World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

HMT Lancastria 

Adapted from Wikipedia

Photo: Courtesy of Mr Clements of the Lancastria Association. Photo taken from the HMS Highander.

For eye witness story, see Ken Hoult's ( By L/Cp 1908893 J.K.W. Hoult R.E - member of 666 AW Company Royal Engineers), contribution towards the bottom of the page 'Stories by Authors' Names E - H'. Also click on link below.


The RMS Lancastria was a British Cunard liner that was sunk on 17 June 1940 during World War II with the loss of an estimated 4,000 (estimate varies up to 6,000) plus lives. It is the worst single loss of life in British maritime history and the bloodiest single engagement for UK forces (in terms of lives lost) in the whole conflict. It claimed more lives than the combined losses of the Titanic and Lusitania.

Launched on the Clyde, Scotland, in 1920 by William Beardmore and Company of Glasgow, Scotland as the Tyrrhenia for the Anchor Line, a subsidiary of Cunard, the 16,243 ton, 578 foot (176 m) long liner could carry 2,200 passengers. She made her maiden voyage, Glasgow-Québec-Montreal on 19 June 1922.

She was refitted for just two classes and renamed Lancastria in 1924, after passengers complained that they could not properly pronounce Tyrrhenia. She sailed scheduled routes from Liverpool to New York until 1932, and was then used as a cruise ship in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe. In 1934, the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland chartered the Lancastria for a pilgrimage to Rome. With the outbreak of the Second World War, she carried cargo before being requisitioned in April 1940 as a troopship, becoming the HMT Lancastria. She was first used to assist in the evacuation of troops from Norway.

She was sunk off the French port of St. Nazaire while taking part in Operation Ariel, the evacuation of British nationals and troops from France, two weeks after the Dunkirk evacuation.

After a short overhaul, she left Liverpool on 14 June under Captain Rudolph Sharp (born 27 October 1885) and arrived in the mouth of the Loire river estuary on 16 June. Anchored 11 miles south-west of St Nazaire. By the mid-afternoon of 17 June, she had embarked an unknown number (estimates range from 4,000 up to 9,000) of civilian refugees (including embassy staff and staff of Fairey Aviation of Belgium), and line-of-communication troops (Pioneers, RASC etc), and RAF personnel. The ship's official capacity was 2,200 including the 375 man crew.

At 1:50 pm the nearby Oronsay a 20,000-ton Orient liner, was struck on the bridge, the Lancastria was free to depart and advised by the captain of the British destroyer Havelock to leave, but without a destroyer escort against possible submarine attack, Sharp decided to wait.

A fresh air raid began before 4 pm. She was bombed at 15:48 by Junkers 88 aircraft from II. Gruppe/Kampfgeschwader 30. Three direct hits caused the ship to list first to starboard then to port and she rolled over and sank within twenty minutes. Over 1,400 tons of fuel oil leaked into the sea and was set partially ablaze, possibly by strafing (repeated bombing or machine gun fire from aircraft). Many drowned, were choked by the oil, or were shot by the strafing German aircraft. Survivors were taken aboard other evacuation vessels, the trawler Cambridgeshire rescuing 900. There were 2,477 survivors. The death toll accounted for roughly a third of the total losses of the British Expeditionary Force in France. She sank around 5 nm (9 km) south of Chémoulin Point in the Charpentier roads, around 9 nm (17 km) out of St. Nazaire. The Lancastria Association Victim registers 1,738 deaths.

The immense loss of life was such that the British government banned any public announcements of the disaster through the D-Notice system, but the story was broken by the New York Times and The Scotsman newspapers on 26 July. The British press did then cover the story, including front pages of the Daily Herald (also on 26 July) and Sunday Express on 4 August; the latter included a photograph of the capsized ship with its upturned hull lined with men under the headline, "Last Moments of the Greatest Sea Tragedy of All Time". Due to the imposition of the D-Notice, survivors and the crews of the ships that had gone to the aid of Lancastria did not discuss the disaster at the time due to the fear of court martial. The British Government has refused to make the site a war grave under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 although documents obtained under the Freedom of Information show that it could be done. The French Government recently placed an exclusion zone around the wreck site. In July 2007 another request for documents held by the Ministry of Defence related to the sinking was rejected by the British Government.

Rudolf Sharpe survived the sinking and went on to command the Laconia, losing his life along with many Italian prisoners-of-war on 12 September 1942 when the ship was torpedoed off West Africa, rolling over, and sinking stern first.


Photo courteously supplied Mr J.K.W. (Ken) Hoult.


All service personnel killed during the Second World War are recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and where known that they lost their lives on the Lancastria. 1,816 burials are recorded, over 400 of them in France.

