|Lancastria sinking in St Nazaire Harbour (IWM image)
In our previous blog article, we began to examine the evacuations of the British Expeditionary Force and perhaps more belatedly, their French allies from the French Channel ports. Because of the sheer magnitude and the huge number of troops returned to these shores, the main evacuation at Dunkirk, known at the time as Operation Dynamo, has rightly secured it's place in British history as one of the turning points of the war, which enabled the British to secure the nucleus of it's Army, around which a new and much larger force would be formed and which would return to France as part of the great army of liberation some four years later.
Operation Dynamo was completed on June 4th, when the final French elements were brought across to Dover. However, approximately 20,000 British soldiers remained in the Abbeville-Rouen-Le Havre triangle, facing the Germans across the River Somme. This included the bulk of the 51st Highland Division, which had been undertaking a tour of duty on the Maginot Line. The Germans were advancing at such a rapid pace, there was no option but to order an evacuation from Le Havre and the operation, code named 'Cycle' was put into effect on June 9th. On this night, no British troops were evacuated but the French were able to complete their own evacuation. One of the ships involved was HMS Wellington, which today is moored on the Victoria Embankment in London as the headquarters ship and livery hall of the Honourable Company of Master Mariners. The following day - June 10th, destroyers were sent to investigate the possibility of evacuating troops from the coast between Le Havre and Dieppe but at 1530 these vessels came under fire from shore batteries, which revealed that the Germans had broken through to the coast, thus cutting off the escape route of 51st Highland Division to Le Havre.
It was therefore decided to concentrate the shipping required on the small fishing port of St Valery en Caux and began to arrive accordingly in the early hours of June 11th. Unfortunately, the bulk of the Highlanders had been delayed in their withdrawal and the only troops evacuated that night were some forty stretcher cases, some walking wounded and a handful of able bodied British and French troops. It was reported to the Royal Navy beach party that the majority of the Division would be ready for evacuation on the night of 12th June but shortly afterwards, the port came within range of German artillery and due to this, combined with patchy fog descending on the beaches, meant that the evacuation was far from smooth and many ships were hit by German artillery fire. By 0830 on the 13th, it became clear that further evacuation was impossible; the beaches were under intense fire from east and west and an hour later, the evacuation fleet was withdrawn to sea. No further troops had reached the beach and some 8,000 men of the 51st Highland Division under the command of Major General Victor Fortune surrendered. Unlike Dunkirk, this evacuation had fallen foul of the weather and the speed of the German advance. However, Operation Cycle had not been a complete failure and including the evacuations from Le Havre, some 14,500 British and 900 French troops were evacuated to Britain.
Despite these evacuations, British forces elsewhere in France were still being reinforced and a Second British Expeditionary Force was formed, under the command of General Alan Brooke, himself only recently returned to Britain from Dunkirk. This force was designed to show solidarity with Britain's French allies but as Brooke himself reported to Churchill, it was impossible to make a corpse have feelings and it was quickly concluded following a three way telephone conversation between the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir John Dill, Brooke and Churchill, that Franch collapse was imminent and that all remaining British personnel should be withdrawn as soon as possible.
Therefore on June 15th, preparations were made for the evacuation of some 140,000 troops from Cherbourg, Granville, St Malo, Brest, St Nazaire, Nantes and La Pallice. Unlike at Dunkirk, it was possible on this occasion to salvage a certain amount of equipment in the shape of equipment, stores and vehicles. The operation started on the same day with the withdrawal of British troops from Nantes and continued over the coming days at the ports mentioned above. It was whilst British personnel were being evacuated from St Nazaire a couple of days later that disaster struck.
By 2200 on June 16th, some 17,000 men had already safely embarked in four large liners, the Georgic, Duchess of York and the Polish Batory and Sobieski. These vessels were immediately replaced in the port by the Orient Line's Oronsay and the Cunarder Lancastria. Troops were being ferried out by French tugs, smaller British merchant ships and the destroyers HMS Havelock and Beagle. The Lancastria was not one of the glamorous Cunarders like the Queen Mary but was one of the workhorses of the fleet, having been built in 1922 for use on the North Atlantic run and also for Mediterranean cruises, which suited her rather plodding 17 knots rather well.
The Lancastria was at anchor and had been loaded with British soldiers, airmen and civilian evacuees since early in the morning but because of the sheer numbers of people being loaded on board, the crew's discipline had lapsed somewhat in as far as the exact numbers boarding were not being recorded in the latter stages of the embarkation. Some witnesses recalled hearing the Chief Officer Harry Grattidge reporting to the Master, Capt Rudolph Sharp that over 6,700 passengers were on board, which combined with the ship's crew of 330 would have put the total number on board at around the 7,000 mark. However, with the lack of an accurate count, the number of passengers on board could possibly have been much higher - indeed many people were witnessed boarding without anyone to count them on board the vessel and as a result, some sources stated that as many as 11,000 people were on board, although there would have to have been a major discrepancy in the counting process for this latter figure to be correct.
At around 1200, the first air raid of the day started but the Lancastria had almost completed loading by this time. Despite repeated advice from the Senior Naval Officer, Captain Barry Stevens, in HMS Havelock to get underway, Captain Sharp was reluctant to sail without an escort, preferring to wait for the Oronsay to complete loading and to sail as an escorted convoy in case of U-Boat attack. The Oronsay was hit and damaged during this raid at 1350 but despite this warning, Captain Sharp still refused to sail or even to weigh anchor and manoeuvre slowly thus making a more difficult target for the bombers.
A second raid started at 1545 and Lancastria (pictured above in her death throes) was soon struck by four bombs which ripped through the ship's side and caused her to sink inside 30 minutes. Many of those lost were trapped in horrendous conditions inside the vessel's holds, whilst many others perished in the oil polluted waters, either choked by the oil itself or strafed by attacking aircraft. Over 2,400 oil soaked survivors were picked up by other vessels in the port, but because of the uncertainty as to exactly how many were aboard in the first place, the precise death toll is unknown. The number of known fatalities was put at 1,738 but assuming there were 7,000 on board and given the known number of survivors picked up, the death toll could possibly have been as high as 4,600. Whatever the exact figure, this remains the worst disaster in British maritime history but one which is strangely overlooked. Perhaps this was because the tragedy occurred relatively early in the war and was soon to be overtaken by many other tragic events over the next five years. Captain Sharp himself survived this incident, only to perish when a subsequent command, the Laconia was torpedoed in the Atlantic in 1942, with major loss of life and not without more than a tinge of tragedy.
In spite of this disaster, Operation Aerial, as this part of the evacuation had been codenamed, saw the return of a further 139,812 British troops as well as 46,515 Allied servicemen, which as well the French included 24,000 Poles and nearly 5,000 Czechs. These forces would face four long years before returning to France but in the meantime, the French airfields which had fallen into German hands would soon bring the British people into the range of the Luftwaffe.
BEF Ships before, at and after Dunkirk - John de S Winser, World Ship Society 1999
Dunkirk, Fight to the Last Man - Hugh Sebag Montefiore, Viking 2006
Epitaph for Forgotten Thousands - Nicholas Monsarrat, Daily Telegraph 1970