RMS Lancastria

The RMS Lancastria was a Cunard liner sunk on June 17, 1940 during World War II with the loss of, possibly, 4,000 lives.

Launched in 1920 as the Tyrrhenia for the Anchor Line, a subsidiary of Cunard. The 16,243 ton (46,500 m3), 578 foot (176 m) liner could carry 1,785 passengers in three classes and was built by William Bearmore & Company of Glasgow. She made her maiden voyage on June 19, 1922.

She was refitted for just two classes and renamed Lancastria in 1924. She sailed scheduled routes from England to New York until 1932, and was then used as a cruise ship in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe. With the outbreak of the Second World War, she carried cargo before being requisitioned in April 1940 as a troopship, becoming the HMT Lancastria. She was first used to assist in the evacuation of troops from Norway.

She was sunk while taking part in Operation Ariel, the evacuation of British nationals and troops from France after Dunkirk. After a short overhaul, she left Liverpool on June 14 under Captain Rudolf Sharpe, and arrived in the mouth of the Loire river estuary on June 16. By the mid-afternoon of June 17, she had embarked an unknown number of civilian refugees and RAF personnel, estimates range from 4,000 up to 9,000. The ship's official capacity was 3,000.

She was bombed at around 16:00 by Dornier Do 17 aircraft. Four hits, including a bomb straight down her single funnel, caused the ship to list, roll over and sink within twenty minutes. Over 1,000 tons of fuel oil leaked into the sea and was set ablaze, possibly by incendiary bombs dropped by the bombers or strafing. Many drowned, were choaked by the oil, or were shot by the strafing German aircraft. There were 2,477 survivors. The death toll accounted for roughly a third of the total losses of the BEF in France. She sank around 5 nm (9 km) south of Chémoulin Point in the Charpentier roads, around 9 nm (17 km) out of St. Nazaire

The immense loss of life was such that the British government banned any public announcements of the disaster through the D-notice system. The story was broken by the New York Times on July 26 and the British press did make brief mention of the story being reported. Due to the imposition of the D-notice, survivors and the crews of the ships that went to the aid of Lancastria did not discuss the disaster at the time due to the fear of court martial. The official records of the fourth worst maritime loss of the war and the worst in British history have been withheld until 2040 under the Official Secrets Act. The wreck was broken up in 1951. The site is a war grave protected by the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986.

Rudolf Sharpe survived the sinking and went on to command the Laconia, losing his life along with many Italian POWs on September 12, 1942 when she was torpedoed off West Africa.

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