click to print this page
<  Main  |  News  |  Forums  |  Shop  |  Search  |  Contact  |  Privacy  >


The History Pages

"Sorry Sir, but that’s the best I can do. You’re lucky to get a bunk at all.
Three men will have to sleep on the floor and two of those are Colonels!"


../ main page / history index / the lancastria
  The Lancastria Story...

The evacuation of British troops from France in 1940 did not end with Dunkirk. British forces were still being rescued two weeks later when Britain's worst maritime disaster of World War II took place. On the 17th of June 1940 the 16,000 ton Cunard liner Lancastria lay 5 miles off St Nazaire and embarked troops, RAF personnel, and civilian refugees, including women and children, who were being evacuated from France, which was then on the verge of collapse. The exact number on board may never be known, but almost certainly exceeded 6000; some estimates were as high as 9000. The Lancastria was attacked and hit by bombs from German aircraft.

Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps which were wholly or partly aboard Lancastria:-
Companies numbered:
  16, 26, 28, 32, 39, 40, 43, 46, 50, 52, 53, 61, 62,
  63, 66, 67, 68, 73, 75, 82, 104, 108, 115, 208, 233.
Base Depot Staff.
HQ Labour Control.
No. 1 Mauritius Company.

As Major Scott-Bowden of the 53rd Company Auxiliary Pioneer Corps boarded with his men from the destroyer HMS Havelock, it was apparent that Lancastria was becoming overcrowded with men. Once on board he was instructed by the ship’s purser to proceed to a second class cabin which had four bunk beds. Once inside he discovered that seven other Officers were meant to be in the same accommodation. He quickly returned to the Purser who replied: "Sorry Sir, but that’s the best I can do. You’re lucky to get a bunk at all. Three men will have to sleep on the floor and two of those are Colonels!"

The Lancastria in peacetime

The ship sank rapidly and according to the estimate of the Captain, only around 2500 of those on board were saved. Owing to the scale of the tragedy, Winston Churchill forbade publication of the news in the interests of public morale, and hence the story of the Lancastria has never been generally known, although it is Britain's worst maritime disaster. Two destroyers nearby, the HMS Havelock and the HMS Highlander, began taking survivors aboard as did many merchant ships present, such as the Glenaffaric, the Oronsay, the Fabian and the John Holt. Many of the survivors were seriously wounded. 

The New York Times broke the story, printing some of the dramatic pictures of the disaster and was soon afterwards taken up by the British press. The official report however is still sealed until the year 2040 under the Official Secrets Act.  If it could be proved that the Captain Rudolph Sharpe was ordered by Ministry of Defence Officials to ignore his maximum load restriction there could be considerable grounds for compensation claims against the British Government.  Currently the evidence for this remains under lock and key for another 40 years. 
It has been speculated that the primary reason the Official Report has been supressed is that the Captain
of the Lancastria was instructed to load as many passengers as possible and to "disregard international law on passenger limits." It has not been clearly established who gave that instruction.. 

Given that that order was given however, and also the fact that some of the survivors and, more
importantly, a significant number of relatives of victims, are still alive, there could be significant cause for legal 
action to be taken against the British authorities should it ever be established who gave the loading order. Releasing the documents of the inquiry could lead to significant compensation being paid out. By 2040, it will be safe to assume that most people directly affected, either through the loss of a family member, or indeed, survivors affected will no longer be around.

It is also worth noting the Authorities were quick to place a D-Notice on the news of the sinking, suppressing all
information about the disaster. Churchill claimed news would damage morale, but when Churchill was subsequently asked after the war why he had not lifted the D-Notice after the Germans were finally defeated, he claimed he had merely forgotten to do so.

• Taken from HMS Highlander
Picture courtesy of Mr Clements, Lancastria Association

The Lancastria troopship in its final movements. Those who managed to
escape overboard were engulfed by huge quantities of leaking fuel oil

"Latitude 47.09, Longitude 2.20. I shall never forget that position that marks her grave.
Of the five thousand souls aboard her less than half had been saved;
she sank like a stone and hundreds could not swim."
       Harry Grattidge, personal account


  Lancastria Tragedy  - from The Pioneer magazine March 1947

The tragedy of the Lancastria is indeed a memory one could well be without. I took 46 Coy on board her early on that fatal day and we were, I believe, the first troops to embark, followed by some 2000 RAF ground staff. To my regret about 50 per cent of 46 Coy were lost and as the Company was mostly composed of volunteer tradesmen it was indeed a loss we could ill afford. I have since been told that the total loss on that unfortunate ship was 3,300 and I can well believe it. The great tragedy was that, after two warning from reconnaissance planes, she was kept at anchor, with almost 6000 on board, to be bombed like a sitting bird.

