The loss of the Lancastria – Britain’s worst maritime disaster

17th June 1940. The Nazis had occupied Dunkirk. Operation Dynamo was over. The last of the Little Ships had long returned to England. As far as many in Britain were concerned, the evacuation was over, and the British Army survived largely intact to fight another day.

However, over 200,000 British personnel remained in France, stuck in an ever-shrinking pocket of unoccupied Europe as the German military closed in. There was a rush for St Nazaire, where ships waited off the coast, with small boats ferrying people out of the shallows of the Loire estuary. Operation Ariel was not just about evacuating the remaining troops, but also civilian staff and their families. This was even more urgent than the retreat from Dunkirk. Once Operation Ariel was over, any British people who remained in Europe would be stuck there until the end of the war.

One of the ships waiting at St Nazaire was the liner RMS Lancastria, which could have gone on to be remembered for bringing up to 9,000 evacuees back to Britain. Instead she went on to suffer the deadliest disaster in British maritime history, which would hardly be remembered at all.

The Lancastria (image: Royal Pioneer Corps website)

By late evening on 16th June, the queue to get on to a ship at St Nazaire was 5 miles long. The Lancastria reached the Loire estuary at 4am the next morning, but had to anchor miles offshore rather than risk running aground by getting any closer. Royal Navy officers told her captain, Rudolph Sharp, to take as many people as he could fit. All he could do was sit and wait whilst the evacuees were brought out to his ship. The first arrived at 7am. Sharp expected 3,000 in total, which was already over the legal limit of 2,200.

The Lancastria‘s stewards lost count after 6,000 came aboard. By the time Sharp decided to refuse any more at 2pm, estimates for the number aboard range from a minimum of 7,500 to in excess of 9,000 souls. The last to board couldn’t even get below decks. They would have to spend the journey squeezed onto the open deck. Lifejackets had long since run out too.

The first German bombers had appeared at about 1.50pm but Sharp was more worried about submarines. He was planning to leave in convoy at 4pm, but at 3.48pm several Luftwaffe Junkers attacked the ship. Three bombs landed direct hits in holds 2, 3 and 4. Some 800 RAF personnel were crowded into hold 2 and most were killed instantly.

The bomb that hit hold 4 tore a hole in the hull beneath the waterline. Sharp made it to the bridge and saw a rush of white water bursting up through the middle of the ship. The Lancastria was going down by the head and listing further to starboard. Sharp gave the order to abandon ship.

The Lancastria going down by the head (image: Lancastria Association of Scotland)

Unfortunately his order would struggle to circulate on a vessel overcrowded to perhaps more than four times capacity. Thousands were trapped below decks in chaos as the lights flickered on and off. Passages had been destroyed by the explosions, and were now filled with smoke or boiling-hot steam from burst pipes, and exits were blocked by fire.

The ship was listing so badly to starboard that people jumping from the port side had a potentially lethal fall of 70ft to the water. Meanwhile on the starboard side people could step off into the sea. The crowds pouring on to the top deck had made the ship top heavy.

Yet deep down in the bowels of the ship, there was a very orderly evacuation taking place. A Catholic priest, Father Charles McMenemy, who had been in France to serve as chaplain to the troops, led men through ankle-deep waters at the bottom of the ship until they found a way out through the side, only a few feet above the waterline.

That was one of the rare stories of survival from those trapped below decks. As the ship slipped deeper into the water, there was a crush on the wooden staircase. It collapsed from the weight of too many people trying to climb it at the same time. There wasn’t enough to time for those stuck at the bottom to find another way out, and the passages were too crowded anyway. The water was rising so rapidly now that none of those people had any hope for survival.

The Lancastria took only 20 minutes to sink, in which time only two lifeboats were launched successfully. When the ship rolled over, many climbed onto her capsized hull. Some found dry cigarettes and smoked them whilst there was still time. Others joined in songs, including There’ll Always Be an England. When the ship finally sank, thousands were left floating in the water. Other ships taking part in Operation Ariel were already overladen, but more than 2,500 people from the Lancastria were saved.

The Lancastria after capsizing (image: BBC)

The first five weeks of his premiership came to define Winston Churchill’s entire career. Three of the four speeches for which he is most famous were delivered in little over a month. Churchill knew that many in Britain doubted the country’s ability to resist a Nazi invasion. All of Europe already lay at Hitler’s feet. However, Churchill knew that a lack of self-belief now would only help ensure defeat.

So Dunkirk was recast, mythologised immediately into a great success that ensured Britain had the means to fight on. The fact that so many more British personnel remained stuck on the continent afterwards was not publicised, and the loss of the Lancastria would have been a new and wholly demoralising end to the victorious Dunkirk story. If the upper estimates of the number of fatalities are accurate, then the military personnel lost aboard the Lancastria represented about a third of all British casualties since the declaration of war the previous September. The government issued a D-Notice, an official request to the press not to cover a story if it was in the national interest not to do so. At the time, all of the newspapers obliged.

The British government accepts that 1,700 died – 200 more than died when the Titanic sank. This number includes all those who can unequivocally be proved to have been lost when the ship sank. Meanwhile the memorial at St Nazaire commemorates 4,000. The actual figure could be several thousand higher than that precisely because nobody is sure just how many people went uncounted when they boarded. The British government’s files on the disaster were sealed for 100 years, so the extent of their knowledge won’t be revealed until 2040. Only then will we perhaps know the true scale of Britain’s worst maritime disaster.

You can read more about the Lancastria and other deadly maritime disasters – many of them similarly little known – in our book, Final Voyage: The World’s Worst Maritime Disasters (ISBN 978-1-4081-5894-4, RRP £8.99). If you buy it direct from the Bloomsbury website you will get a 10% discount: http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/final-voyage-9781408158944.

How the all-seeing airship saved the Royal Navy in the First World War

Bloomsbury Publishing recently acquired Conway, the leading publisher of maritime and military history. Sitting beside Adlard Coles Nautical, Conway makes Bloomsbury the foremost publisher of books related to maritime subjects, from practical sailing handbooks to guides to warships past and present. To celebrate the arrival of our new sister imprint, we feature this blog from Conway author John Swinfield.

In the age of the unmanned drone, the role of its pioneer predecessor is easily overlooked. The early airship had a crucial, largely unheralded role in the First World War. Its task was that of Navy escort, reconnaissance craft and U-boat spotter – functions it performed with élan.

The growth in the Great War airship service was rapid. In 1914 the Admiralty had seven airships, with one in disrepair. It might have been marginally more; records are incomplete. By 1918 it had 225 airships. As the numbers of airships grew, so did the hours spent on patrol. In 1914–15 they sailed for 3,000 hours. In 1917, with German U-boats causing mayhem, the figure leaped to 22,000 hours. In 1918 it was 56,000 hours.

Unfettered U-boat warfare, which led to maritime carnage, threatened to starve Britain into submission, choking off its sea lanes and vital supplies. The Great War strategy had parallels with the U-boat menace in the Second World War, when, again, German submarines brought Britain perilously close to the edge of calamity.

Airship SSZ 37 guards a British warship (Photo: Imperial War Museum/Wikipedia)

In the First World War, as in the Second, it is acknowledged that the Admiralty’s eventual institution of the convoy system would become key to thwarting the U-boat danger. Less appreciated, however, is that in the First World War, it was the aerial guard provided by airships which discouraged U-boats from getting within striking distance of a target.

It was usual for U-boats to immediately dive on seeing an airship. As with the submarine, the airship induced a terror in excess of its capability; nobody knows how many U-boat attacks were deterred by the presence of an airship, but it’s likely to have been considerable.

There are examples of airships bombing U-boats, some with success; in the main, though, their bombing was woefully inaccurate. In acting as the eyes of the surface navy, however, they were highly effective. They could stay aloft for hours; their range exceeded aeroplanes of the time; they were swifter than surface ships, and far more so than submarines. Doughty crews, often blue with cold in their open gondolas, could see to the furthest horizon, far in excess of anything possible by a surface reconnaissance craft. Aviation was still in its infancy, with breakdowns being commonplace; but airships, when judged by the standards of the time, proved relatively reliable.

Early submarines sometimes lay just under the surface, their dive capacity being limited. This left a tell-tale impression on the surface, especially when viewed by an airship close to or directly overhead. They were further hampered by being slow to dive, which again made them vulnerable to sharp-eyed spotters in a dirigible.

Early submarines were frail and, as with aeroplanes, prone to breakdown. Repairs had sometimes to be conducted on the surface, making the craft highly vulnerable to both surface and aerial bombardment. A crippled submarine stationary on the surface was a sitting duck. It usually had very limited deck armoury and was ripe for attack from the air by an airship. In the main, rather than trying to bomb them, it was likely that the airship would direct a warship to the location, which would then administer the coup de grace.

Emphasis was given to airships by Jacky Fisher, the volatile reforming admiral who kicked Britain’s fossilised Victorian navy into an effective force. Fisher’s creation of the big-gun Dreadnought battleship, which spelled virtual obsolescence for most competitor types, was far from his sole contribution. He was an enthusiastic supporter of what I have termed the ‘new arsenal’, to the resentment of his more crusty peers, those not in Fisher’s famous ‘fish-pond’, a coterie of progressive (it is alleged) naval thinkers.

Sir John ‘Jacky’ Fisher

Fisher overcame his initial suspicions of the submarine, something widely felt in the Navy. His doubts were quelled by one of his favourite officers, the cerebral, cautious, sometimes controversial, Reginald Bacon. Bacon would become the first leader of Britain’s fledgling submarine service and, subsequently, the first captain of Fisher’s much-vaunted Dreadnought.

Fisher became an eager backer of mines, torpedoes, submarines and airships: the ‘new arsenal’. Once persuaded of their merit, he would throw himself into their promotion with a characteristic, messianic gusto. His endorsement was cardinal. Fisher was one of the few influential voices in support of the airship. As with the submarine, the military airship was subject to a sustained level of derision and disdain, much of it emanating from naval grandees.

Fisher initially saw the submarine as an addendum to the Fleet; an oddly eccentric bolt-on to be deployed primarily for home defence and harbour protection. Later, he recognised it as a weapon at its most deadly when it was unleashed, stealthily tracking its prey in distant waters, unfettered by Navy chaperones.

As the conflict dragged on, draining government coffers as wars do, the Navy needed new reconnaissance craft to help counter the worsening U-boat threat. But the money was running out. It couldn’t afford them.

Airships were a plausible alternative. Inexpensive and quick to build, they were cheap to fuel, run and crew. Sometimes, though, a small army of ground handlers were needed. This was especially so as ships grew bigger. In trying to tether airships which had become wayward through capricious winds, all types of hold-fasts were tried – from elephants (so it’s said, but I’ve never found much proof) to obsolete military tanks. Such was the phenomenal lifting capacity of an airship.

The First World War saw a frenetic period of development. A diversity of new airship types were built, each successively more capable. A total of 41 airship bases and smaller mooring-out sites were constructed across Britain. Airships sailed on near non-stop missions, covering two million miles in the First World War, sailing for almost 90,000 hours.

While the submarine grew into one of the world’s most potent weapons, the airship is scorched into the pages of maritime and aviation history. Those which came to grief were the leviathans which came later: Britain’s ill-fated R101, and the German Hindenburg, whose fiery pyre effectively finished world airship production. First World War airships, with a different role to the intercontinental behemoths which followed them, were undoubtedly far more primitive, but markedly effective.

A century on and the European and US airship industry is stirring once more. Myriad manned and unmanned craft are being developed. Today’s creations bristle with innovative electronics. Their designers are following in illustrious footsteps.

John Swinfield is the author of Airship: Design, Development & Disaster, first published by Conway in 2013. You can buy it through all good high street and online retailers, or direct from us here: http://bloomsbury.com/uk/airship-9781844861385

Cheating the sea – the life of a Search and Rescue Pilot

Today sees the publication of RESCUE PILOT, the memoir of Jerry Grayson, the youngest helicopter pilot to ever serve in the Royal Navy, and by the age of 25, the most decorated peacetime naval pilot in history.

I was asked in a recent Australian radio interview, “What was the biggest danger you faced when flying Search and Rescue missions?” Without hesitation I was able to reply, “A flying car.” It’s perhaps not the first thing that might pop into anybody’s head when talking about flying a helicopter but the event is seared into my memory and is one of the stories told in my book Rescue Pilot, published today. In brief summary can I suggest that if you’re rushing to a clifftop to watch a helicopter hovering beneath you it’s a very good idea to apply the handbrake firmly before leaving your car!

There are a couple of other good pieces of advice in the book such as “Never walk close to the edge of a cliff, it will crumble” and “Don’t go out to sea on a li-lo when the wind is blowing offshore”, but mainly it’s a collection of stories – some funny, some tragic – about a very average guy who was fortunate enough to be allowed to do an extraordinary job. Some days were spent plucking holiday makers from the cliffs of Cornwall (and avoiding flying cars!) while other days were long, fraught and intense. Chapter 1 (available for free at http://issuu.com/bloomsburypublishing/docs/rescue_pilot/1 ) narrates just such a day when my diver, my aircrewman, the doctor and I spent many hours watching a Greek cargo ship slowly stagger its way towards an inevitable demise on the rocks of North Cornwall. It was not until we wished the crew a fond farewell and goodnight that they decided they would like to abandon ship after all.

No such persuasion was needed for the yacht crews battling with unprecedented seas during the infamous Fastnet Race disaster of 1979. I have never seen seas like it, before or since. The poor yachtsmen had sailed right into the teeth of the storm and not all of them were to come out of it. It was while reading Nick Ward’s extraordinary book Left For Dead that I suddenly realised it was time to write down some of these tales from the perspective of a Search and Rescue Pilot. At the time it was just the job we did, but as the years passed I increasingly realised that I’d been privileged to experience some extremes that others would find hard to believe.

But amongst all the drama there was also a good deal of laughter and HRH Prince Andrew, in his kind foreword, hits the nail on the head when he says “Reading this book I am also reminded of the undeniably strong camaraderie of aviators as well as the wonderful sense of humour that arises in the face of adversity.”

I’m forever grateful to the team at Bloomsbury who have taken this project to their hearts and published it in the year that the baton for SAR passes finally from the military to the civilian sector. It’s a controversial move with some interesting birthing pains but I have no doubt that the naval tradition of telling stories to each other will carry forward. My biggest hope for Rescue Pilot is that it will serve as a celebration of all that has gone before in the 61 years of SAR in the Fleet Air Arm and of all the people who have given so much and saved so many. If our website at www.rescuepilot.net and the associated Facebook page act as a conduit to those who served together then the launch of the book at the National Maritime Museum tonight will not be an end but just a beginning.

RESCUE PILOT is available to buy from all good bookshops and online retailers. You can get a 10% discount if you buy the book direct from our website: http://bloomsbury.com/uk/rescue-pilot-9781472917935. It is also available as an ebook.

From the Marco Polo to the #CuttySark, this beautiful new book captures the clipper ship era.

The Most Dramatic Era in the History of Sail, Brought Vividly to Life

9781472900289

In the era of commercial sail, clipper ships were the ultimate expression of speed and grace. Racing out to the gold fields of America and Australia, and breaking speed records carrying tea back from China, the ships combined beauty with breathtaking performance.

From mutinies, rivalries and the Cutty Sark’s longest voyage via the inspirational story of Captain Mary Patten and her battle with Cape Horn, Clipper Ships and the Golden Age of Sail brings this unique era vividly back to life, recounting thrilling descriptions of the most dramatic races, beautifully illustrated with the finest paintings and illustrations.

