On 17th of June 1940, the British navy suffered perhaps its greatest tragedy, the sinking of the troop ship the Lancastria in the Loire estuary at Saint Nazaire. So great was the loss of life – between 2000 and 4000, depending on account – that Churchill felt that release of the news would be detrimental to morale. Newspapers were forbidden to print the story. Survivors were not allowed to tell their loved ones. Victims were reported simply as ‘missing in action’.
The story broke in the New York newspapers on 26th July 1940, and soon after back in the UK. However, full details of the events leading up to the bombing are protected under the Official Secrets Act and is not due to be released until 2040. It is thought by some that the decision to the seal the records for a century was to hide the mistakes made by the British Government that exacerbated the tragedy – the intentional ignoring of the passenger load limit, the delay in embarkation because of a lack of timely escort that gave the Germans time to locate and bomb the ship.
My Grandfather was on the HMS Highlander, one of the destroyers that was tasked with giving protection to the Lancastria as it journeyed back to Great Britain under Operation Arial. After it was bombed by the Luftwaffe, my Grandfather spent hours with everyone else pulling troops from the oily murky water. More often than not, what survivors wanted, when they were rescued, was the simple pleasure of a cigarette. Sometimes they had swallowed or breathed in too much fuel, and died soon after – they were sewn up into weighted hammocks, and slipped back into the water.
The annual memorial for the Lancastria tragedy at the St Katherine Cree Church in Leadenhall Street, London, was on 21st June 2009. I was honoured to accompany my Grandfather to it, with all his medals shined. My Grandfather is fast-approaching 97, clearly the eldest of the ‘survivors’ at the service. He was congratulated and charmed by many, including the wonderful Jackie Duggan who was the French interpreter for the making of Christophe Francois’s ‘Lancastria – The story of a secret sinking‘. Most of the people in the congregation were in their late 70s and 80s. I realized with a slight jolt that they were children of those that were there. A child who was five years old in 1940 would be 76 now. Soon there may not be anyone left that was there. I’ve got a number of pictures on my camera that I need to upload, which I will do some time in the next few days. Meanwhile, here is one of my Grandfather talking to Jackie Duggan, and two pictures of the Gherkin that was just round the corner from the church.