RMS Lancastria

Royal Mail Ship
Royal Mail Ship , usually seen in its abbreviated form RMS, a designation which dates back to 1840, is the ship prefix used for seagoing vessels that carry mail under contract by Royal Mail...

was a British Cunard
Cunard Line
Cunard Line is a British-American owned shipping company based at Carnival House in Southampton, England and operated by Carnival UK. It has been a leading operator of passenger ships on the North Atlantic for over a century...

Ocean liner
An ocean liner is a ship designed to transport people from one seaport to another along regular long-distance maritime routes according to a schedule. Liners may also carry cargo or mail, and may sometimes be used for other purposes .Cargo vessels running to a schedule are sometimes referred to as...

 sunk on 17 June 1940 during World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

 with the loss of an estimated 4,000 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 and claimed more lives than the combined losses of Titanic and Lusitania.


Launched on the Clyde in Scotland, in 1920 by William Beardmore and Company
William Beardmore and Company
William Beardmore and Company was a Scottish engineering and shipbuilding conglomerate based in Glasgow and the surrounding Clydeside area. It was active between about 1890 and 1930 and at its peak employed about 40,000 people...

 of Glasgow
Glasgow is the largest city in Scotland and third most populous in the United Kingdom. The city is situated on the River Clyde in the country's west central lowlands...

, as the Tyrrhenia for the Anchor Line, a subsidiary of Cunard
Cunard Line
Cunard Line is a British-American owned shipping company based at Carnival House in Southampton, England and operated by Carnival UK. It has been a leading operator of passenger ships on the North Atlantic for over a century...

, the 16,243 ton
Tonnage is a measure of the size or cargo carrying capacity of a ship. The term derives from the taxation paid on tuns or casks of wine, and was later used in reference to the weight of a ship's cargo; however, in modern maritime usage, "tonnage" specifically refers to a calculation of the volume...

, 578 feet (176.2 m) long liner could carry 2,200 passengers in three class
Travel class
A travel class is a quality of accommodation on public transport. The accommodation could be a seat or a cabin for example. Higher travel classes are more comfortable and more expensive.-Airline booking codes:...

es. She made her maiden voyage, Glasgow-Québec
Quebec or is a province in east-central Canada. It is the only Canadian province with a predominantly French-speaking population and the only one whose sole official language is French at the provincial level....

Montreal is a city in Canada. It is the largest city in the province of Quebec, the second-largest city in Canada and the seventh largest in North America...

, 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
Liverpool is a city and metropolitan borough of Merseyside, England, along the eastern side of the Mersey Estuary. It was founded as a borough in 1207 and was granted city status in 1880...

 to New York
New York
New York is a state in the Northeastern region of the United States. It is the nation's third most populous state. New York is bordered by New Jersey and Pennsylvania to the south, and by Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont to the east...

 until 1932, and was then used as a cruise ship
Cruise ship
A cruise ship or cruise liner is a passenger ship used for pleasure voyages, where the voyage itself and the ship's amenities are part of the experience, as well as the different destinations along the way...

 in the Mediterranean
Mediterranean Sea
The Mediterranean Sea is a sea connected to the Atlantic Ocean surrounded by the Mediterranean region and almost completely enclosed by land: on the north by Anatolia and Europe, on the south by North Africa, and on the east by the Levant...

 and Northern Europe
Northern Europe
Northern Europe is the northern part or region of Europe. Northern Europe typically refers to the seven countries in the northern part of the European subcontinent which includes Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Finland and Sweden...

. On 10 October 1932, Lancastria rescued the crew of the Belgian
Belgium , officially the Kingdom of Belgium, is a federal state in Western Europe. It is a founding member of the European Union and hosts the EU's headquarters, and those of several other major international organisations such as NATO.Belgium is also a member of, or affiliated to, many...

 cargo ship which had been abandoned in a sinking condition in the Bay of Biscay
Bay of Biscay
The Bay of Biscay is a gulf of the northeast Atlantic Ocean located south of the Celtic Sea. It lies along the western coast of France from Brest south to the Spanish border, and the northern coast of Spain west to Cape Ortegal, and is named in English after the province of Biscay, in the Spanish...

