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The Sinking of the British Ship Lancastria in June 1940: A Private Story — Historical past is Now Journal, Podcasts, Weblog and Books


The SS Lancastria was a 16,243-ton, 5 decked ship that up till the outbreak of warfare in 1939 had been a lavish luxurious cruise liner. It toured the Norwegian fjords, and throughout the Mediterranean and West Indies earlier than being swiftly requisitioned by the British Authorities and outfitted as a troop ship. It spent the early months of the warfare ferrying troopers backwards and forwards from Canada to the UK, assisted within the evacuation of Norway, earlier than lastly being referred to as upon to play a pivotal function in ‘Operation Ariel’; the title of the lesser recognized marketing campaign that adopted the aftermath of the evacuation of Dunkirk. The scenes main as much as it have been no much less dramatic.

Overwhelmed by the may of the Nazi blitzkrieg, French defenses had rapidly collapsed within the days following the final departure from Dunkirk. Numerous civilian refugees, French troopers and the huge the rest of British forces in France – some 150,000 males – hurriedly escaped south. On June 14th, an pressing name went out to the crew of Lancastria, then docked in Liverpool, to make all haste for the French port of Saint Nazaire. That exact same day, the Nazis occupied Paris. Issues have been dire.

Colin, I found, was by this level based mostly at a weapons and tools storage base at Nantes, the previous historic capital of Brittany positioned about 40 miles from the ocean. Having been an articled clerk previous to the warfare, Colin was one in all many assist troops, engineers, restore males, transport and communications employees, wi-fi operators, air drive floor crew, retailer minders, cooks, bakers, and clerks that equipped the principle British Expeditionary Pressure. Recognized collectively as “the Grocers,” the overwhelming majority of those personnel have been positioned, at the least initially, far behind the principle protection traces and most would by no means have anticipated to see battle. In fact, few anticipated both that France would fall so rapidly to the German onslaught.

Within the wake of Paris’ seize, Normal Alan Brooke, the commander of all remaining British forces in France, pleaded with Churchill to difficulty a normal order for evacuation. Throughout an intense thirty minutes name within the early hours of June fifteenth, a determined Brooke knowledgeable Churchill of the irreversible collapse in French morale saying it “was unattainable to make a corpse really feel.” Churchill relented and at 10am that very same morning, a normal evacuation order was given. Later that day, phrase reached my uncle’s base in Nantes.

As these on the base rushed to depart, quite a few experiences doc a rushed frenzy ensuing to burn and destroy any tools, automobiles and armaments that would not be carried out to forestall them from falling into German arms. In the meantime, others helped themselves to remaining foods and drinks stockpiles. As 19-year-old Henry Harding from Wales would later recount: “Every thing was thrown open… you can assist your self to no matter it was you needed, so we took chocolate.”Then, with German planes already answerable for the skies above, they headed out to converge on what writer Johanthan Fenby describes as “the final escape hatch left.”

Throughout the subsequent 24 hours, Saint Nazaire was overcrowded with British troopers and refugees. Native French residents cried because the British started clambering aboard requisitioned ocean liners. It was into this scene of chaos that the Lancastria would arrive the following day, June seventeenth. It was to show a fateful day.

Greater than six thousand reportedly boarded the Lancastria with Colin’s corps amongst the final to board. Those that had boarded first have been greeted by males in fancy white uniforms with gold buttons who assigned all of them rooms. Whereas they waited for others to board, a fortunate few tucked into sausages, bacon and eggs with sizzling buttered toast for breakfast. It will need to have been fairly the consolation after days after a hurried sprint to the coast.

Ultimately although, the vessel was so cramped that officers pleaded with Lancastria’s Captain to take no extra. He pushed again, saying he had been ordered to take as many as attainable with out respect to worldwide legislation. They have been all anxious to go away. That they had good purpose to be. There had been experiences of different ships being attacked by the Luftwaffe though luckily no main disasters had but struck.

As hundreds crammed onto the assembled ships, information was already spreading within the port that France’s newly appointed chief, Marshall Pétain, had that morning agreed to open armistice talks with Germany. Throughout the English Channel, Churchill was quickly assembly France’s quickly to be chief in exile, Charles de Gaulle, within the gardens of Quantity 10 Downing Avenue. Whereas that very same day, up in Belgium, Hitler was mentioned to have hit his thigh in glee upon listening to the information of France’s capitulation. As Churchill would declare later that day, “the Battle for France was over.”


