The sinking of R.M.S. Lancastria, St. Nazaire 17th June

Discussion in 'User Introductions' started by Avigliana, Apr 18, 2014.

  1. Avigliana

    Avigliana Active Member

    I live in Italy now and thought I had covered most subjects about WW2, I was in for a shock.
    I was attending a class to improve my Italian, in the class was an English woman, she was about my age, her name is Ann Sweeney. She has an accent that I could kill for (Private school) . We got talking and after numerous conversations, she told me her father had died last year and that he had lived in Canada, I then asked her "How old was he". She told me. I asked "did he serve in WW2" and she said "Yes".

    One day, after one of the lessons we went for a coffee and she began to tell me about The Lancastria and what happened to her father while he was on board, I was flabbergasted as the story was unfolded to me.

    St. Nazaire harbour 17th June 1940. The B.E.F. was in full retreat on all of the fronts in France, you have all heard what happened at Dunkirk, but I should imagine not many of you know what happened at St. Nazaire. RMS Lancastria was being used to evacuate British troops from France, as she was about to leave for England it came under attack from The Luftwaffe, they say that there were about 9,000 aboard consisting of soldiers, Royal Airforce personnel and refugees, a Junkers 88 bomber got in close to her and bombed the ship. Absolute pandemonium broke out as the ship began to list, the German planes then began machine gunning anybody who was in the water. A large number of the troops on board began to sing There always be an England and Roll out the Barrels to keep moral up. The sea was now covered in thick black oil. The French locals came out in their boats to rescue as many people as they could, they were also supported by the boats already in the harbour.

    Churchill did not want the British people to be aware of what had happened to The Lancastria, censorship at its worst. It was The Americans who let the world know what had happened. It was a bigger tragedy than The Titanic and The Lusitania put together, the full numbers of dead will never be known, but approximately 4,000+ lost their lives that day in about 30 minutes. The bodies of dead British soldiers/airmen were being washed up on the french beaches for months afterwards.

    Great Britain have not recognised The Lancastria as a War Grave, and have done nothing for the survivors or their dependents. The full report on what happened (The official version will not be opened until 2045, no survivors or family left)
    France has put a 3 mile exclusion zone around Lancastria, to protect it, and have a memorial service every year for the survivors and their families.
    The Scottish National party under Alex Salmond, have issued a medal for the survivors and have put the story of the Lancastria in to the childrens education.

    This site below is Joe Sweeneys story about what happened

    The picture of R.M.S. Lancastria and survivors

    The story of what happened
  2. bamboo43

    bamboo43 Very Senior Member

  3. Tricky Dicky

    Tricky Dicky Don'tre member

    ritsonvaljos likes this.
  4. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot 1940 Obsessive

    Hello and welcome.

    I must confess I don't know much about her fate as it's not something I've looked at in great detail. I'm sure one of the files I've copied though reports it as being a He 111 rather than a Ju 88's that attacked her with one of the bombs going down her funnel.

  5. Owen

    Owen -- --- -.. MOD

    Have you not got this book on your shelf?
    I have. :p
    Sinking of The Lancastria - Jonathan Fenby.
  6. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot 1940 Obsessive

    You ask such silly questions at times - of course I have :lol:

    I've just not read it yet
  7. Avigliana

    Avigliana Active Member

    Hi Andy

    Nice to meet you.
    I think you are right about the German bomber, but if you read some accounts of the survivors
    the bomb did not go down the funnel. The engineering dept. was situated there and a lot of them survived.


    PS I think Joe sweeney story is very moving and tells it how it happened covered in oil and practically naked.
  8. Roy Martin

    Roy Martin Senior Member Patron


    Thank you for posting this.

    You might like to know that the Lancastria was taking part in a much bigger, but little known, rescue called Operation Aerial. About 180 merchant ships and twenty warships saved almost a quarter of a million people from French ports in the three weeks between the end of the Dunkirk operation and the Armistice coming into force on 25 June 1940 . This figure includes almost 140,000 memebers of the BEF who were still in France and many Poles and Czechs.

    You are probably right about the bomb not going down the funnel, when you think about it a bomb dosen't fall straight down.


  9. Avigliana

    Avigliana Active Member

    Thanks for responding.
    I think if you read Joe Sweeneys story or another survivor they state categorically it did not happen, the bomb going down the funnel
    Dunkirk totally eclipsed everything else that was going on at that time, and it was smothered in myths and fiction.
    Churchill, privately admitted it was a total disaster for the British army.
    General Gort did not support the french allies, who were holding the Germans back, and most of the troops went to the beaches.
    Churchill said "The french fought like the spartans at Thermopylae".