. In 1934, the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland
Scouting Ireland (CSI)
Scouting Ireland was a WOSM affiliated National Scout Organisation in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland from 1927 to December 31, 2003. It has since merged with Scouting Ireland S.A.I. to form Scouting Ireland...

 chartered the Lancastria for a pilgrimage to Rome. With the outbreak of the Second World War, she carried cargo
Cargo is goods or produce transported, generally for commercial gain, by ship, aircraft, train, van or truck. In modern times, containers are used in most intermodal long-haul cargo transport.-Marine:...

 before being requisitioned in April 1940 as a troopship
A troopship is a ship used to carry soldiers, either in peacetime or wartime...

, becoming the HMT Lancastria. She was first used to assist in the evacuation
Operation Alphabet
Operation Alphabet was an evacuation, authorized on May 24, 1940, of Allied troops from the harbour of Narvik in northern Norway marking the success of Nazi Germany's Operation Weserübung of April 9 and the end of the Allied campaign in Norway during World War II...

 of troops from Norway
Norway , officially the Kingdom of Norway, is a Nordic unitary constitutional monarchy whose territory comprises the western portion of the Scandinavian Peninsula, Jan Mayen, and the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard and Bouvet Island. Norway has a total area of and a population of about 4.9 million...


The sinking and its aftermath

She was sunk off the French port of St. Nazaire while taking part in Operation Ariel
Operation Ariel
Operation Ariel was the name given to the World War II evacuation of Allied forces from ports in western France, from 15–25 June 1940, due to the military collapse in the Battle of France against Nazi Germany...

, the evacuation of British nationals and troops from France, two weeks after the Dunkirk
Battle of Dunkirk
The Battle of Dunkirk was a battle in the Second World War between the Allies and Germany. A part of the Battle of France on the Western Front, the Battle of Dunkirk was the defence and evacuation of British and allied forces in Europe from 26 May–4 June 1940.After the Phoney War, the Battle of...


After a short overhaul, she left Liverpool
Liverpool is a city and metropolitan borough of Merseyside, England, along the eastern side of the Mersey Estuary. It was founded as a borough in 1207 and was granted city status in 1880...

 on 14 June under Captain Rudolph Sharp (born 27 October 1885) and arrived in the mouth of the Loire river estuary
An estuary is a partly enclosed coastal body of water with one or more rivers or streams flowing into it, and with a free connection to the open sea....

 on 16 June. She 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, employees of Fairey Aviation
Fairey Aviation
The Fairey Aviation Company Limited was a British aircraft manufacturer of the first half of the 20th century based in Hayes in Greater London and Heaton Chapel and RAF Ringway in Greater Manchester...

 of Belgium), line-of-communication troops (such as Pioneer
Royal Pioneer Corps
The Royal Pioneer Corps was a British Army combatant corps used for light engineering tasks.The Royal Pioneer Corps was raised on 17 October 1939 as the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps. It was renamed the Pioneer Corps on 22 November 1940...

 and RASC
Royal Army Service Corps
The Royal Army Service Corps was a corps of the British Army. It was responsible for land, coastal and lake transport; air despatch; supply of food, water, fuel, and general domestic stores such as clothing, furniture and stationery ; administration of...

 soldiers) and RAF
Royal Air Force
The Royal Air Force is the aerial warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Formed on 1 April 1918, it is the oldest independent air force in the world...

 personnel. The ship's official capacity was 2,200 including the 375 man crew. Captain Sharp had been instructed by the Royal Navy to "load as many men as possible without regard to the limits set down under international law".

At 1:50 pm, during an air-raid, the nearby Oronsay
SS Oronsay (1925)
For other ships called SS Oronsay, see OronsaySS Oronsay was an ocean liner built for the Orient Steam Navigation Company. Her maiden voyage started on 7 February 1925 from London to Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. She continued on this route until the outbreak of World War II...

a 20,000-ton Orient liner, was hit on the bridge by a German bomb. The Lancastria was free to depart and advised by the captain of the British destroyer to leave, but without a destroyer escort against possible submarine attack, Sharp decided to wait.

A fresh air raid began before 4 pm. Lancastria was bombed at 15:48 by Junkers 88 aircraft from II. Gruppe/Kampfgeschwader 30
Kampfgeschwader 30
-Service history:Formed on 15 November 1939 in Greifswald. I Gruppe formed 1 September, II Gruppe on 23 September and III Gruppe on 1 January 1940, based in Greifswald then Barth...

