The Lancastria bombed and sunk

HMT Lancastria at sea

HMT Lancastria, a cross Atlantic cruise liner requisitioned as a troop transport April 1940

Walter Hirst was a Sapper with the Royal Engineers who were being evacuated from St Nazaire:

On the 17th we boarded the Lancastria late in the afternoon. We immediately grabbed a couple of life jackets which I thought would make ideal pillows. We were ordered below and shortly after witnessed, through a porthole, the Oronsay being hit. Both myself and another Sapper decided then, that it would be healthier if we were topside and so decided to climb the stairs, against orders.

Soon after the Lancastria was hit. It was a massive explosion. There was total panic and chaos. Soldiers, including some from 663, positioned at either end of the ship began to open up with Bren guns at the circling enemy aircraft. I managed to get myself into a lifeboat but as it was being lowered the ropes on one end became jammed in the davit. A panicked sailor suddenly jumped up and started to hack away at the ropes with a knife. Myself and others yelled at him to stop, but immediately we were all thrown into the sea.

Although I had a lifejacket on, I still had my doubts about being in the water as I was a non-swimmer. We were all saturated with oil. I kicked off from the side of the Lancastria on my back. I kept thinking “got to escape the suction of the ship”.

The Lancastria continued to roll over to port. Hundreds of men were now clinging to the upturned hull. Some of those standing on the turning hull started to sing “Roll out the Barrel”. Then one tenor voice began with “There’ll always be an England”.

His full account, and those of several others in his unit, can be be read at Lancastria.org.uk

The loss of the Lancastria was Britain’s worst maritime disaster. As a Cruise Liner, the Lancastria could take 1,785 passengers but the urgent need to evacuate so many from France meant that she was loaded with many more troops than this, although no fully accurate tally was kept or at least does it not survive. Estimates of the number of people on board have been placed as high as 9,000 and there were 2,077 survivors. It is probable that at least 5,000 people died in the disaster.

It was recognised as a catastrophe at the time and Churchill ordered a news blackout about the incident, fearing the impact such an incident would have on morale. Although it was reported in the foreign press later in May, many people in Britain did not learn of the disaster until after the war.

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