There were still tens of thousands of British military personnel in France even as it became apparent that the new French leader was likely to seek an Armistice. Once again a rapidly organised evacuation was underway. The circumstances were not as desperate at at Dunkirk but they were still impeded by German bombers ranging far and wide.
The Cunard liner Lancastria had been pressed into service as a troop ship. She now took on board as many men as possible, far exceeding her peacetime capacity. Amongst them were over 800 RAF maintenance crew, packed into the lower hold, as well as thousands of soldiers from a variety of Army support units, and an unknown number of civilian refugees.
Unfortunately they had not long left the port of St Nazaire before the bombers found them.
Walter Hirst was a Sapper with the Royal Engineers:
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”.
Albert Nadin, serving with the Royal Army Service Corps, describes how the ship took about seventeen minutes to sink. The Captain was using a loud hailer from the bridge to proclaim “Every man for himself”. There were already many people in the water but Nadin saw that many of them were being hit by falling debris as the ship leaned over – and he decided to wait before abandoning ship:
My mind was made up for me when she started to sink, turning slowly over on to her side and within seconds the top deck rail was almost level with the water. I was not a good swimmer but I stepped over the rail into the sea and made every effort to get away from the ship as far as I possibly could. I got about thirty yards away, looked back and saw she was sinking fast but a lot of troops were still on board and were scrambling up the bottom of the ship as she turned over.
I managed to get hold of an oar and another chap joined me and we managed to keep afloat by kicking out and holding the oar in front of us. By this time the oil was covering the whole area and we could feel it coming up from below. We were just drifting around while the German bombers were flying low and machine-gunning the survivors in the sea. By this time I was scared stiff and was covered in oil and could not seem to be able to keep my head out of the water.
We went on drifting about for an hour or so, but then a piece of wreckage, something like a raft, suddenly appeared as we were lifted up on top of a wave and we could see it was floating towards us. As we bobbed up and down in the water, we could see four men hanging on the sides. They shouted to us to try and paddle towards them as they were starting to drift away from us. We did this and managed to reach them. They were all covered in oil and to this day I do not know what they looked like! One of the men said, “You both can join us, but no one is going to be allowed to climb on top of the wreckage. If we just hang on treading water we could all make it.” It was a most suitable suggestion and we thanked them and left the oar to float away, it may have helped some other poor devils.
We were in the water for about another four hours and it was getting us all down. Two of the chaps just gave up and slipped away and the four of us left were very tired and were being battered by the waves. Then we saw the lights of a small steamer about a mile away and we spotted a ships lifeboat coming towards us. It reached us and pulled three of my comrades aboard. It was about eighteen feet long and already had about ten people in it. My turn came, as I thought, but someone said, “We can’t take any more, but we will come back for you.”
It was dark and I knew they would have a job to find me again so I thought, “here goes,” and pushed and splashed towards the boat, made it, and got my right arm through the looped rope running along the side of the boat, and locked my left arm on to my right, and thought, “they will have to knock me on the head before I let go!” I was pulled along for about ten yards before they realised they were towing me, then someone said, “Get the poor chap aboard before he is choked by this sodding oil.” They pulled me aboard and I just slumped in the bottom of the boat with the other survivors resting their feet on my back.
Walter Hirst and Albert Nadin’s full accounts can be read, along with many others at Lancastria Archive.
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 4,000 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.
The lack of information about the incident causes frustration 75 years later but all the available documents about the incident are available in the National Archives. The sad fact is that the story remains incomplete because of the confusion of war and the circumstances of the sinking itself. The most complete study of the incident is The Forgotten Tragedy: The Story of the Sinking of HMT “Lancastria”.