Major A G W Tonkin
of 669 POW Wkg 46 Coy, Greenford, Middlesex


  Tragedy of the Lancastria  - from The Pioneer magazine June 1947

The sinking of the 16,000 ton Cunard White Star liner "Lancastria" on the 17th June, 1940, has been truly described as the greatest sea tragedy of all time and, to the best of my knowledge, no official record concerning it has been published. Indeed, although the facts of her sinking were immediately known to the Germans, the news of her loss was not made public in this country until 26th July, 1940. At the time of the occurrence I was serving as the one and only subaltern with 46 Coy A.M.P.C., commanded by Major D G Carr, and Capt (later Lt. Col, commanding 6 Group) R.S Sim, MBE., as 2nd in command. We had left Rouen on the 8th June, presumably for evacuation, but we quickly received instructions to take up a position of defence at le Neubourg, the defence consisting of 46 Coy. A.M.P.C. plus one French 75 and a couple of machine guns! However we got away from there and reached Lissieux and eventually arrived at Nantes.

My memories of Nantes are two fold, one being amazement that the town appeared to be carrying on in the same manner as if the Germans were still the other side of the Maginot line and the other a grudging appreciation of the efficiency of the Base Cashier who succeeded in getting my account at Cox's debited with 500 francs, which I had drawn as late at the 14th June ! On the following dat, at about an hours' notice, we proceeded to an airfield near St. Nazaire and there we hung about until the next evening when we, at last, received orders to march to the docks. A tender was just loading when I brought the Company alongside, only to be told that it was practically full and there were no more going out that night. I managed to squeeze 1 Sergeant and 15 O.R.s on board and they at least were saved the catastrophe of the following day.

We camped out on the quay that night and were on the first tender in the morning. Many other tenders quickly followed and it was not long before the Lancastria had been 5,000 and 6,000 on board. Even so we still remained at anchor although enemy planes made two reconnaissance flights over us in the early afternoon. When the actual attack was made, at about 3.45pm., I had just gone to my cabin which I was sharing with my O.C., so I have never been able to confirm or refute the very general impression that the bomb came down through the ship's funnel. The force of the explosion was certainly terrific and completely spoilt two very good whiskys and sodas which I had just poured out ! The ship almost immediately took a heavy list and on making my way forward I found it was impossible to do anything as the water was pouring in and the place was an absolute shambles. The loss of life from the explosion alone must have been very heavy. I, then made contact with Capt. Sim (as he then was) and CSM (later Major) F W Hall. The latter had the bad luck to get a dislocated ankle, but we were able to get him to the upper deck. By this time the ship was sinking rapidly (I believe she went down within about 20 minutes of being hit), and the three of us took to the water.

I made for an overturned life boat some little distance away and thanks to the help of a Sergeant, who was already there, I was able to clamber on to it, but the thick oil on the water made swimming nearly impossible and doubtless contributed to the loss of life. The enemy plane was still hanging around, machine gunning men in the water. Fortunately, the arrival of a RAF patrol drove him off. I would like to pay particular tribute to the excellent morale of the men who were in the water with me for over an hour, and the rescue work carried out by the small French drifters and our own destroyers was indeed splendid.

I was eventually picked up by the destroyer "Highlander" and never shall I forget the wonderful kindness of the Senior Service. They could not do enough for us. The total loss on the Lancastria was subsequently given me by a Staff Officer, who was onboard, as 3,300. In my own Company the loss was approximately 50 per cent., and I believe this was fairly general. On returning to England I was asked, by GHQ., 2nd Echelon, to submit a report of the occurrence to War Office, and on transferring to my copy I find that the following A.M.P.C. Coys., in addition to my own, were said to have been on board : 28, 50, 62, 67, 73 (of which Major (later Lt.Col.) J H Courage was O.C.) 75 and 108.

In endeavouring to place on record my recollections of this tragic event I would ask the indulgence of those of my readers who were also on that ill-fated ship and whose knowledge and memories are probably far better than my own.

Major A G W Tonkin

The following list of Other Ranks of the Royal Pioneer Corps who lost their lives owing to the bombing and sinking of the Lancastria is given as supplied by War Office - It may not be complete - If anyone knows definitely of any other Officer or Other Ranks who lost their lives in this occasion please send details to me.
Details of Officer Casualties are not listed.

 Army No.  Rank  Name  Coy
to appear shortly...        