    Roy that some good information that you have passed on to me, thanks

    Have a look at this

    Best wishes
  10. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot 1940 Obsessive

    I had a quick look in ATBs The Battle of France by Peter Cornwell. There's a fairly detailed article in it regarding the RAF passengers. The British side of things seems to go down the line of a He 111 and a German Luftwaffe report by the attacking unit has them as Ju 88s. It also starts the decisive bomb 'Fell down the main hatchway of the SS Lancastria. The resultant explosion in the bowels of the ship created terrible havoc and blew a large hole in her side below the water line'.
  11. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot 1940 Obsessive

    Steady on old chap - I think you may have been reading the wrong books if you think it was just the French holding back troops at Dunkirk. The BEF lost circa 68,000 casualties in that campaign, nearly all of those in just 6 weeks. As of the evening of 1st June the outer perimeter between Furness and Bergues was predominately held by the BEF with just the French 12 Division defending the eastern flank supported by the BEFs 50 Div and a reduced sector on the west between Bergues and the sea supported by the BEFs 46 Division. 80,000 French troops were on the beaches and 30,000 of those had already been evacuated by the end of 1st June.

    Ellis - The War in France and Flanders 1939-1940
  12. Avigliana

    Avigliana Active Member


    I say old boy, dont put words in to my mouth.
    You were wrong on the type of aircraft and also the bomb going down the funnel.
    The french wanted to launch a counter attack (Weygand) against the Germans, Gort did not support this activity
    and instead sent a large number of troops to the dunkirk beaches.
    There still is a bias against The French actions on their own soil, The French soldiers who where transported from
    Dunkirk to England (The Last Operation of Dynamo, was carried out at 3am, taking off 700 french soldiers)
    who then went back to France to defend the ports like Cherbourg etc....against The Germans..
    Dunkirk was not a victory, it was a great rescue act that was supported by defending french soldiers.
    I never thought that I would say that.

    Toodle Pip old boy
  13. Rich Payne

    Rich Payne Rivet Counter Patron 1940 Obsessive

    Avigliana, this forum has always been somewhat above any form of bickering about whether the British or the French were responsible for the sad events of May / June 1940. The truth is of course that the enslavement of large parts of Western Europe and the attendant atrocities were caused by Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini, probably in that order. The Francophone American Youtube film has an obvious and unsubtle agenda which is perhaps understandable in the context of US / French relations over the last decade. It has probably not been an easy time as a citizen of the US to be proud of ones French heritage.

    I'd hope that none of the regular posters on the 1940 sub-forum would dismiss the efforts of the French 1st Army at Lille and numerous other brave acts. Contemporary British reports often contain praise for the French units that they served alongside and for the hard-working attached Liason Officers. However, there is no getting away from the fact that France had tremendous problems with her command structures, that some French units failed and that their numerous horse-drawn units clogged the roads and impeded responses. There is also little doubt that once the French line had been broken at Sedan, nothing that the small BEF could do would have avoided the inevitable.

    ...None of which has much to do with the regrettable loss of 'Lancastria' and an unquantified number of men. That the Scottish Nationalists have made much of it once again says more over post-war Scottish-English relations than it does over the events of 1940. The fact is that both Scottish and English divisions comprised battalions from both sides of the border and it made not one bit of difference in the fight for a common cause against a common enemy. Regrettably in my view, there are those who would rather turn their backs on this shared history and they are not shy of creating Wiki pages.

    The story of Lancastria was indeed supressed, as were many events in wartime and I fail to see why you regard this as 'censorship at its worst'. It was certainly not done for political gain but to avoid giving important information to Nazi Germany and to maintain morale in a country fighting for its continued existence. Arguably, many lives have since been put at risk by the modern obsession with telling the world everything as it happens.

    The casualties of 'Lancastria' received no better and no worse treatment than others lost in the campaign and it has never been in the British tradition to present medals for unsuccessful campaigns. It's one of the aspects which differentiates the left breast of a Britsh or Commonwealth uniform. In my opinion, the Merchant Navy was treated abysmally at the time but again this is a separate argument and has no specific bearing on 'Lancastria'.

    I've walked the rows, reading the names, in a number of the graveyards of Western France, both larger and small, which contain 'Lancastria' casualties and they are sobering and moving places. However, each tragedy was an individual one and the scale of the loss does not, in my opinion make a special case for the sinking. The cause was the agression of Nazi Germany and any mistakes made which contributed to the sinking must be seen in the context of the time.

    I see that you've posted again since I started and have now broadened the subject to include counter-attacks. I'd respectfully suggest that you also broaden your reading matter before you post further. The fact is that France simply didn't have the resources to counter-attack from the south to defend the Dunkirk pocket and in any case, a large part of the BEF had to be moved northwards to close the gap left by the capitulating Belgians. Fortunately, in my opinion, Gort realised that a French attack was impossible before they conceded the fact and took the necessary steps to save his army. Which option would you have preferred ? The BEF taking a last stand on French soil and 300,000 men going 'into the bag' ?

