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- Off St .Nazaire, France
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- 22 May 2005
The Sinking of the Lancastria Stan Scislowski On Monday, June 17, 1940, the Cunard Liner, Lancastria, pressed into war service as a troopship was anchored just outside the harbour of St. Nazaire, France taking on thousands of British troops in the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force threatened with annihilation or being taken in the bag by the German armies rampaging their way through France. Two weeks earlier, the last of the British and French troops had been taken off the beach at Dunkirk in the almost unbelievable overall evacuation of 335,000 British and French troops by hundreds of craft of all kinds, from cruisers, destroyers, ferries, riverboats, and small craft of every conceivable size, shape and kind.
While France was accepting Hitler’s terms of surrender, the highways and byways of the Pas de Calais outside the Wehrmacht’s armoured encircling ring around Dunkirk were crowded with Regiments of British Infantry and ancillary units streaming towards St.Nazaire where, they were told, ships were waiting to rescue them from the gaping jaws of captivity. Nineteen vessels of varying size and types were either at dockside or anchored in the open sea outside the harbour loading as many troops as they could cram aboard. The Lancastria was one of these ships, a single funnelled vessel of 16,243 tons whose five decks could accommodate in peacetime close to 2000 passengers, but after being converted to troopship duties it could, with reasonable comfort take on at least twice that many. As it turned out, she accepted somewhere between 8000 to 9000, although there have been other estimates that were well below these figures. Some said it carried no more than 5000 troops, though, according to reliable sources, the higher numbers are closer to the truth. Amongst this great crowd of fighting men were 38 civilians, 18 of them, workers from the Fairey Aviation Corporation, along with a few women and children.
The evacuation began on Saturday, June 16, with a five mile queue of men inching forward to board ships either at dockside, or ferried to ships anchored out in the approaches to the harbour. Complete hospitals and Convalescent Depots were emptied to become part of the vast exodus. Loading went on all night long and through the next day. Tenders motored back and forth ferrying troops between the dock and the Lancastria and other ships standing by to take on troops in an urgency to beat the German Armoured columns racing towards the city. The greater danger, however, for the present, was the Luftwaffe bombers circling over the harbour, taking turns in making bombing and strafing runs at the ships below.
A seven ship convoy, commodored by Capt. H. Fuller aboard the S.S. John Holt departed Newport the afternoon of June 16, bound for St. Nazaire on the rescue mission, entering Quiberon Bay at 7 a.m. the next morning where the ships were anchored outside the harbour. About a mile away, another liner, the Oronsay was also taking on a steady shuttle of troops. Shortly before the Lancastria was hit, the Oronsay was struck by a bomb, but sustained only minor damage and little loss of life, and shortly the ship began moving out and was on its way to England, its engines labouring under the heavy passenger load it had taken on. By four in the afternoon the last soldier had been taken on board the Lancastria, squeezing himself into the incredible press of men on the vessel’s open deck because every square inch of cabin space had long since been filled. The ship was within minutes of hauling up anchor and swinging about for the quick run across the Channel to England and safety when a lone JU 88 twin-engine bomber began its bombing run on the helpless Lancastria. In the last seconds of its shallow dive, several Bren gunners aboard the ship opened fire but failed to drive the plane off. Four bombs plummeted towards the ship, two hitting the sea nearby, while one smashed through the dining salon and exploded in a lower deck, and the other, according to witnesses, went straight down the funnel and detonated in the engine room, both bombs blowing gaping holes in the ships sides. They were mortal wounds, the damage so extensive that the ship sank within fifteen minutes. The shortness of time it remained afloat trapped most of those in the lower decks, accounting for the reason why so many men went down with her. Heavy loss of life also occurred amongst the hundreds floating around on the sea with and without life-jackets, on rafts, and clinging to whatever flotsam that they could latch onto when the enemy planes swept in to machine-gun the struggling mass of people in the water. The heavy blanket of bunker oil released from the ship’s fuel tanks also contributed to the death total.
It had been reported in the Daily Mirror of July 26,1940 that 2,823 had been lost, yet other sources claimed that the total that went down with the ship or died in the water was more like 5000. These same sources, namely counts taken by army officers and ship’s officers as the men filed aboard had the totals varying between 8000 to 9000 having been taken aboard. Within a few minutes after the bombs struck the ship began to list sharply to port and was down by the head, with troops jumping overboard en masse. With the scarcity of life-jackets, a high percentage had to go without, and with a good many being non-swimmers, these unfortunate souls thrashed about in the water for several minutes before slipping beneath the surface to drown. Others, who were caught in the suffocating blanket of bunker oil seeping from the ship’s hold, fought to free themselves from the sticky mess enveloping them, their eyes, ears, noses and throats eventually filling up, and in a matter of minutes they too, gave up the struggle and let the sea claim them. Those that wore life-jackets floated amidst the debris of wood deck-chairs, packs, kit bags, bits of uniforms and all sorts of other flotsam became targets for the bomber as it swung around and made a low-level machine-gunning attack on the helpless men. On the second pass, it dropped incendiary bombs on the thick spread of oil around the ship, the murderous crew hoping to set it on fire and incinerate them. Fortunately the bombs failed to ignite the oil. The combustible mass simply sputtered for a minute or so and went out. When the bomber peeled off for a third strafing, two men on a raft must have thought the situation was hopeless and agreed to end their agony. The one with the revolver, pointed it at his friend’s head, and then this man was heard to exclaim, “Fire away!” A shot rang out, and within a second or two another shot. The man ended his own life
A short distance away, another drama unfolded. A lifeboat crowded with survivors drifted into view of a group of people on a raft. They saw an officer in the front with a revolver keeping others away by threatening to shoot them. One man in the water made several grabs at the boat, whereupon the officer put the gun to the man’s head and fired. The man sank out of sight. Not four seconds later, the officer himself was shot from behind. He stiffened, then rolled sideways into the sea and was gone. Desperation did strange and dreadful things to people’s minds.