  Lancastrian Sinking  - from The Pioneer magazine March 1948

I read with interest of the sinking of the Lancastria which was sunk off St Nazaire in the Bay of Biscay. It was on June the 17th about 4.00pm,Monday it was, and she was under water by 4.20pm, as I was one of the few who stood on its side almost to the last trying to released a boat from its bearings, when I noticed L/Cpl Kesson whom I noticed was amongst the missing. He was clinging to an upturned boat just before I jumped into the water with a few more pioneers of the 67th Coy. I read the note of Capt C A Scott of Kingsland, Newtown, Mon., dated 19 Sept 1947. At time of the Lancastria he was a Lieutenant in the 67th Company. He mentions that he last saw Sgt Thompson in the ship's canteen, well Sir, I saw him sitting on the side of the ship as she lay before going under, also was Cpl Butcher of the 67th and a Private Page, who died, I believe on Wednesday morning in the hospital, I was in at St Nazaire. I also saw two more of our Company, but sorry to say I have forgotten their names, one was the store-keepers assistant, the other one a private from Mablethorpe.

As it is so long ago I cannot remember their names which I know would be of great help to you. I know they are both dead as one tried to cling hold of the cabin door to which I was clinging to with a boy of the ship's crew. I helped him to get with some of his mates who were sitting on the keel of the upturned boat, after which I was picked up by a small fishing boat taking back men to docks at St Nazaire. I was afterwards taken to the civilian hospital worked by Nuns. It was June the 21st, 1940, when I and ten other ranks of Buffs and Manchesters and a Belgian woman were taken on board a British cruiser and landed at Plymouth the following day. We arrived at a military hospital there for several weeks treatment. I hope to give more information in the future, when I can come across some of my old comrades.

Cpl A Pemberton
Pioneer Corps


  Lancastria Survivors Re-union - from The Pioneer magazine September 1951

Of the many service reunions that are held it would be difficult to find one with such poigant memories as that commemorating so great a tragedy as the bombing and sinking of the S.S. Lancastria, off St Nazaire on the 17th June 1940. Coming as it did, very soon after Dunkirk, it has never excited any great comment either from the Press or the BBC in spite of the fact that the loss of life was in the region of 3,300, and thus becomes the greatest sea disaster of all time. Incidentally, a list of about 400 other ranks of the Royal Pioneer Corps who lost their lives appeared in the magazine in June 1947, following an account I then wrote of the disaster.

To mark the 11th Anniversary nearly a hundred of the survivors mustered on the Horse Guards Parade and, headed by a Band and Guard of the Streatham Unit, No 324 Sea Cadet Group, marched to the Cenotaph where a wreath was placed by Lt Col Goodwin. A service conducted by the Rev E Wilson Carlile B.D., with a choir kindly provided by the Church Army, included a special prayer and the beautiful hymn, "O God our help in ages past."

At almost the exact hour that the Lancastria was sunk the survivors again took to the water, but this time it was on the firm deck of a Thames pleasure steamer and after an enjoyable cruise the party were the guests of His Majesty's Yeomen Warders at the Tower of London, and were personally welcomed by the Governor, Col. E H Carkeet James, OBE MC. After a specially organised tour of the Tower a very happy time was spent at the Wardens Social Club and the survivors had the great pleasure of meeting once again the Captains of several of the ships that did such excellent rescue work when the disaster occurred, including Captain W A Dallmeyer, DSO., RN who commanded the destroyer HMS Highlander, and to whom the writer will ever be under a debt of gratitude. The party were also privileged to witness the unique and picturesque "Ceremony of the Keys," which had its origin some 700 years ago and has several times been broadcast.

And Lang Syne brought to an end a memorable day and the greatest credit must be given to Major C V Petit for his excellent work as honorary organiser.

Major A G W Tonkin, T.D.
Royal Pioneer Corps


  British War Cemetery - Escoublac - La Baule, Brittany - from The Pioneer, September 1957

During a short holiday in Brittany this year I took the opportunity of visiting the British War Cemetary at La Baule. Needless to say the cemetery was in absolutely first class condition, flowers and close cut grass reminding one very much of an English garden. There are about five hundred servicemen buried there including British, Canadian, New Zealand and Polish airmen and commandoes. But my main interest was in Lancastria men.

This ship you will recall, sunk off St Nazaire on 17th June, 1940 when evacuating forces. There were about 5,000 aboard her and about 2,500 were picked up by other ships. Of the 2,500 drowned, most were trapped in the Lancastria and went down with her. A number of bodies were subsequently washed up on the beaches and were buried by local people in their village cemetaries. After the war the French Government gave land for the purpose of bringing the bodies into one cemetery.