    There are a number of forums on the internet which appreciate discussions on nationalistic lines. This one, and in particular the 1940 sub-forum (if you proceed to post there) with it's contributors from all parts of the UK, France and Belgium is probably not the place to try it on. The evidence of earlier threads, if you care to read them is that we are all appreciative of the efforts of the Allies of 1940 and not seeking to score points by making sweeping generalisations.
  14. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot 1940 Obsessive

    I started to type a post but Rich has beaten me to it. I will say one last thing on that video.

    This is utter utter bollocks - I've walked miles of that perimeter and visited nearly all of the CWGC cemeteries containing the graves of British soldiers defending that line so that French and British soldiers could be evacuated.

  15. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot 1940 Obsessive

    Not the best picture at this time of night but he is a more factual look at the outer perimeter at the end of play on the 1st June 1940. BEF are in Red, French in Green and German in Blue. Quite different when compared to the screen grab above. You may ask how I know those British units were there - It's probably fair to tell you I have nearly 1,000 BEF unit war diaries and certainly have all the units in the map below

    Rich Payne likes this.
  16. Avigliana

    Avigliana Active Member

    Rich and Andy

    Thanks very much for your in depth explaination about the events that you have covered with your e-mails.
    I can understand you talking about Nationalism with my surname but I class myself as English.

    With RMS Lancastria, it came as a great surprise to learn about this sad and tragic event, and especially
    talking to somebody whose father did a lot of work to try and raise the profile of The Lancastria.
    Censorship, are there any other cases during WW2 were the full official verdict has to wait until about 2045?

    Please dont think I was trying it on, I initially came on the Forum to talk about RMS Lancastria and possibly
    uttered an opinion with out thinking of the consequences and being flippent did not help my case, to which I sincerely apologise.

    Best Regards
  17. Owen

    Owen -- --- -.. MOD

    Forgot to say ''welcome to the forum''.
    I entered 'Lancastria' into the forum search box & got ''Your search for the term lancastria returned 109 results'' that's 5 pages of threads listed.
    It's got mentioned on here quite a bit.
    It's always good to learn new stuff.
    That happens alot on here.
  18. CL1

    CL1 116th LAA and 92nd (Loyals) LAA,Royal Artillery

    On No 1's final operational patrol in France on June 17 Berry was leading a section over the docks at St Nazaire, when He 111 s came in at low level to attack troopships loading there. Berry led his section to attack but could not stop the leading bomber from scoring direct hits on the “Lancastria", setting it on fire and causing it to sink later with heavy casualties to the 4000 troops on board. Berry shot the He 111 down in flames into the river. For this action he was awarded the DFC (20.8.40).
    Drew5233 likes this.
  19. Avigliana

    Avigliana Active Member


    Thanks a lot!

    I have been looking for a forum like this for ages.
    I have had a good look around and there is plenty of information at the end of your finger tips.
    If I want to write about an item, how do I find out if it has already been done?
    I know enter in the search box.

    Thanks again for the welcome
  20. Rich Payne

    Rich Payne Rivet Counter Patron 1940 Obsessive

    Avigliana, I too am an expat and I hope that I'm capable of maintaining a fairly balanced European viewpoint. No Italian sunshine but conveniently close to to the the battlefields of 1940 . Sedan and Dunkirk are a couple of hours away and I regularly cross the Gembloux gap where the French 1st Army (once again) made the Wehrmacht take notice. Unfortunately, it made little difference to their advance to the south.

    I've had the pleasure of visiting various locations in France in connection with the 1940 campaign and the period leading up to it and I genuinely do not believe that there is any continuing animosity. An interest in the events of almost seventy-five years ago has always been welcomed.

    You're right to say that the Lancastria sinking (and indeed everything after the end of Operation Dynamo) is little-known by the general public, but then they aren't terribly interested in what led up to the evacuation either.

    We are interested in 'Lancastria' here, but not to the exclusion of the other maritme losses. Indeed Drew has risked life and limb and sea-water in his wellies to place memorial crosses on some of the wrecks still visible at low-tide off Dunkirk. Lancastria has certainly not been forgotten amongst those with an interest in the period and indeed that could well be due to the work of people such as your contact's father. We tend to forget, perhaps that not everyone shares the same obsessive interest.

    In truth, we simply don't know how much has been covered up, forgotten or withheld, in many areas. I understand though that the case with 'Lancastria' is that there were possible civil liability aspects due to the numbers on board and the manner in which the ship was chartered. That said, most of the wartime files which have been released were intended to be kept secret for longer and most of them have turned out to be dry as dust.

    I should also apologise for the 'trying it on' comment. A little too protective of the forum which is sometimes targetted by those with an agenda of their own. Please do stay around and delve as deeply as you can. The forum membership is supported by collections of literature and original documents which would probably stretch about twice round the world. If you need to find some answers, this is the place to ask.

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