After ready painstakingly for its escort, the Lancastria lastly started to drag out of the dock. But, any reduction these aboard felt was rapidly dashed as shortly thereafter six Luftwaffe planes got here down from the skies. A minute later siren on the ship sounded. Heard “a chilling banshee scream… howling from the sky.” Preliminary bombs missed however a collection of successive bombs hit their mark, with one payload going straight down the ship’s fennel. It was deadly. The ship went down in 20 minutes. Hundreds onboard perished.

To learn the survivor accounts is harrowing. Collectively, they painting a scene straight from Dante’s inferno. One 15 yr previous who helped with the rescue described the scene he noticed as “hell… abominable, the peak of horror.”

We’ll by no means know for positive precisely how Colin died, and maybe that’s for the very best. Most of these packed within the ships maintain died immediately from the preliminary bomb explosion. Many others drowned, both as a result of they couldn’t swim or have been trapped. Solely 2,000 life belts have been on board for at the least 3 instances that many males. Splinters of wooden from partitions and flooring impaled folks standing close by. Oil flowed out of a ripped oil tank. Splinters within the eating corridor. Those that survived the preliminary sinking choked on the oil that flooded the encompassing waters. However most ghastly and cruelly, the Luftwaffe planes returned to gun down these swimming to shore.

One account stands out from the remainder nevertheless. A handful of troopers standing on the Lancastria’s quickly sinking hull because it descended into the water, proudly and defiantly singing the warfare time classics of Roll Out The Barrel and There Will All the time Be An England.

Lots of the our bodies have been by no means discovered or with the ship. 128 our bodies got here ashore. Chem du Lancastria. Is perhaps buried there. Speculate over what occurred to Colin. “Out on the ocean have been a whole bunch of our bodies, many previous recognition, shot to items, machine-gunned or blown to items.

I’ve found the preliminary telegram that was issued within the quick aftermath of the Lancastria’s demise. Colin is listed as ‘Lacking In Motion.’ It’s exhausting to say precisely when my nice grandparents and his two sisters would have been notified. I do know that after they did it left a deep scar on my grandmother, claire, and a burning need, in her phrases, “to kill Germans.” A self-described “Tom Boy”, Colin was her hero and in becoming a member of the protection forces she was decided to make sure his life was not in useless.

Solely in more moderen many years has the story of the Lancastria grow to be extra recognized. Regardless of it, or maybe due to it, accounting for greater than a 3rd of all losses within the warfare as much as that time, and wanting to keep up British morale, Churchill felt justified in placing a censorship discover on the media and even survivors from speaking about it. In spite of everything, it should not have been exhausting to think about England falling subsequent to the Nazi warfare machine. It was so saved so tightly beneath wraps that those that survived didn’t discuss to wives and family about it till many years later.

sixty fifth anniversary

It wasn’t till the sixty fifth anniversary of the Lancastria’s sinking, in 2015, that the British Parliament formally acknowledged it. Standing in for the Prime Minister, George Obsborne mentioned: “It was saved secret on the time for causes of wartime secrecy, however I believe it’s applicable at present on this Home of Commons to recollect all those that died, those that survived, and people who mourn them.”

Sadly, it’s the brutal actuality that for many those that died onboard Lancastria is only one of many tragedies in the course of the warfare. What ought to make this one stand out from all the remainder? Added to that is the truth that in contrast to Dunkirk’s “victory in defeat”, which continues to offer the supply materials for therefore many TV reveals and movies, a tragedy of Lancastria’s proportions is unlikely to stir British patriotism. The tales of the 150,000 males left behind in France after Dunkirk has been largely forgotten in in style mainstream historical past books on the Second World Warfare.

Even amongst members of my very own prolonged household I encountered indifference. I bear in mind one in all my dad’s cousins, Colin’s personal nephew, replying curtly to a message I despatched that nobody ever spoke to him about Colin and I most likely not more than he does.

I couldn’t let the story finish there nevertheless. I thought of Claire all these years in the past telling me about her beloved brother. And I considered Colin’s memorial plaque in Dunkirk. It occurred to me that not one member of his household had visited it prior to now eight many years. My dad mentioned it was a disgrace he didn’t discover this out in Claire’s lifetime. He would have taken her to see it. She couldn’t go, however we might.

So shortly earlier than the eightieth anniversary of the Lancastria’s sinking, my sister, dad and mum, took the ferry throughout. At 8am on a chilly, misty, winter day we visited the grave. I recorded the second. You may hear…. We had taken with us a small bottle of whiskey. We poured every of us a small cup, after which a fifth one. Then, crouching to the small plack, we raised a toast.

John Lee Colin Thomas, misplaced on the Lancastria on June 17, 1940. Misplaced however not forgotten.

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