I was unable to find any grave of a comrade known to me, but I took all the details I could of members of the Corps whose last resting place is in this lovely little cemetery and in case others might remember them and might like to know where they are, I append the list here.

 Army No.  Rank  Name  Date  Age
13003869 Pte. G Mills 17.6.40 40
64682 Pte. J Ridley 17.6.40 25
13002413 Pte. A E Brown 10.5-10.7.40 50
13004153 Pte. W O'Neill 17.6.40 28
13005966 Pte. H J Chapman 17.6.40 36
1023063 Pte. W H Easterbrook 17.6.40 42
3233186 Pte. P Langford 17.6.40 41
13001316 Pte. H V Potton 17.6.40 43
2188416 Pte. T E Smith 17.6.40 33
13000584 Pte. P Khan 17.6.40 35
4381206 Cpl. H Pattison, M.M. 17.6.40 51
13005099 Pte. F Jackson 17.6.40 45
13005010 L/Cpl. F G Harrison 17.6.40 42
13004948 Pte. S Brook 17.6.40 32
3179660 Pte. G A Melvin 17.6.40 41
1001001 Cpl. A Cope 17.6.40 40
13005225 Pte. A Apetu Larty 17.6.40 43
2188527 Pte. B Axcell 17.6.40 35
101269 Pte. R Bingham 17.6.40 30
13001792 Pte. J Watt 5.4.40 41

Major F H Blackburn
Royal Pioneer Corps


  The Sinking of The Lancastria  by Stanley 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, river-boats, 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, although, 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 SS 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 lifejackets, 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 lifejackets 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 lifejackets, 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 lifejacket 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.

Stanley Scislowski
(reproduced with kind permission - thanks Stanley)


  Pioneer Accounts  - from The Forgotten Tragedy by Brian James Crabb

Lieutenant R Haynes, AMPC, narrlow avoided death. He had been standing two yeards from the hatch when the explosion occurred and was thrown to the deck. He relates his story: "As I lay there waiting for the debris to fall I began to pray. It must have been only seconds, but it seemed like ages and I prayed like hell. Then I felt a blow against my back. A rifle had hit me. I was relieved it was not a Bren gun !

Lieutenant R Haynes

A company sergeant of the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps, who had been allocated to one of the holds, related his story: "I gave the order to man the hosepipes, for smoke was coming in the hatch. It was impossible to obey, because the troops were jammed so tight in the alleyways. Just then the ship gave a sudden lurch to port until she was listing at an angle of 45 degrees. We were thrown off our feet. From the bridge came the order: "Every man for himself," and I chucked hatchboards over the side to act as rafts when we got into the water. By this time the ship was beginning to sink and her propellers were right out of the sea... as two of the lifeboats were dropping down the towering side of the Lancastria, they capsized. One had about 120 people on board including two French women and two children, aged about five. They were flung into the water. One woman flung her baby into the water and dived in after it; she was a strong swimmer, and after picking up the child she made off to one of the lifeboats...

Forward was a soldier with a Bren gun rattling away with all he'd got. He stuck it out even when the water was up to his waist. His gun was silenced only when he was washed away from it. A grand lat. I hope he was saved. Just before the ship capsized and went down, some of our men... (laughed in the face of death) (we called ourselves The Thin Red Line) and scrambled on to her uppermost side. There they stood, ... (with an immaculately dressed British officer coolly smoking a cigarette) knowing that they had no chance. They went down like brave men, singing 'Roll out the Barrel... (let's have a barrel of fun) !

Company Sergeant

A sergeant of the AMPC had been in the stokehold during the attack. Tracing his way into the accommodation area he rushed to the side of a French woman and her eight year old child. He assisted them up a companionway, which was hampered by escaping steam from fractured pipes. To avoid getting burnt they held handkerchiefs over their faces. He eventually got them aboard a lifeboat and was then told to join them.



  Photographs of The Lancastria  by Frank Clements
In 1940 Frank Clements was a 30-year-old volunteer onboard the HMS Highlander, a destroyer that was being used to ferry troops from Saint-Nazaire harbour to the anchored Lancastria. His pictures tell the tragic story of the Lancastria and are the only photographs of the stricken vessel's final moments.

