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.
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.
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 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.