On June 17, 1940, the HMT Lancastria was sitting in the estuary of the River Loire on the west coast of France. The ship was laden with thousands (perhaps as many as 9,000) British subjects escaping France following its fall to the Nazi onslaught at the beginning of World War II. The Lancastria was once a fine ocean liner, but with the outbreak of war, had been turned into a troop transport ship. This was certainly not the first time this had happened to a grand ocean liner. During World War I, many of these large ships were converted to do war duty. The most famous of these is certainly the Lusitania which famously was sunk by a German submarine in the Atlantic in 1915, killing about 1,200 people. We’ve all heard about this ship – but many fewer of us have heard of the Lancastria – the site of a much worse naval disaster.
On that fateful June day, German warplanes appeared overhead and dropped bomb after bomb on and around the ship. In what must have a truly terrifying 20 minutes, the ship sank – bringing an unknown number of retreating soldiers, women, and children with it in the depths. Of the victims of the attack, it is known that at least 1,700 people died – but that number is more likely to be closer to 4,000 – with many of the unfortunates trapped inside the ship’s massive hull. This sinking is the single worst maritime loss of life in British history – and was covered up at the behest of Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s government. The ship was sunk during a time when Britain was in particularly dire straits and morale was already very low among the military and civilian populations alike. As such, the government decided that it was best to keep the story from the newspapers. Memorials to the ship and its passengers finally began to be unveiled in the 1980s.