On This Day…

On the 17th June 1940 RMS Lancastria was sunk

Following the successful evacuation of much of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk (Operation DYNAMO) at the beginning of June 1940 and later from Le Havre (Operation CYCLE), a third evacuation was mounted to recover British and French forces and some civilians from the western ports of France (Operation AERIAL).

On the outbreak of war, the trans-Atlantic liner and cruise ship owned by Cunard RMS Lancastria was requisitioned by the Admiralty as a troopship. She had been used to evacuate troops from the failed expedition to Norway in April 1940 and later to move men to Iceland before being ordered to Plymouth on 15 June to await orders.


Hit by three bombs

The Lancastria arrived in the Loire estuary on the evening of 16 June heading for the port of St. Nazaire, near which she anchored that night. The following day troops began to embark, being ferried out to the troopship by smaller vessels. The final number embarked is not known, but the ship’s Master believed that it was around 5,500, mostly military personnel and a few civilians. In an air attack that afternoon as the Lancastria waited to sail, she was hit be three bombs. Within minutes the ship began to list, then capsized and sank only 20 minutes after the attack.


Thousands killed – final death toll unknown

The death toll was enormous. The total number killed is not known with any accuracy but it is believed that over 4,000 souls were lost—it remains the United Kingdom’s biggest maritime tragedy and the largest single loss of British military personnel during the Second World War.


Royal Signals suffer losses

When 2nd Air Formation Signals had been raised just prior to the war it absorbed No. 14 Line Section from 2nd North Midland Corps Signals, a Territorial Army section recruited from Glossop in Derbyshire. All of the Royal Signals soldiers lost when the Lancastria was sunk were from No. 14 Line Section, and all are commemorated on Glossop’s war memorial.

Signalman Harry Bennett, Dunkirk Memorial.
Signalman James Alfred Drabble, Dunkirk Memorial.
Signalman Eric Dyer, Pornic War Cemetery.
Signalman Clifford Holland, Dolus-d’Oleron Communal Cemetery.
Signalman John Jones, St. Trojan-Les-Bains Communal Cemetery, Ile D’Oleron.
Signalman Ernest McGowan, Dunkirk Memorial.

Photo of RMS Lancastria: Imperial War Museum © IWM HU 3323.
Photo of Glossop War Memorial: David Dixon (Creative Commons Licence).