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Donkin's World: Remembering The Lancastria

Richard Donkin recalls the most costly maritime disaster in British history.

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We were turning out the loft recently, trying to shed some junk, and found an old video camera, complete with some tapes made many years ago.

Rob, our middle son, was down for the weekend and he began playing the videos on the TV. One of them featured my father who died in 2003. A few years before his death I’d asked him to tell us about his experiences in WW II so that we had a family record.

In the tape he was telling us about getting out of France after the German breakthrough in May 1940. Dad was in a part of the army cut off from the British forces that retreated to Dunkirk.

He’d been based near St Saens in Normandy, not far from Abbeville where the German forces had reached the coast. Dad was ordered to take his bren gun and cover a bend in the road down which German tanks were advancing. The odds didn’t seem to be stacked very well in his favour so after emptying his magazine, he and his number two ran back to join the rest of his unit who were boarding a lorry to make their escape westwards.

They were bombed and strafed on the road as they drove west towards the port of St Nazaire. The road was covered in wreckage and discarded belongings and weapons, said dad. “We had to abandon the lorry when the road became impassable. I remember helping another chap who was struggling to walk. He threw his gun away but I hung on to mine. It was part of the training that you held on to your weapons, but many didn’t.”

Many of those who reached the port before he did had been disembarked on to an ocean liner, the Lancastria, now packed with servicemen and refugees. Even today it’s not certain how many people were on board. Dad watched from the quayside as German aircraft dive bombed the ship and scored a direct hit.

It was June 17, eleven days after the last British troops were evacuated from Dunkirk. The ship went down with the loss of more than 4,000 lives, the most costly disaster in British maritime history. More people died in this sinking than in the combined losses of the Titanic and the Lusitania, yet not a word was written in the British press about the sinking at the time. Winston Churchill, the prime minister, didn’t want the nation to hear yet more bad news after the defeat of Dunkirk.

The decision meant that the Lancastria http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_8782000/8782971.stm and its terrible loss of life was all but forgotten in comparison with other wartime incidents and sinkings. It’s a sobering thought that in the 20 minutes it took for the ship to sink it claimed the lives of nearly eight times the number of allied airmen killed in the entire Battle of Britain.

While other wrecks from this period have been designated war graves this protected status has yet to be applied to the Lancastria http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RMS_Lancastria. Dad was evacuated by another ship - he couldn’t recall the name, but said it began with a letter “B” - that disembarked its rescued troops in Plymouth. Dad would often say how he might have been on the Lancastria had he arrived at the port earlier.


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