First-hand accounts, newspaper reports and log entries add exciting eyewitness detail, while the exquisite images bring home the sheer elegance of these racehorses of the sea.

Read a few sample pages from this beautiful celebration of these racehorses of the sea.

A visit to the Royal Greenwich Tall Ships Festival 2014

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The Royal Greenwich Tall Ships Festival came to London on Friday 5th September for five days and a few of the Adlard Coles team took some time out of the office on Monday afternoon to experience its many pleasures. It was the largest fleet of tall ships to visit London in 25 years and so naturally, for us, it couldn’t be missed.

Crowds of people line the bank at Maritime Greenwich

Crowds of people line the bank at Maritime Greenwich

The fleet was spread across several sites in Southeast London: Maritime Greenwich, Royal Arsenal Woolwich, Greenwich Peninsula and West India Dock. We visited Maritime Greenwich, in order to be able to go on board the largest ship of the fleet, Poland’s Dar Mlodziezy. At a mighty 108.8 metres sparred length and with a sail area of 3,015 square metres, the ship really is an impressive sight to behold.

Approaching Dar Mlodziezy

Approaching Dar Mlodziezy

Greenwich was incredibly busy but the festival seemed to be very well organised, with plenty of stewards available to answer questions and direct people to where they needed to go. Dar Mlodziezy was moored midstream and so we boarded a shuttle boat to take us on the quick 5-minute journey to where it was.

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On board we were able to wander around on deck freely, and took great delight in admiring the ship’s many features. Unfortunately we weren’t permitted below deck but this was only a minor disappointment, as above deck had plenty for us to see.

Janet and Liz of the Adlard Coles team discuss the merits of baggywrinkles

Janet and Liz of the Adlard Coles team discuss the merits of baggywrinkles

We were also lucky to see the flotilla of puffers (steam ships) and ships that took part in the rescue from Dunkirk in 1940, which started in Maritime Greenwich at 2pm and finished at 3.30pm at the Royal Arsenal Woolwich Festival Village.

The ship Gulden Leeuw sails past us

The ship Gulden Leeuw sails past us

Back on dry land we wandered for a bit around the Lebara Festival Village, which included numerous market stalls, lots of live music, food and drink vendors and other entertaining sights. All against the beautiful backdrop of the Old Royal Naval College. All in all, a brilliant afternoon out.

The Lebara Festival Village

The Lebara Festival Village

A fun family day out

A fun family day out

L–R Liz, Janet and Jenny of the Adlard Coles team

L–R Liz, Janet and Jenny of the Adlard Coles team

To read more about Dar Mlodziezy and more than 100 of the other fascinating tall ships still sailing today, buy your copy of Tall Ships Today, produced in conjunction with Sail Training International. There is a 10% discount if you buy it direct from our website here.

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20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the birth of science fiction

The history of science fiction could have been very different. Jules Verne’s father only let him go to Paris in 1847 to study law and afterwards wanted him to come back to his hometown of Nantes to start his own law firm. But the twentysomething Verne had been distracted by Paris’s theatres and literary salons, and soon came under the influence of Alexandre Dumas.

In 1869 he published 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which went on to become one of his most famous, popular and well-travelled novels. It is the story of French naturalist Pierre Aronnax, who joins an American expedition to hunt down a massive whale that has apparently sunk several ships. When they track down the monster, Aronnax falls overboard and finds the massive whale is actually made of metal. Taken inside this artificial leviathan, he begins an epic journey under the seas as a prisoner of the enigmatic Captain Nemo, which involves sea battles, an attack from giant octopuses and a visit to a sunken city.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

Our edition, published this week, includes a specially-written Foreword by zoologist and television presenter Miranda Krestovnikoff. In it she explores how Verne both pre-empted and inspired future developments in oceanography and submarine technology. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is the fourth book in the Adlard Coles Maritime Classics series, which aims to celebrate the best in maritime fiction, both fiction and non-fiction.

