The 75th anniversary of the evacuation of British and French troops from Dunkirk has been celebrated this last week. Some of the ‘little boats’ and a few of the surviving veterans headed back to France to feature on television.
I wonder how many people are aware of the evacuations of other troops from occupied France which took place some days after the last soldiers were taken off the beaches at Dunkirk?
After Dunkirk had fallen on 4th June 1940, any remaining British troops still at large in France were ordered to make to France’s Atlantic coast. This involved a dangerous and chaotic journey on roads crowded with refugees fleeing from the furious advance of the Wehrmacht.
Back in England, 'Operation Aerial’ was being planned in the hope that a miracle similar to Dunkirk could happen - this time many miles to the south. It was hoped that troops could make their way to Cherbourg, St Malo, St Nazaire and Bourdeaux. A fleet of ships was assembled and between 15th and 25th June a total of 190,000 troops of the allied nations were safely brought back to England.
It didn’t all go accordingly to plan, however, particularly at St Nazaire.
One of the ships sent there was HMT Lancastria, a sleek Cunarder “with two masts and a single funnel” which had already been involved in bringing back exhausted troops from Norway. On 17th June, she was anchored about 10 miles off St Nazaire and throughout the day she steadily filled up with soldiers and airmen being ferried out to her in smaller craft. These smaller boats also brought out French civilians men, women and children who were also taken aboard.
At about 1pm, another ship nearby, the Oronsay, was attacked by German aircraft and badly damaged. Those aboard the Lancastria feared that they would be next. Sure enough, at around 4pm, the Luftwaffe returned to attack the Lancastria. The ship was straddled and then hit by bombs and almost immediately began to list; pouring oil from her ruptured tanks into the sea. All those aboard were forced into the water in a desperate attempt to swim through the thick oil to get away from the doomed vessel.
The ship sank within twenty minutes of the first attack and she took with her many lives. No-one can say exactly how many were aboard when she was attacked, but it has been estimated that it was in the region of 9,000 men, women and children. Sadly, less than 2,500 were rescued and brought ashore in Plymouth.
Winston Churchill immediately hid the news from the public. In 1940, after Dunkirk, he thought that revealing the truth would have been too damaging for civilian morale. He said, 'The newspapers have got quite enough disaster for today, at least.' Since that time the disaster has never been recognised for what it was - the greatest maritime disaster in Britain's history.
More people were killed on the Lancastria than on the Titanic and Lusitania put together.
A memorial service is held each year on the first Sunday after 17th June.
This article is based on an account of the Lancastria's sinking, by Raye Dancocks, Chair of the HMT Lancastria Association.