Monday, March 7, 2016

17th June 1940: Britain's Greatest Maritime Disaster.

by John Hanley

More perish in twenty minutes than the total losses sustained during the sinking of the Titanic, Lusitania, HMS Hood and the Battle of Trafalgar.

From this

to this

How, where, and why was it covered up and the files sealed for 100 years?

Captain Rudolph Sharp gripped the rail on the flying bridge and watched the French pilot boat cast off from the pontoon under the sally port and head up the Loire to St Nazaire. Harry Grattidge, his chief officer, was behind him waiting patiently. Some seven nautical miles due north was Pornichet and, as his eyes followed the boat, he could pick out the headland near Sainte Marguerite. On the starboard side, the rocky headland at La Raise would be clearly visible; four nautical miles to the south east.

Lancastria had been at anchor in twelve fathoms of water for over three hours now, enclosed in the Charpentier Roads at the river's mouth only nine miles short of the main harbour of St Nazaire. He'd already marked the exact spot in the log book: 47.09 N 02.20 W. They'd left Liverpool at midnight on Friday under urgent orders which had prevented him from the scheduled complete overhauling and dry-docking Lancastria was due. At just over 16,000 tonnes she was still equipped as a luxury liner even though her RMS (Royal Mail Ship) prefix had been replaced by HMT (Hired Military Transport) and now, subject to certain contractual restrictions, she was at the beck and call of the Admiralty.

He was a long way from his Shetland roots though they'd passed close by on the retreat from Norway recently to unload the exhausted evacuees secretly in Orkney. Sharp was a senior captain having worked for the White Line before it merged with Cunard and had commanded several of the world's best known ships including the Lusitania and Titanic's sister, the Olympic, during the last war with the Germans. He understood the obligations of commanding a troop ship but this was different. HMT Franconia, another of his former commands, had sailed with Lancastria from Plymouth to Brest but they'd been too late to help that shattered town and had been ordered to proceed to St Nazaire. Almost immediately they had been attacked by German bombers and Franconia had suffered a near miss of such explosive force that she was now limping home to Liverpool under destroyer escort. And this was his main concern – the lack of protection especially from U-boats. Yet he wasn't alone; the anchorage was crammed with ships – the 20,000 tonne Oronsay was only a couple of miles to the north, and once the dawn had slithered in over the tortured coast he'd also spotted Oracle and City of Lancaster amongst the throng of smaller vessels ferrying troops from the port. There were at least two destroyers racing around like sheepdogs and probably more out of sight but, swinging at anchor, he felt like a rat in a trap.

He turned to Grattidge. "Did the French say anything else before they left?"

"Nothing, other than the usual Gallic shrugs – mad dogs and Englishmen etc.—"

"No more French humour about us 'sticking our heads in a noose' anchoring here, then?" Sharp asked but, spotting the piece of paper in his chief officer's hand, changed the subject. "What's that? Another request from Dunbar about missing fu fus for his boilers?"

Grattidge shook his head. "Not James this time; it's from Freddie — today's luncheon menu."

"He wants me to approve a bloody menu?" Sharp grabbed the paper and scanned it. "Christ, man. Boiled Knuckle of Veal and Bacon, Minute Steak grilled to order. He still hasn't worked it out. You'd think our grey paint and that pop gun on the bow would have given him a clue." He sighed. "Cold crab salad? We could be providing meat for the bloody crabs by the end of the day, just—"

"He isn't asking for approval, sir. He just wants to know how many he should cater for!"

Sharp turned away and grabbed the rail again before muttering "Far more than we should."

Chièvres Luftwaffe air base Belgium (665 kilometres to the north)

Hauptman Karl-Joachim von Symonski the group commander of Kampfgeschwader 30/II, which was equipped with 30 Junkers Ju88A-1 bombers, studied the latest orders from OKL and shook his head sadly.

09:15 Charpentier Roads.

Sharp stared at the three RNVR officers shuffling their feet on his bridge. The senior Lieutenant with two wavy stripes on his sleeve looked grim. "How many can you hold?"

"About three thousand, at a pinch."

The lieutenant shook his head. "You'll have to take as many as you possibly can…without regard to the limits of International Law. We have a queue stretching back over three miles, sir."

"You are ordering me to break Maritime regulations—"

Grattidge interrupted. "We have lifeboats and life jackets for 2,200 people. What's going on? Is this a capitulation?"

"Good God! Don't say that! Just follow your orders." Before they could question him further, the lieutenant turned on his heel and his two colleagues followed him off the bridge.

"Well Harry, needs must. Should we load as many as we can manage without capsizing the old lady and leave the rest to the lawyers?"

"As you told that French pilot, what choice do we have? I'll brief the crew and rehearse the boat drill. What should I tell Freddie about the menu?"

"Cook off the meat for cold cuts. Tell him to prepare a buffet and, Harry, make sure you count them on board and stop when you reach…you know."