Other titles in the series currently include South (Ernest Shackleton), Mutiny On Board HMS Bounty (William Bligh) and The Sea Wolf (Jack London). Next year we will add Robinson Crusoe (Daniel Defoe) and Lord Jim (Joseph Conrad).

What maritime favourites would you like us to publish next?

Remembering Fastnet – 35 years on

Every two years since 1925 (with the obvious exception of 1941 to 1945), yachts have set sail from Cowes on a 608-mile (1,126km) race which finishes in Plymouth, but whose course goes via the Irish islet that gives the race its name – Fastnet.

The 28th Fastnet Yacht Race left Cowes on 11th August 1979. It had 306 yachts taking part, and competitors included Sir Peter Blake, the founder of CNN Ted Turner and former Prime Minister Edward Heath, who was still secretly smarting from what his arch rival and successor as Conservative leader had managed to pull off earlier that summer. Out of the 306 yachts that started, however, only 86 finished. The 1979 Fastnet Race was the one that took a sporting event from the back pages to the front.

As the race started, weather forecasts predicted reasonably steady Force 4 or 5 winds, rising to Force 6 or 7 for a while. A large depression had formed over the Atlantic but was expected to miss the southern coast of Ireland by hundreds of miles. By the time it took a sharp and rapid turn towards the Irish coast and forecasts began predicting Force 8 winds, most of the yachts were already too far out to sea to turn back.

Between the 13th and 14th August, winds reached Force 11. Some 25 yachts were sunk (or otherwise disabled) and abandoned, with 75 turned upside down in mountainous seas. Before rescuers were able to reach the stricken yachts, 15 competitors were killed.

Image from Daily Mail

Whilst the winds were still blowing at hurricane force, the largest peacetime rescue operation in history was mounted. Some 4,000 people were involved in a collaborative effort including British, Irish and Dutch personnel, naval vessels and aircraft. The US Navy even sent a ship based out of Scotland to assist. The Royal Navy, RAF and RNLI led the way, sailing and flying into perilous conditions. The death toll would have been even higher had they not, but three rescuers died in the process.

Large-scale disasters of this nature consist of hundreds of individual stories of courage and endurance, such as that of Nick Ward. He was still in his early 20s when he joined the crew of the yacht Grimalkin for the race. They rode the storm as long as they could but were turned over by a massive wave. Nick was knocked unconscious and when he came to he found himself alone on Grimalkin with only one dying crewmate. The liferaft was missing. Nick realised what the others had done. He spent a long day unable to do anything but sit in an uncontrollable boat at the mercy of the storm, hoping for rescue before Grimalkin suffered her final fatal knockdown. Nick’s account, Left for Dead, was published in 2007 and went on to win The Times Sports Book of the Year.

Jerry Grayson, a Royal Navy rescue pilot flying Wessex helicopters out of Cornwall, was also still in his early 20s at the time of the 1979 Fastnet. He was used to picking up injured people from the bottom of cliffs, or even airlifting them from the decks of submarines. But he had never heard of Fastnet. He thought he was flying to look for a couple of yachts and maybe a dozen sailors stranded on a beach in the Scilly Isles.

Instead, as he flew into the storm, the radio went crazy. It seemed like every helicopter from their base was also being sent up. Meanwhile one yacht after another was issuing desperate Mayday calls over emergency channels. For normal rescues, Jerry would hover 15ft in the air. That was always going to be difficult that stormy August morning, however, when waves topped 40ft.

Image from Daily Echo

Jerry was one of those directly involved in the rescue effort to receive the Air Force Cross for his actions. He will tell his story in Rescue Pilot, to be published next year.

The 1979 Fastnet Race had consequences that continue to be felt today, and not just for the race itself. The RYA and RORC jointly commissioned an inquiry which thoroughly investigated the safety and performance of small craft, their crews and equipment. It was far-reaching, the definitive report on sailing standards for all offshore sailing, not just racing. It led to significant changes – and most would argue, improvements – to yacht design, safety and equipment.