Although it was obvious the vessel would soon sink, there was little or no panic. But, as one of the lifeboats filled with women and other civilians was being lowered to the sea, it got stuck halfway down. One overzealous member of the Pioneer Corps, thinking he could free the boat by cutting a rope with his jack-knife succeeded only in causing the boat to drop at its prow, throwing the terrified occupants into the sea.
It might be mentioned here the courage of those who, although they knew they were within minutes of stepping over the threshold into eternity, raised their voices in song as they stood on the lowering decks. “Nearer My God To Thee” was not the song sung on the Lancastria as the doomed passengers on board the Titanic were supposed to have sung as that great ship was going down in the icy North Atlantic in 1912. The soon-to-be-drowned souls on board the Lancaster sang more cheerful tunes, songs like ‘Roll Out the Barrel’, ‘Hanging Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line’, and as the end drew nearer, they broke into ‘There’ll Always Be An England’. Closer to the ship’s stern, another group, their voices clear and unwavering sang, ‘God Be With You Till We Meet Again’.
Many were the heroic acts that took place in the short fifteen minutes between the time the bombs hit and the ship’s disappearance beneath the waves. A lone Bren gunner somewhere unseen on one of the decks kept popping off short bursts at the German planes that kept sweeping, its wing-guns lashing out at the men bobbing about and struggling in the oil-smeared sea. This brave man, could have, like those around him, made an attempt to leave the ship to save himself, but he chose to stay at his weapon even as the water closed in over him. The truly sad part of this man’s sacrifice was that no one would ever know his name—a hero who will forever remain unknown.
Fear can sometimes bring about miraculous results, as when an RAF officer who was about to jump into the water, overheard a man next to him bewailing the fact that he couldn’t swim. The officer, cuttingly replied, “Well, now’s your chance to learn.” Shortly thereafter as the officer treaded water, this self-same individual who couldn’t swim, went by him like a torpedo. His stroke, that of an Olympic champion.
Fear can also do strange and awful things to men’s minds. One panic-stricken man in the water went berserk as he tried to tear the life-jacket off another man, and then fought to join the group of six people clinging together in a circle, three having life-jackets, the others had not. By this means the ‘haves’ managed to save the ‘have-nots’. But now as the manic one thrashed and flailed away with his arms trying to wrench a jacket off one of the group, a fierce struggle ensued. As one of the group later explained, “Had the fellow been calm, we could have supported the extra burden. But since he was a menace to our own hopes of survival, we had to fight him off, after which he swam over to another man and fought him for possession of the man’s life-jacket. The outcome of this man’s demented effort to save himself is not known. One might ask here, “Why is it that some people, on the approach of doom can face it with stoicism or calm resignation, while others go into paroxysms of weeping or uncontrollable violence as the end draws near?” The answer defies conclusion.
Besides the lone Bren gunner who stayed at his post until the seas closed over him, there were other isolated acts of heroism going on. Like the naked man covered completely in black oil who dove time after time into the sea from the safety of the rescuing ship to bring floundering people to its side where they could be hauled aboard.
And then there was the poignant scene of a mother, and her tiny baby being thrown into the water when a lifeboat capsized crying out to others drifting nearby, “My baby! My baby! Please find my baby!” Back came the answer, “It’s all right, Ma, we’ve got her,” as they held her baby well above the water.
As the Lancastria was settling rapidly by the head, ships nearby—the trawler Cambridgeshire, the destroyers Havelock and Highlander, the cargo ship John Holt and other ships responded to the urgency by moving in and pulling survivors out of the water, many of those picked up out of the water were heavily covered in oil or suffered acutely from exposure in the cold water of the Channel. They rescued, as the Daily Mirror reported 2,823 out of a total of close to 8000 passengers that had been aboard. All others, over 5000 of them went down with the Lancastria. Exact totals will never be known. Suffice it to say that the sinking of the Lancastria was the single greatest marine(not naval) disaster suffered by the British in WW II, and for the sake of morale at a time when that morale wavered under the punishing blows of defeat in France, publicity, through necessity, was minimized. As the war progressed and other disasters occurred, one upon the other, the loss of the Lancastria was soon forgotten, except in the many households throughout the British Isles where the loss of a loved one would never be forgotten. Stan Scislowski
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