After the war the Lancastria Survivors Association was set up by Major Peter Petit, but this lapsed on his death in 1969. It reformed in 1981 as The HMT Lancastria Association and it continues the tradition of a parade and remembrance service at the Church of St Katherine Cree in the City of London, where there is a memorial stained glass window. The Lancastria Association of Scotland was formed in 2005 and holds its annual service at St George’s West Church in Edinburgh.

A memorial on the sea-front at St Nazaire was unveiled on 17 June 1988, "in proud memory of more than 4,000 who died and in commemoration of the people of Saint Nazaire and surrounding districts who saved many lives, tended wounded and gave a Christian burial to victims." At the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, Lancastria is represented by a Sessile oak tree and a plaque.

In 2005 the Lancastria Association of Scotland began a campaign to secure greater recognition for the loss of life aboard Lancastria and acknowledgment for the endurance of survivors that day. It petitioned Downing Street to have the wreck site designated an official maritime war grave. The British Government refused to do so as it was within French territorial water outside the jurisdiction of the Act. The campaign received support from MPs, Lords, MEPs and MSPs from all parties but the MoD claimed that such a move would be "purely symbolic" and have no effect. In 2006, 14 additional wrecks sunk at the Battle of Jutland were designated as war graves; the Lancastria was again omitted. In 2007 the Association began a second petition this time to the Scottish Parliament calling for a special commemorative medal to be commissioned and awarded to all those who were aboard the ship that day. Campaigners believe this would represent, at last, formal recognition of what still remains a "forgotten tragedy". In February 2008 the Scottish Government confirmed it would present the medal to all those who were aboard the Lancastria that day. The medal is in recognition of the endurance of survivors and ultimate sacrifice of the victims. In June 2010 to mark the 70th anniversary of the sinking, special ceremonies and services of remembrance will take place in Edinburgh and Saint Nazaire.

Official recognition

On 12 June 2008, at a historic ceremony at the Scottish Parliament, First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond presented the first batch of medals to survivors and relatives of victims and survivors, the HMT Lancastria Commemorative Medal which represents "official Scottish Government recognition" of the Lancastria disaster. 150 survivors and relatives gathered from across the UK and Ireland for this historic event. The medal was designed by Mark Hirst, grandson of Lancastria survivor Walter Hirst. The medal inscription on the rear of the medal reads: "In recognition of the ultimate sacrifice of the 4000 victims of Britain's worst ever maritime disaster and the endurance of survivors - We will remember them". The front of the medal depicts the Lancastria with the text "HMT Lancastria - 17th June 1940". The medal ribbon has a grey background with red and black central stripe, representative of the ship's wartime and merchant marine colours. Hundreds of medals have been issued to survivors and relatives across the world.

According to official guidance issued by the Scottish Government, medal recipients are permitted to wear the medal in public along with their other campaign medals. The MoD continues to refuse to officially commemorate the victims of the Lancastria or the survivors who endured that day. The medal is subject to formal application and open to all survivors who were aboard the Lancastria 17 June 1940. Relatives of victims are also eligible to claim for the medal, so long as they can provide supporting evidence their relation was aboard the ship. An estimated 400 Scots were amongst the 4,000 killed when the Lancastria was attacked and sunk. The Scottish Government decided to proceed in light of the "unique scale" of the tragedy and because successive British Governments refused to commemorate the disaster.

The Lancastria Association of Scotland is also working to have a significant lasting memorial erected to the victims at Clydebank, Glasgow - where the vessel was built.

Scottish Ministers have provisionally said they will back the proposals. In 2005 and 2007, the Association held a special exhibition at the Scottish Parliament to highlight the loss. MSPs also signed a special hand bound book of remembrance. The Association maintains the largest online archive of Lancastria material on the internet The website received over 250,000 hits in 2007.

The Association also organizes the largest memorial service for the victims in the UK. The service, which is attended by survivors and relatives of both victims and survivors, together with representatives of the French and Scottish Governments, and a number of veterans’ organisations, and is held on the Saturday closest to the anniversary on 17 June each year at St. George's West Church, in Edinburgh's West End.

The Lancastria Association of Scotland has members throughout the UK, France and the rest of Europe as well as members in North America, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.

In December 2007 following a debate at the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Government said it had held talks with the British Government to try and persuade them to introduce a commemorative medal as a symbol of official recognition and acknowledgment for all those who had been aboard Lancastria. The MoD rejected that proposal in January 2008 and said they had no plans to commemorate the disaster.

The Lancastria Association of Scotland is also planning to build a memorial to the victims on the site where the ship was built, the former Dalmuir shipyard on the Clyde, now the grounds of the Golden Jubilee Hospital.


Text sourced from: