Wartime loss that has been ignored too long

IT was the worst single loss of life inflicted upon British forces in the whole of the Second World War and Britain's worst ever maritime disaster. It eclipsed the combined death tolls of the Titanic and Lusitania disasters but has remained largely forgotten by history.

Successive British Governments from 1940 onwards have consistently failed to officially recognise the ultimate sacrifice paid by more than 4000 people, an estimated 400 of them Scots, when the Clyde-built Lancastria was attacked and sunk off the French coast.

But next month MSPs will have an opportunity to finally put that right by commissioning a commemorative medal for all those who were aboard the vessel that day, following the lodging of a petition to the Parliament instigated by the Lancastria Association of Scotland.

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The majority who climbed aboard the former cruise liner turned troopship that hot June afternoon in 1940 were soldiers and airmen of the British Expeditionary Force. They were joined by French and Belgian refugees but all were desperate to escape the advancing Germans who, just two weeks earlier, had driven the bulk of the British Army into the sea at Dunkirk, 300 miles to the north.

On the morning of the June 17, 1940, the Lancastria's most senior officer, Captain Sharp, was ordered by the Royal Navy to "load as many men as possible without regard to the limits set down under law".

It was to prove a fateful decision for the thousands who were already being ferried out from the harbour town of St Nazaire, five miles to where Lancastria lay anchored in the Loire estuary.

By late afternoon her decks were overcrowded with troops and a number of exhausted and confused refugees. Lancastria had lifesaving equipment for about 2500 people but by 3pm it was clear the ship was dangerously overloaded.

Some survivors, including former crewmen, claim that as many as 9000 souls had boarded before the air raid sirens from the harbour signalled an enemy attack was imminent. Shortly afterwards a German bomber swooped out of the sun and dropped four bombs, three of which hit the ship directly, killing hundreds instantly before the once great liner began to turn over and sink.

Soldiers on the upper decks opened fire at the attackers but it soon became apparent Lancastria was doomed.

Such was the speed of the sinking that only two of Lancastria's 32 lifeboats could be launched successfully.

Hundreds of troops stood on the steel plates of the Lancastria as she began to slide beneath the gentle swell. As the German bombers strafed men in the water and on the turning hull, the men began to sing Roll Out the Barrel in defiance. "If there was a hell on earth," said survivor Henry Harding, "I saw it that day."

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In the water men helped each other and the many refugees as best they could. All the time the Germans continued to attack, dropping incendiaries into the oily sea and machine gunning the thrashing, struggling throng.

Soon a makeshift flotilla of small rescue ships arrived on the scene, many from the small harbour ports which dot the mouth of the estuary. Survivors who were picked up and who were not completely overcome with exhaustion dived back into the sea to save wounded comrades. There were countless acts of bravery that day which have never been formally recognised.

Winston Churchill, on learning of the size of the disaster, decided to place a ban on all news coverage of it, fearing the adverse impact on public morale.

The effect has been that the story of the Lancastria and the massive sacrifice made that day has been largely forgotten.

For the past two years our association has fought to to secure wider official and public acknowledgement for the thousands who were lost aboard the Lancastria, as well as recognising the endurance of survivors, many of whom suffered real psychological trauma in the decades following the disaster. Following their return home they were ordered never to mention it and could not explain their symptoms to family or friends or reconcile the horror of what they had witnessed.

Many relatives believe the ultimate price paid by the victims is somehow regarded as less than other victims of the war who are officially recognised and honoured.

In 1970 the Dunkirk Municipal Council instigated a commemorative medal for those members of the British Expeditionary Force who had made a last stand in and around their town in May 1940. It recognised that despite, strategically, representing a retreat, the individual soldiers, sailors and airmen had made a valiant and courageous effort to fight back and assist one another while under sustained enemy attack. We believe the same is true of those who were aboard Lancastria which is why we are seeking a commemorative medal, as distinct from a military campaign medal, which can only be issued by the Ministry of Defence.

According to the MoD "any competent body" can commission a commemorative medal, but it appears we may have a fight on our hands. Officials at the parliament claim there is no precedent for commissioning such a medal, eight years after the parliament's own corporate body issued a commemorative medal to reluctant MSPs. They also claim, wrongly in our view, that the parliament has no powers under devolution to commission commemorative medals.

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Officials stress that the final decision rests with MSPs and we, the relatives of victims and survivors, as well as the small band of survivors still alive today, remain optimistic that they will finally bring some closure and official recognition to this forgotten tragedy by striking a commemorative Lancastria medal. The official disregard of this event which has continued for decades may soon be put right.

Mark Hirst is secretary of the Lancastria Association of Scotland and grandson of Lancastria survivor Walter Hirst. More information on the disaster can be found at www.lancastria.org.uk

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