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Sinking of the 'Lancastria', 17 June 1940
A painting on paper showing survivors from the sinking of the British ship 'Lancastria'. This was regarded as the worst loss of life that Britain ever suffered from one vessel. The 'Lancastria' was a Cunard liner built by William Beardmore & Co, Dalmuir in Glasgow. She made her maiden voyage under the name of 'Tyrrhenia', travelling from Glasgow to Montreal on 13 June 1922. Between the wars she spent many years as a cruise ship. Her final peace-time cruise was in the Bahamas in September 1939 which ended with the ship docked in New York, at the outbreak of WWII. There she was adapted to become a troopship. She successfully dodged German bombing in the North Sea while helping with the evacuation of troops from Norway. The 'Lancastria' then took part in Operation Aerial at St Nazaire, France, evacuating more British troops. Early on the morning of 17 June 1940 she anchored off St Nazaire at Charpentier Roads to begin evacuating British troops and some civilians. This continued well into the afternoon when it is estimated that there may have been over 7000 people on board a ship which was at capacity at 3000. It was at this point that German aeroplanes flew overhead, sighted the unprotected ship and began bombing her. Four bombs hit, including one which dropped down the funnel and exploded in the engine room. Less than 20 minutes later, the 'Lancastria' rolled onto her port side and sank. Many people perished although some made it to the two launched lifeboats, while others jumped overboard as the boat sank. The constant presence of enemy aircraft made any rescue operation very difficult. As one of the bombs had ruptured the 'Lancastria's' fuel tank causing fuel oil to leak making pulling survivors from the water extremely difficult and frequently unsuccessful. It is estimated that 4500 or 5000 people died with about 2500 rescued. Initially the story was suppressed in Britain to keep up morale.
Robert W. May
- Image reference: BHC0673
- National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. We regret that Museum enquiries have not been able to identify the copyright holder and would welcome any information that would help us update our records. Please contact the Picture Library.