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Sinking of the Lancastria, 17th June 1940

by MsFirby

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Contributed by 
MsFirby
People in story: 
Albert John (Jack) Firby
Location of story: 
Off the coast of St Nazaire
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
A2277128
Contributed on: 
08 February 2004

My father Albert John Firby (known as Jack)died when I was six years old, but my mother told me that he walked for several days over one of the French mountain ranges to reach the coast at St Nazaire. On 17th June 1940, he managed to get one of the last places on the extremely overladen Lancastria, which apparently contained over 5000 men. When the ship was only a short way out to sea, it suffered a direct hit from a German dive bomber which caused it to sink. I do not know how long it took to sink, but my mother told me that my father gave his life jacket to a young lad who could not swim, (I would dearly like to know who that young lad was, but as it all happened so long ago, the chances are almost nil.) The survivors were in the water for several hours before they were picked up. Apparently this weakened my fathers heart, and in 1956, whilst working for Derek Crouch on the Ouse Drainage Board, he died of a blood clot to the brain. Unfortunately for my mother, who was left with three children to bring up, he died one year after the time allotted for widows to claim a war widows pension. Major Legge-Bourke our local M.P. tried unsuccessfully to claim this pension on my mothers behalf.
Last year my family (My husband, myself and my daughter) went to St Nazaire to try and find the memorial that was erected to the poor men who did not survive this terrible disaster, we managed to get the tourist office in St Nazaire to understand that we wanted to know where it was, but unfortunately they did not know. We found in the souvenir shop, a strange hand-typed, perspex fronted souvenance book about the Lancastria and the Jean Bart Disasters. This book was written in French, and as it was getting late we decided to go back to our holiday residence in St Jean de Mont. It was only after having read the book that night, on the very last page we discovered that the monument was in the cemetery of one of the villages that we had passed through on the way back, it was in the village of Pornic. We have decided to return this year to a place just further up the coast in southern Brittany and will try again to see the memorial. I would love to hear from anyone who knew my father during this awfull event, as my mother also passed away in 1992, so I am unable to ask her anymore about this time in my father's life. I'm sure that BBci can inform me if anyone would like to get in touch.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - Sinking of the Lancastria, 17th June 1940

Posted on: 09 February 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear MsFirby

The memorial to those lost in the Lancastria stands in Saint-Naizaire facing the direction of the wreck. The exact number of people crammed on the Lancastria will never be know, it was at least 6,000.

This is an extract from a post I made in another thread (Message 3 here: F1727800?thread=372667 )

"The Lancastria was bombed by dive bombers, four bombs hit her and her stern grounded and she rolled over. To make matters worse her fuel tanks burst and the sea was flooded with burning oil. This was the biggest British maritime disaster ever, a far greater disaster than the loss of the Titanic, and over 2,000 perished either drowned or burnt to death.To make matters worse this brought the evacuation to a grinding halt as all ships were now diverted to the rescue of hundreds of troops clinging to the side of the stricken Lancastria under continuous enemy harassment."

The finest account I know of and a fine example of what a well researched book should be is:

"The Forgotten Tragedy - The Story of the Sinking of HMT Lancastria" by Brian James Crabb (Shaun Tyas, 2002) ISBN 1 900289 50 4.

Replete with photographs it also contains a 40 page list of all those who are known to have perished: troops, RAF personnel, civilians, and crew, giving names, ages, service numbers and units.

Kind regards,

Peter

 

Message 2 - Sinking of the Lancastria, 17th June 1940

Posted on: 09 February 2004 by MsFirby

Dear Peter,
Thank you for replying to my story. We will revisit St Nazaire to look for the monument there. I will quickly write a small extract from the book that we bought at St Nazaire, unfortunately it is in French, and rather than translate incorrectly, I will copy exactly for you to draw your own conclusion to see if there is another memorial there!
"A Pornic, au cimetiere Anglais, la municipalite et les anciens combattants ont commemore cette grande catastrophe maritime. Un peu plus tard Mr. Noblanc correspondant a Saint Nazaire de l'association britannique H.M.T. Lancastria a evoque le naufrage tragique du paquebot." The text on the last page reads:-
Texte de la plaque de granit devoilee en presence des rescapes du H.M.T. Lancastria le 17 Juin 1988.

H.M.T."LANCASTRIA"
Devant ce lieu repose l'epave du transporteur de troupe "Lancastria" coule par l'ennemi le 17 Juin 1940 alors qu'il procedait a l'embarquement des troupes britanniques et civiles lors de leur evacuation.
A LA GLOIRE DE DIEU
a la memoire de plus de 4000 personnes qui ont trouve la mort
et
en commemoration du devouement desinteresse de la population de Saint Nazaire et des communes avoisinantes qui a sauve de nombreuses vies assiste les blesses et organise des funerailles chretiennes aux victimes.
Nous n'avons pas oublie!
The H.M.Y. "LANCASTRIA" 17 JUIN 1988.

Perhaps it is a different memorial to the one that you have told me about or is it possible that Pornic is adjacent to the Lancastria's final resting place.
It is with mixed emotions that I read about the terrible situation that my father was in, I did not know about the burning oil or the scale of the tragedy, that the poor men in the water were still being targeted even though they were already suffering greatly in the water.
I have asked the question on this website if there was a list of the survivers that possibly have been made at the time, hopefully the beeb might come up with something.
Thank you once again for telling me so much more, I will get the book to read and would love to hear about anymore that you can find out.
MsFirby.

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