The evacuation of 340,000 beleaguered British and French troops from Dunkirk by early June 1940 was a minor miracle for the Allies. But around 150,000 assorted British military personnel and civilians were left behind and word got around that those who could reach Saint-Nazaire, on the Loire Estuary, might yet escape the advancing Wehrmacht.
By June 17, assorted vessels were at the dockside or assembled off the port and HMT Lancastria was busy loading. This former Cunard liner carried 1,800 passengers in peacetime, but this was war. Around 9,000 were crammed aboard by the time she made ready to sail for England. Not far away HMT Oronsay, another requisitioned liner, was also embarking a seemingly endless stream of evacuees.
The Wehrmacht hadn’t arrived, but the Luftwaffe ensured that this second mass evacuation would be subjected to maximum disruption. The Oronsay was hit but stayed afloat, though Lancastria was not so lucky. After waiting for a destroyer escort to protect her from submarine attack rather than leaving earlier, in mid afternoon she was hit three times by a Junkers JU-88 bomber and sank within 20 minutes. A large number of evacuees went down with the ship and many more died when German planes shot survivors in the water, igniting leaking fuel oil. Others simply drowned or choked on clinging oil. A total of 2,477 were rescued, thousands died.
The sinking saw the greatest loss of life in British maritime history and the worst casualty figure in a single engagement involving British troops in World War II. So great was the morale-sapping potential of the sinking that Winston Churchill suppressed the awful news and over time Lancastria became the forgotten disaster, though the number of casualties considerably exceeded the combined death toll of those famous earlier sinkings, Titanic and Lusitania.
When: June 17 1940
Where: Off Saint-Nazaire, Loire-Atlantique, France
Death toll: Unknown. However, best estimates suggest that over 5,000 evacuees perished during the attack and its tragic aftermath.
You should know: Despite being bombed, the Oronsay escaped from Saint-Nazaire with her full load of evacuees and returned to England, only to be subsequently sunk by an Italian submarine off the West African coast in 1942 with considerable loss of life.