to replace its war losses. Several ships, some of them 14,000 tons, and others of 20,000 tons, were built for the New York and Canadian services. Cunard then turned their attention to a ship of the Anchor line, the Tyrrenhia, a vessel which had been laid down in 1914, but had remained uncompleted because of the outbreak of war. She was taken over by Cunard, and was renamed the Lancastria. She made her maiden voyage in 1922, after her fitting had been seriously delayed in 1921, by a joiner’s strike. Although similar to her compatriots, she was easily recognised by her cruiser stern.

She first ran on the Liverpool – Canada service. Then the Hamburg – Southampton run, and finally on the service between London and New York. From 1932 onwards she was engaged in cruising.

Her basic statistics were as follows:

Tonnage 16,243 gross
Length 552 ft. (167 metres)
Breadth 70 ft. (21 metres)
Service Speed 15 knots (approx 17 miles per hour)

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