. Three direct hits caused the ship to list first to starboard then to port; she rolled over and sank within twenty minutes. Over 1,400 tons of fuel oil leaked into the sea and was set partially on fire, possibly by strafing. 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
British Expeditionary Force (World War II)
The British Expeditionary Force was the British force in Europe from 1939–1940 during the Second World War. Commanded by General Lord Gort, the BEF constituted one-tenth of the defending Allied force....

 in France. She sank around 5 nmi (9.3 km) south of Chémoulin Point in the Charpentier roads, around 9 nmi (16.7 km) from St. Nazaire. The Lancastria Association Victim registers 1,738 deaths.

The immense loss of life was such that the British government suppressed news of the disaster through the D-Notice
A DA-Notice or Defence Advisory Notice is an official request to news editors not to publish or broadcast items on specified subjects for reasons of national security...

 system, but the story was broken in the United States by the New York Times and in Britain by The Scotsman
The Scotsman
The Scotsman is a British newspaper, published in Edinburgh.As of August 2011 it had an audited circulation of 38,423, down from about 100,000 in the 1980s....

on 26 July, more than five weeks after the incident. Other parts of the British press then covered the story, including the Daily Herald (also on 26 July), which carried the story on its front page, 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 government-ordered cover-up, 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
War grave
A war grave is a burial place for soldiers or civilians who died during military campaigns or operations. The term does not only apply to graves: ships sunk during wartime are often considered to be war graves, as are military aircraft that crash into water...

 under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986
Protection of Military Remains Act 1986
The Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 is an Act of Parliament in the United Kingdom which provides protection for the wreckage of military aircraft and designated military vessels. The Act provides for two types of protection: protected places and controlled sites. Military aircraft are...

 although documents obtained under Freedom of information legislation
Freedom of information legislation
Freedom of information legislation comprises laws that guarantee access to data held by the state. They establish a "right-to-know" legal process by which requests may be made for government-held information, to be received freely or at minimal cost, barring standard exceptions...

 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.

Rudolph Sharp survived the sinking and went on to command the Laconia
RMS Laconia (1921)
The second RMS Laconia was a Cunard ocean liner built by Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson as a successor to the Laconia of 1911 to 1917...

, losing his life on 12 September 1942 when the ship was torpedoed and sunk off West Africa
West Africa
West Africa or Western Africa is the westernmost region of the African continent. Geopolitically, the UN definition of Western Africa includes the following 16 countries and an area of approximately 5 million square km:-Flags of West Africa:...



All service personnel killed during the Second World War are recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is an intergovernmental organisation of six independent member states whose principal function is to mark, record and maintain the graves, and places of commemoration, of Commonwealth of Nations military service members who died in the two World Wars...

 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', it continues the tradition of a parade and remembrance service at the Church of St Katherine Cree
St Katherine Cree
St Katharine Cree is a Church of England church in the Aldgate ward of the City of London, located on Leadenhall Street near Leadenhall Market.-History:...

 in the City of London
City of London
The City of London is a small area within Greater London, England. It is the historic core of London around which the modern conurbation grew and has held city status since time immemorial. The City’s boundaries have remained almost unchanged since the Middle Ages, and it is now only a tiny part of...

, where there is a memorial stained glass
Stained glass
The term stained glass can refer to coloured glass as a material or to works produced from it. Throughout its thousand-year history, the term has been applied almost exclusively to the windows of churches and other significant buildings...

 window. In 2010 the HMT Lancastria Association was wound up. 'The Lancastria Association of Scotland' was formed in
2005 and holds its annual service at St George’s West Church in Edinburgh
Edinburgh is the capital city of Scotland, the second largest city in Scotland, and the eighth most populous in the United Kingdom. The City of Edinburgh Council governs one of Scotland's 32 local government council areas. The council area includes urban Edinburgh and a rural area...


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". Lancastria is represented at the National Memorial Arboretum
National Memorial Arboretum
The National Memorial Arboretum is a national site of remembrance at Alrewas, near Lichfield, Staffordshire, England. It gives its purpose as:-Origins:...

 in Staffordshire
Staffordshire is a landlocked county in the West Midlands region of England. For Eurostat purposes, the county is a NUTS 3 region and is one of four counties or unitary districts that comprise the "Shropshire and Staffordshire" NUTS 2 region. Part of the National Forest lies within its borders...

 by a Sessile oak
Sessile Oak
Quercus petraea , the Sessile Oak, also known as the Durmast Oak, is a species of oak native to most of Europe, and into Anatolia.-Description:...

 tree and a plaque.

