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Lancastria: At Dunkirk 1940


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23 February 2004

Early in 1940 at the age of 34, my father embarked for France with the BEF. Shortly after, all communication from him ceased and at the time of Dunkirk he was reported missing. At the end of June, my mother received an empty cigarette packet through the post and pencilled on it was 'I'm OK' and our home address. My father had thrown it from the train window leaving Dover and someone had posted it.

It later transpired that his Unit had been told to make their way back to Dunkirk 'Every man for himself'. Reaching the crowded beaches, that were being machine gunned and bombed and with little hope of finding a boat, he and his mate decided to swim out to a large vessel on the horizon taking off every item of uniform that was pulling them down.

The ship was the 'Lancastria' pulling out of St Nazaire and coming along the coast. With over 5,000 on board, including soldiers, airmen and the Salvation Army, there was no room to go below to get away from the German machine gunning. This was to be his saving as when a bomb made a direct hit down a funnel, the ship caught fire and began to sink. Some who jumped overboard were cut to pieces by the propellors, others unable to swim away were either sucked under by the sinking vessel or caught up in the thick oil that had been set alight by the German air gunners.

My father and three others, clung to a piece of debris for hours, but with so many souls in the sea looking for a life-saving piece of wood, they had to beat off other would be survivors to prevent themselves from sinking. It was this episode that was to haunt my father for the rest of his days. Eventually picked up by a French fishing boat, he landed at Dover.

My sister and I were too young to understand his terrible nightmares when he would cry out sobbing in this sleep. After swallowing so much oil, he was to suffer breathing problems from time to time and died aged 51 with lung disease.


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Message 1 - LANCASTRIA

Posted on: 23 February 2004 by Jim Dillon - WW2 Site Helper

'Lancastria' was a Cunarder, 550 feet in length, displacing over 16,000 tons (see F.E. Hyde, "Cunard and the North Atlantic" for her details).
She was lost as you describe leaving St Nazaire, a Biscay port, on 17 June 1940 where she had been evacuating base and service troops of the B.E.F. who had been stationed near Le Mans.
She did not participate in the Dunkirk evacuation. She went down about a fortnight after it ended.
She was an ocean-going liner rather than a cross-Channel packet with a draught too great to be any use off the beaches.
Great loss of life, nobody really knew how many were on board.


Message 2 - LANCASTRIA

Posted on: 07 March 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Megadorothy

The troopship Lancastria wasn't lost quite as you describe (pace Jedillion). Several Junkers 88 dive-bombers attacked the Lancastria dropping at least six bombs, but she was sunk by four 250 Kg bombs all dropped from a single plane. The attack began on Monday, 17 June, at 15.45 and the 4 bombs hit her at 15.48, by 16.02 the bows had sunk and she rolled over onto her port side. At 16.12 she sank, taking just 24 minutes to disappear. (Times recorded by Capt H. Fuller, Master of the John Holt). Interestingly, even some on board thought that one of the bombs went down a funnel, but it didn't although it hit very close.

You say that "the thick oil that had been set alight by the German air gunners". This is an old accusation which is now known to be false. The oil tanks were ruptured making it almost impossible for any survivors to grip anything, added to this there was heartless machine-gunning of those in the sea. But the Germans did not set the oil alight with incendiary bombs; an incendiary bomb has to hit something solid before it will ignite, they pass ineffectively through oil and water. According to Captain Rudolph Sharp, the Master of the Lancastria, the source of combustion undoubtedly came from the Lancastria's calcium flares, which had become detached from the lifeboats and rafts. These were designed to ignite when immersed in water; these were seen burning by many and were confused with German bombs. Mercifully the fuel oil did not catch fire despite the burning flares, had it done so the death toll would have been even higher.

See my Message 3 in this thread F1727800?thread=372667 regarding the sinking of the Lancastria. Note that I too wrongly refer there to 'burning oil'.

Source, and for fuller details, including a 40-page list of all who died, see:

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

Kind regards,


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