12:35 Chièvres

Even under full boost the kette of three Ju88A-1 bombers struggled into the air. Von Symonski's briefing had been clear. Troop ships were the main target. After the embarrassment of Dunkirk, Goering had promised the Fuhrer the Luftwaffe would destroy the British will to fight on. In practice that meant killing as many of their remaining troops as possible so their wings were loaded with four standard 500 kilogram bombs rather than the armour piercing version which they trained with in their anti-shipping role. The yellow finned SCs contained 50% Amatol high explosive compared with the blue PCs 20% because of their heavier casing which Von Symonski believed should provide a bigger bang and overpressure against unarmoured ships and unprotected soldiers. Their flight time was estimated at three hours so the pilot settled in the cramped cockpit nudged the bomb aimer squeezed in below him on his right and told him into which part of his anatomy he'd stick the barrel of the Lofte 7 bombsight if he missed any targets.

In such a cramped cockpit, humour was essential so he twisted in his seat to poke the flight engineer in the back and warned him to keep one eye on the sky and his 13mm machine gun and the other on the engine pressures or he'd jettison him as dead weight. It was pointless trying to amuse the radio operator as he'd lost his sense of fun over Dunkirk when a Hurricane had crept up underneath their gondola and he'd found himself staring into eight machine gun ports at very close range. By the time he'd reacted and emptied the magazines of both MG81s the Hurricane had vanished without firing. Fortunes of war had favoured them that day but many of his comrades had not returned from their battles with those English devils in the clouds above the evacuation beaches. No one had said anything in public but in private he'd heard the view expressed that Goering's promise to destroy the British Expeditionary Forces if the Fuhrer held back the panzers had been misguided. Thankfully there shouldn't be any RAF opposition today as St Nazaire was well outside their operating range.

13:10 Charpentier Roads

The Lancastria was originally launched in 1920 as the Tyrrhenia but this name had not proved popular, with many American clients so she was ceremonially renamed Lancastria, not a popular move amongst her crew as it was widely believed that to change a ship's name consigns her to disaster.

With six decks there was ample space aboard for her passengers to enjoy. She was an elegant addition to the Cunard fleet, and destined for fame, or perhaps infamy. The previous year, on the outbreak of war, she had been given a makeover in New York. Her portholes were blacked out and she was plastered in matt grey paint before carrying cargo across the Atlantic. She was soon requisitioned as a troopship and now swung on her anchors as the Purser reported to the bridge and informed the captain that there had been a problem with the tickets they'd issued to each boarding passenger but believed there might now be about 6,000 on board.

Sharp controlled himself as he spotted Grattidge standing behind the embarrassed man shrugging his shoulders. Instead of screaming he nodded and dismissed him then told his First Officer to close the shell doors in the sally port immediately and report back to the bridge.

Minutes later he returned, red-faced but not from the climb. "I'm sorry, sir but I've let some civilians join us. Brother and sister about eight and ten. They were filthy, starving and clutching two dogs to them – a golden retriever and a hapless looking mongrel. I told them we couldn't take dogs. There was an English lady nearby who spoke to them in French. She told me that they were Belgian children and had walked from Brussels right across France." He paused and wiped his brow. "I told them we'd take them to safety but it was forbidden for dogs to come aboard. She explained to them. I watched the little boy's face crumple and his eyes fill with tears. Then he spoke fast and very earnestly. The lady translated." Grattidge blinked back tears of his own while Sharp waited. "He said their parents were dead and that the dogs had walked with them from Belgium…and they cannot be separated. That sums it up really, sir. I'm sorry."

Sharp beckoned him to join him on the flying bridge. They stood together and watched yet another raid. Oronsay was hit on the bridge, staggered in the water, shook her head and settled again on her mooring. The radio officer joined them and handed over a signal flimsy.

"It's HMS Havelock. They suggest that if we're full we should get underway."

Sharp responded: "Please send this reply. 'Can you escort us if we proceed?'"

They waited another five minutes until the radio officer returned but he shook his head. "No response, I'm afraid."

"I think," said Sharp at last, "that we'll do better to wait for the Oronsay and go together. What do you think?"

Grattidge looked bleak. "I think we should stay, sir."

15:45 3,000 metres above St Nazaire


The pilot watched in disbelief as the first two Ju88s dropped into their dives and didn't even splash their targets. He'd selected the one with the single funnel, grey all over which, from 3,000 metres, looked like a heavy cruiser or even a battleship.

He repeated the figures to his bomb aimer before starting the sequence which toppled the plane into a 60 degree sturzflug. Keeping the target just below the highest point of his reflector sight he waited until the warning tone sounded. Once it ceased he pressed the button to initiate bomb release and automatic plane recovery. The nose of the plane rose sharply as the four yellow finned bombs containing over 1,000 kg of high explosive dropped towards their target.

15:48 Lancastria

The first one smashed through the deck planking and detonated inside number two cargo hold which was packed with RAF men, the second penetrated number three hold releasing hundreds of tons of fuel oil into the water. The third apparently went straight down the funnel and exploded in the engine room while the final one missed the ship by a few metres though its blast wave was sufficient to hole the hull below the waterline.

