The Sinking of the Lancastria
It is not widely known that after the Dunkirk evacuation 150,000 British servicemen remained in France, mainly second-line troops stationed around Nantes and cut off by the German advance further north. As the French government capitulated, an unsung evacuation from Norman and Breton ports was accomplished largely without loss, but there was one tragic exception. HM Troopship Lancastria was preparing to sail from St Nazaire on 17 June with 7,000 on board, when she was sunk by German dive bombers. The ship sunk in approximately four minutes, there were only lifebelts aboard for 2,000, and apparently many of those on board could not swim. A terrible tragedy. At least 4,000 died, making this Britain’s worst maritime disaster, yet it remains little known. Why should this be? Partly because it took place amid the chaos of early summer 1940, but also because Winston Churchill ordered the news suppressed in order to preserve civilian morale.
Jonathan Fenby tells a good tale, but the book is marred by careless errors, notably in military nomenclature.