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The RMS Lancastria was a British Cunard liner sunk by enemy action on 17 June 1940 with the loss of an estimated 4,000 plus lives.
Launched on the Clyde, Scotland, in 1920 by William Beardmore and Co as the Tyrrhenia for the Anchor Line, a subsidiary of Cunard, the 16,243 ton, 578 foot long liner could carry 2,200 passengers in three classes.
She made her maiden voyage, Glasgow-Québec-Montreal on 19 June 1922.
She was refitted for just two classes and renamed Lancastria in 1924, after passengers complained that they could not properly pronounce Tyrrhenia.
She sailed scheduled routes from Liverpool 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 off the French port of St. Nazaire while taking part in Operation Ariel, the evacuation of British nationals and troops from France, two weeks after the Dunkirk evacuation.
After a short overhaul, she left Liverpool on 14 June under Captain Rudolph Sharp (born 27 October 1885) and arrived in the mouth of the Loire river estuary on 16 June. Anchored 11 miles south-west of St Nazaire. By the mid-afternoon of 17 June, she had embarked an unknown number (estimates range from 4,000 up to 9,000) of civilian refugees (including embassy staff and staff of Fairey Aviation of Belgium), and line-of-communication troops (Pioneers, RASC etc), and RAF personnel. The ship's official capacity was 2,200 including the 375 man crew.
At 1:50 pm the nearby [SS Oronsay |Oronsay]] a 20,000-ton Orient liner, was struck on the bridge, the Lancastria was free to depart and advised by the captain of the British destroyer Havelock to leave, but without a destroyer escort against possible submarine attack, Sharp decided to wait.
A fresh air raid began before 4 pm. She was bombed at 15:48 by Junkers 88 aircraft from II. Gruppe/Kampfgeschwader 30. Three direct hits caused the ship to list first to starboard then to port and she rolled over and sank within twenty minutes. Over 1,400 tons of fuel oil leaked into the sea and was set partially ablaze, possibly by strafing. Many drowned, were choked by the oil, or were shot by the strafing German aircraft.
Survivors were taken aboard other evacuation vessels, the trawler Cambridgeshire rescuing 900. There were 2,477 survivors. The death toll accounted for roughly a third of the total losses of the British Expeditionary Force in France. She sank around 5 nautical miles south of Chémoulin Point in the Charpentier roads and around 9 nautical miles out of St. Nazaire. The Lancastria Association Victim registers 1,738 deaths
The immense loss of life was such that the British government banned any public announcements of the disaster through the D-Notice system, but the story was broken by the New York Times and The Scotsman newspapers on 26 July.
The British press did then cover the story, including front pages of the Daily Herald (also on 26 July) and Sunday Express on 4 August; the latter included a photograph of the capsized ship with its upturned hull lined with men under the headline "Last Moments of the Greatest Sea Tragedy of All Time".
Due to the imposition of the D-Notice, survivors and the crews of the ships that had gone to the aid of Lancastria did not discuss the disaster at the time due to the fear of court martial.
The British Government has refused to make the site a war grave under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 although documents obtained under the Freedom of Information show that it could be done. The French Government recently placed an exclusion zone around the wreck site.
Rudolf Sharpe survived the sinking and went on to command the Laconia, losing his life along with many Italian prisoners-of-war on 12 September 1942 when the ship was torpedoed off West Africa, rolling over, and sinking stern first.
In February 2008 the Scottish Government confirmed it would present the medal to all those who were aboard the Lancastria that day. The medal is in recognition of the endurance of survivors and ultimate sacrifice of the victims. An estimated 400 Scots were amongst the 4,000 killed with the Lancastria was attacked and sunk.