Grattidge ran topside to the bridge.

"How many men down Number Two hold?" Sharp shouted.

"About eight hundred RAF, sir. Why?"

"I think that first one struck there and blew away their exit. God, look at those flames…"

Grattidge took the megaphone: "Clear away the boats now!"

Surprisingly there was little panic. Some soldiers scrambled into a life-boat on the deck and sat there apparently hoping it would land in the water unaided. Another soldier slashed with his knife at the rope-fall of a boat that hung suspended. The boat swung slowly outward and toppled its struggling passengers into the water.

The ship was beginning to settle slowly on her port side, and there were thousands lined up on the deck in readiness. Grattidge used his megaphone again: "Everybody off with their boots." They all sat down and began to tug at their boot laces, some stripping completely.

The German planes came skimming down across the water; machine gun bullets crackled against the bridge and the metal telegraphs. Already people were diving into the sea among them several nuns who had come aboard from the tug.

"It’s time now Harry," Captain Sharp said. "I’m going to swim for the other end."

Grattidge knew he was a weak swimmer so gave him his life-jacket. He looked at his watch, — four eight p.m. — exactly twenty minutes from the first hit.

The water was so close to the bridge now it lapped like bath water. The Lancastria quaked once under his feet. Then she was gone, and Grattidge walked from the bridge into the sea off St. Nazaire.

While the majority perished, trapped in the hull or sucked down as it sank, many more suffered from the oil which spread in a thick layer over the sea. It burned their lungs, blinded hundreds and made it virtually impossible to haul them from the water. Most drowned in it despite the attempts by a flight of Dornier Do17s to set it on fire with incendiary bombs.

The exact number of dead has never been established, but it is known that at least 3,050 people were killed. Today the latest estimated figures state that there were actually more than 7,000 aboard, and 4,500 to 5,000 dead. Even without this revised death toll the horrifying statistic of people killed during the sinking gave the Lancastria the unwanted title of the worst British maritime loss in history.


When Churchill received the news he forbade its publication, saying: "The newspapers have got quite enough disaster for today at least". Survivors were forbidden under King's Regulations to mention the sinking. People killed were listed as "missing in action" leading to the assumption by most bereaved relatives that they probably died during the bloody retreat.

Despite this, the story was quickly picked up and published on the front page of the New York Times. A few weeks later the British Press followed up and produced their own, Government censored, reports.

Sharp and Grattidge survived and were rescued. Despite numerous requests under the Freedom of Information Act, the report they submitted to Department of Trade is unavailable as the Government is still unable to find this or any other relating to the disaster. There are claims that Churchill had the reports sealed for 100 years but the Government denies this.

Yet on 8th October 1940 the London Gazette reported the award to twelve members of the Lancastria's crew — OBEs to Sharp, Grattidge and James Dunbar, along with three BEMs and six Commendations (three posthumous) for their services during the action.
After many years, campaigners, including Churchill's grandson Sir Christopher Soames MP, finally persuaded the government on the 75th anniversary of the sinking to recognise the hulk of the Lancastria lying 72 feet in the silt off St Nazaire as an official war grave.

Sharp went on to captain the Laconia which was torpedoed off the coast of Africa by U-156 and sank with the loss of 1,700 lives and thus has the dubious distinction of being in command of the two greatest disasters in British maritime history.

Perhaps that's why he stayed in his cabin and went down with the ship.

Grattidge became the Commodore of the Cunard Line and wrote a book about his experiences. Von Symonski died when his Ju88 was shot down by the RAF in October 1940.


So why the cover up? Some have suggested that the Government was frightened that, if it could be proved they had ordered the Captain to ignore international maritime regulations and exceed 3,000 passengers, it could be sued by the families of those who had died. Was this deliberate or, as Churchill claimed in his History of the Second World War, he was so overwhelmed with terrible news that he simply forgot to lift the D-Notice thus providing ammunition for the conspiracy theorists?

We'll never know but if you ever travel to St Nazaire find the memorial on the sea front, read these words and weep:

"Opposite this place lies the wreck of the Troopship Lancastria sunk by enemy action on 17 June 1940 whilst embarking British troops and civilians during the evacuation of France. To the glory of God, in proud memory of more than 4,000 who died and in commemoration of the people of St Nazaire and surrounding districts who saved many lives, tended the wounded and gave a Christian burial to victims.


John Hanley is the author of a series of novels about the wartime experiences of Jack Renouf, a young Jerseyman, who flees his home when the Germans invade the island. The sinking of the Lancastria provides the opening scenes in second novel in the series, The Last Boat (1940) which follows Against The Tide (1939). The third novel, Diamonds For The Wolf (1941) has recently been published and he is currently working on the fourth in what he plans will be a ten book series.


1 comment:

  1. What a terribly sad story, especially the children with their dogs perishing.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.