The Lancastria Association of Scotland began a campaign in 2005 to secure greater recognition for the loss of life aboard Lancastria and the acknowledgment of the endurance of survivors that day. It petitioned Downing Street
Downing Street
Downing Street in London, England has for over two hundred years housed the official residences of two of the most senior British cabinet ministers: the First Lord of the Treasury, an office now synonymous with that of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and the Second Lord of the Treasury, an...

 to have the wreck site designated an official maritime war grave. The British Government refused to do so as it was within French territorial waters and therefore 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
Battle of Jutland
The Battle of Jutland was a naval battle between the British Royal Navy's Grand Fleet and the Imperial German Navy's High Seas Fleet during the First World War. The battle was fought on 31 May and 1 June 1916 in the North Sea near Jutland, Denmark. It was the largest naval battle and the only...

 were designated war graves; the Lancastria was again omitted. In 2007 the Association began a second petition, this time to the Scottish Parliament
Scottish Parliament
The Scottish Parliament is the devolved national, unicameral legislature of Scotland, located in the Holyrood area of the capital, Edinburgh. The Parliament, informally referred to as "Holyrood", is a democratically elected body comprising 129 members known as Members of 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 the ultimate sacrifice of the victims. The Lancastria Association of Scotland is also fundraising to establish a major memorial to the victims of the Lancastria which will be erected on the site where the ship was built in Clydebank. In October 2010 the local Council approved a planning application to have the memorial erected.
In June 2010 to mark the 70th anniversary of the sinking, special ceremonies and services of remembrance will take place in Edinburgh and St. Nazaire

Official recognition

On 12 June 2008, at a ceremony at the Scottish Parliament First Minister of Scotland
First Minister of Scotland
The First Minister of Scotland is the political leader of Scotland and head of the Scottish Government. The First Minister chairs the Scottish Cabinet and is primarily responsible for the formulation, development and presentation of Scottish Government policy...

, 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 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 a 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 on 17 June 1940. Relatives of victims are also eligible to claim for the medal, so long as they can provide supporting evidence that their relative 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
Tragedy (event)
A tragedy is an event in which one or more losses, usually of human life, occurs that is viewed as mournful. Such an event is said to be tragic....

 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
Scottish Parliament
The Scottish Parliament is the devolved national, unicameral legislature of Scotland, located in the Holyrood area of the capital, Edinburgh. The Parliament, informally referred to as "Holyrood", is a democratically elected body comprising 129 members known as Members of 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 of 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 in the Scottish Parliament
Scottish Parliament
The Scottish Parliament is the devolved national, unicameral legislature of Scotland, located in the Holyrood area of the capital, Edinburgh. The Parliament, informally referred to as "Holyrood", is a democratically elected body comprising 129 members known as Members of 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.

See also

  • List of shipwrecks in 1940
  • List of ship and ferry disasters
  • SS Cap Arcona
  • SS Wilhelm Gustloff
    Wilhelm Gustloff (ship)
    The MV Wilhelm Gustloff was a German KdF flagship during 1937-1945, constructed by the Blohm & Voss shipyards. It sank after being torpedoed by the Soviet submarine on 30 January 1945....

  • RMS Laconia
    RMS Laconia (1921)
    The second RMS Laconia was a Cunard ocean liner built by Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson as a successor to the Laconia of 1911 to 1917...

  • SS General von Steuben
  • SS Armenia
    Armenia (ship)
    The Armenia was a transport ship operated by the Soviet Union during World War II to carry both wounded soldiers and military cargo. It had originally been built as a passenger ship for operations on the Black Sea, one of the first passenger ships constructed in the Soviet Union.Armenia was sunk on...

  • HMT Rohna
    HMT Rohna
    His Majesty's Troopship Rohna was a troop ship carrying U.S. troops that was sunk by an air attack of the Luftwaffe during World War II, on 26 November 1943...

  • Thielbek
    The Thielbek was a 2,815 GRT freighter that was sunk along with the SS Cap Arcona and the Deutschland during British air raids on May 3, 1945 while anchored in the Bay of Lübeck with the loss of 2,750 lives...

  • Junyō Maru
    Junyo Maru
    The was a Japanese cargo ship that was sunk in 1944 by the British submarine , resulting in the loss of over 5,000 lives.The ship was built in 1913 by Robert Duncan Co. Glasgow. It displaced 5,065 tons, was long, wide, and deep. The engines were rated at...

  • Ukishima Maru
    Ukishima Maru
    The Ukishima Maru was a Japanese naval transport vessel. She was originally built as a passenger ship in March 1937. During World War II, she served as a naval vessel after receiving heavy armament...

External links

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