The Lancastria was built as a Cunard Liner, but requisitioned
at the start of the war. Originally used to carry cargo, she
became a troop carrier and took part in the evacuation of
Two weeks after Dunkirk, another less well known evacuation
took place. Operation Ariel was the evacuation of remaining
troops and British non-combatants from occupied France. Less
frantic than Dunkirk, the evacuation took place from Cherbourg
and St Malo. Lancastria was pressed into service.
On 17th June 1940, the Lancastria dropped anchor three miles
off the coast and waited for instructions.
Able to carry 2,200 people, the Captain was dismayed when
instructed to take as many as he could fit. No count was kept
of how many people pressed on board and some estimates say
over 9,000 were on the ship. Civilians, troops and children
were crowded on board, fleeing in front of the German advance.
At 1:50 The Lancastria was advised they could depart, but when
they signalled for a destroyer escort none replied. U-boats
were known to be active in the area. Overloaded and without an
escort the Captain decided to wait for a second vessel to be
loaded and set out together for protection.
The Bombing. The
Luftwaffe against the Lancastria
At 3:45 the Luftwaffe arrived. The first
Junkers-88 to target the Lancastria dropped four 500lbs bombs.
They all found their target. Many accounts state that one went
down the funnel by a freak chance, but this is untrue, as it
is disputed by a survivor who was in the engine room during
the attack. The bombs actually hit holds number 2, 3 and 4,
and the last tore a hole in the port side below the waterline.
The Lancastria was doomed.
As the ship listed and began to sink, the crew and passengers
began to try to escape. Overcrowded, with many of their exits
blocked by fire, few stood any chance. Those who got onto the
hull and deck of the ship were strafed by the Luftwaffe, and
covered in oil from the leaking fuel. Only a handful of
lifeboats could be launched and many of those overturned.
Twenty minutes later and the Lancastria had gone down, taking
with her thousands who had not managed to escape the ship.
Luftwaffe attacks on the survivors. Dropping incendiary bombs
Worse was to come. The survivors have detailed how, once the
Lancastria was sinking, and the
were struggling in the water, the Luftwaffe began to firebomb
them to set the fuel coating the sea ablaze.
Survivors on the hull, clinging to flotsam and struggling in
the water were also machine gunned.
The lifeboats fared no better as they were strafed despite
containing women and children, civilian non-combatants by any
While the Luftwaffe continued their attack, the other
evacuation vessels began rescue attempts. The Cambridgeshire,
a trawler, apparently managed to take onboard 900 survivors.
Some survivors were rescued by small launches with French
crews that took them to the waiting evacuation vessels.
Of the people onboard the Lancastria, only 2,500 survived.
Cover-Up. Preventing the survivors speaking
With the fall of France occurring at the same time, Churchill
was concerned about the effects on British morale. He ordered
that the records on the Lancastria be sealed, and issued a
D-notice to prevent the survivors speaking.
These restrictions have in part worn off. It appears that the
full record of what happened on the Lancastria will not be
known until 2040, and the British Government refuses to
release these restrictions. Across the Channel the French have
built a monument to the Lancastria dead. None such exist in
In 2005, with 65 years passed and the first restrictions
relaxed the Lancastria survivors were free to speak. The
Lancastria Association was formed in Scotland, where the
majority of the crew hailed from, to represent the survivors
and their relatives. It has members from all over the world,
New Zealand, Canada, France and Britain among the represented
countries and is campaigning for a memorial to the Lancastria.
This atmospheric slideshow/video, via
YouTube, was produced by Snakes 3425
(Permission has been sought for its
inclusion on this page)
Not a war
grave. No official recognition from the British Government
The site of the Lancastria is not protected as a war
grave. The British Government has repeatedly refused requests
for the site to be given that status. The records were
unsealed in 2005 when the first petitions were put it. The
request was rejected then and rejected again in 2007. It is
suspected this is because the ship was overloaded and they do
not want to be sued. The British government also refused to
issue a medal to survivors.
The Scottish Assembly are fighting the decision, and talking
about producing a pack for schools to ensure that the
Lancastria is not forgotten. The Assembly also issued a
commemorative medal for survivors.
The French Government has placed an exclusion zone around the
wreck to protect it.
Lest We Forget