Navy personnel were not allowed to take cameras on board but as a volunteer in the naval stores, he managed to keep his camera with him wherever he went. His younger brother Arthur Clements, now 84, says: "He was a photographic nut. He took thousands of 'prints' as he called them of his war experiences all over the world." But as well as taking pictures he also played his part in the rescue operation, downing his camera to help survivors. "He did all he could," recalls his brother. "He even pulled a little baby out of the sea."

He talked afterwards about the soldiers who had been ordered not to abandon
their rifles. He watched them drowning under the weight of their heavy weapons and said he shouted at them to let go of them. Sadly many didn't listen."

Valerie Billings of the Portsmouth Naval Museum, who interviewed Mr Clements before his death in 1999, says it was an enormous stroke of luck that he was able to take the photographs. "It was an amazing coincidence, firstly that he had a camera on board at all. Secondly, he had no film for the camera but happened to meet a sailor on his way to Saint-Nazaire who swapped him a camera film for a pair of socks from the NAAFI stores and it was with that film that he took these pictures."

When he returned to the UK, Mr Clements handed over prints of his photographs
to a man he met in a pub. The pictures were then sold to the press, although Mr Clements never made any money from them.

The pictures have now become invaluable to the Lancastria Association in their campaign to make the story of the doomed ship more widely known. The Association's Robert Miller, who headed out on a pilgrimage to Saint-Nazaire on
the 60th anniversary of the disaster, says: "The photographs are extremely important, priceless in fact, to us and to the whole fabric of the story." "If it wasn't for the fact that Frank Clements was on board the Highlander and that he was a keen photographer, there would be no pictures of the disaster whatsoever."

Battle-weary troops wait                                               • They were loaded onto navy destroyers and
  on docks at Saint-Nazaire
                                                ferried to the giant troopship HMT Lancastria

Estimated 6000 servicemen, plus a number of        • Boats like the HMS Highlander loaded people
  civilian woman and children were taken onboard
    onto the Lancastria until it was overflowing

• At 1400hrs the anchored Lancastria, seen here      • At 1557 she was struck by bombs below the
  in background, was attacked by enemy aircraft         waterline which ruptured the boat's fuel tanks

• Others were burnt as oil was ignited by flares       • Rescue boats picked up survivors under fire
  from the few lifeboats. By 1615hrs it hadsunk.          from enemy aircraft.

• Exhausted and covered in oil, many were                 • Of the estimated 6,000+ people onboard the
  loaded onto ships bound for the UK.                             Lancastria, less than half survived


  Lancastria Survivors Association
After the war the 'Lancastria Survivors Association' was set up by Major Peter Petit, which brought together the then-known survivors, however, this Association lapsed with Major Petit's death. The Association was revived in its present form in 1980. We meet our objectives by holding meetings both on a national and a regional basis and by making pilgrimages to the St Nazaire area, visiting cemeteries where victims are buried, and the wreck itself.

The membership now includes over 160 survivors of the disaster, some now living as far away as North America, Africa, and Australia and New Zealand. The exciting thing is that they are still finding survivors, some via the Internet. The prime meeting each year is held on the first Sunday after the 17th of June at St Katharine Cree Church, Leadenhall Street, in the City of London. The Annual General Meeting is preceded by a ceremony at the Merchant Navy memorial on nearby Tower Hill and is followed by a remembrance service at the church. Other activities include an annual visit to the National Arboretum at Alrewas in Staffordshire where Merchant Navy losses in World War 2 are remembered by a convoy (of trees) headed by the Lancastria.

In the year 2002 they are making a another pilgrimage to St Nazaire to mark the 62nd anniversary of the tragedy and there are visits in the planning stage to the museum at RAF Digby, in Lincolnshire, which has a section devoted to the Lancastria, and the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool to see the Lancastria display there.

Membership of the Association is now open to any person who wishes to remember the sacrifices made in, or resulting from, the action of the 17th of June 1940.Details can be had from the Association's Secretary:-

Lancastria Survivors Association
Association Secretary
Robert Miller
2 Ash Road
CT13 9JA
Email the Association

Survivors' stories are printed in The Loss of 'Lancastria' by J L West (£4.00) and The HMT Lancastria Association Narratives, (£10.00). Both are available from the Association :-

Lancastria Survivors Association
Association Treasurer
Colin Clarke
14 Coxswain Way
PO20 0UA


• The Lancastria memorial on the sea front at St. Nazaire

"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 Saint Nazaire and surrounding districts who saved many lives, tended wounded and gave a Christian burial to victims.
We have not forgotten. HMT ‘Lancastria’ Association, 17 June 1988.’’

  Related Links

  Lancastria Association of Scotland
 Lancastria Association

 History Index

Labor Omnia Vincit