Mark Hirst: Recognition remains sunk without trace

4,000 lives were lost when the Lancastria was sunk
4,000 lives were lost when the Lancastria was sunk
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The sinking of the Lancastria by German bombers claimed 4,000 lives, but the tragedy has garnered so little attention, writes Mark Hirst

NO-ONE at the White Star Line ever claimed the Titanic was unsinkable.

It was a myth that emerged in news coverage of the tragedy only after the great liner struck the iceberg and sank in a little over two hours.

The loss of the Titanic on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic is often regarded as a terse lesson to man’s futile efforts to pacify the sea.

In the 100 years since the ship sank, the Titanic has become part of the lexicon of Western culture and a symbol of corporate failure, aristocratic selfishness as well as the heroic sacrifice of a few in the face of monumental human death and suffering.

Over 40 books have been published dedicated to the story and more than 28 films made.

One of the most iconic, A Night to Remember from 1958, is etched firmly into the collective memory of the public.

The Titanic and the fate of its 1,514 victims are remembered and recounted in often minute detail, while, by comparison, the worst ever maritime loss in British history remains largely forgotten.

The bombing and subsequent sinking of the Clyde-built Lancastria by German bombers off the coast of Saint Nazaire, France, on 17 June 1940, lasted for just 20 horrific minutes. But the 4,000 victims it claimed have rarely registered in the public consciousness.

In recent years, a small group of Lancastria survivors, now in their late 80s and 90s, joined by relatives of victims and survivors, have worked hard to help raise awareness of this forgotten part of our history.

My own motivation was driven by the experiences of my grandfather, Walter Hirst, who, despite being a non-swimmer, somehow managed to survive for hours in the oily and blood-soaked sea five miles off the Brittany coast.

In the shadow of the Titanic phenomenon, and the culture and interest it receives, Lancastria campaigners have often found it difficult to secure the attention they believe the story, and in particular, the victims deserve.

Although some British programme makers have made speculative inquiries about exploring the subject, none have come to fruition.

Outside the UK there is much greater interest in Britain’s worst-ever naval tragedy.

In 2003, I was approached by the French film-maker Christophe Francois to collaborate on an hour-long documentary.

The film later won “best international maritime documentary” and was broadcast globally to over 85 countries and 200 million viewers, but is still to be shown in the UK.

An English language version of the film was produced and distributed to British television commissioning editors, but the response was largely negative.

One senior commissioning chief described the story as “particularly uninspiring”.

Another rather patronisingly explained that British television audiences struggle to concentrate on serious subject matter for more than 30 minutes at a time.

The print media has been somewhat more sympathetic and none more so than The Scotsman, which was the first British publication to break the news of the disaster a month after it had occurred.

In a devastating critique of Churchill’s decision to censor the loss of the Lancastria, The Scotsman editorial urged the British government to trust the wartime public with the facts.

“Frank and timely publication of information, good or bad, is the best antidote for gossip and distrust,” this newspaper proclaimed.

Although no-one knew it at the time, the sinking of the Lancastria was to prove the single biggest loss of life for British forces in the whole of the Second World War.

Some might have expected, therefore, that once the war had ended there might be some retrospective examination of the events that led to the disaster.

William Walker, a survivor from Dunfermline, recalled the frustration of many of his comrades in the decades that followed.

“I began to think the whole experience had been in my imagination. It was never mentioned in the press or on the TV,” he said. “You would see the name of the ‘Titanic’ all the time and that was a terrible tragedy, but the scale of loss of life aboard the Lancastria was far greater. Its victims didn’t seem to count as much. I never understood why.”

Other more political factors didn’t lend themselves to increased awareness of the disaster either.

Churchill had taken the decision to stop the British media covering the story by issuing a D-notice, fearing the damaging impact news of the loss might have had on an already demoralised British public.

The D-notice imposed by Churchill was broken only after an American newspaper published a factually inaccurate account of the sinking which led The Scotsman, and later other British papers, to report the loss.

In recent years, Scottish relatives and survivors began campaigning for greater public awareness and official recognition of a sacrifice which many of them believed had been ignored for too long.

In 2007 the Lancastria Association of Scotland petitioned the British government, calling on them to designate the wreck site of the Lancastria an official war grave, but that request was refused.

The UK government also refused several requests to release all the information it holds on the Lancastria disaster claiming that to do so would “prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs”.

The same year, the association launched a campaign, supported by The Scotsman, calling on Scottish ministers to commission a commemorative medal as a symbol of official recognition of the disaster. That campaign ultimately proved successful.

Last October, on the banks of the River Clyde, in torrential rain, Britain’s first major memorial to the victims of the Lancastria was unveiled by Scotland’s First Minister.

The monument was funded exclusively by the efforts of campaigners and relatives of victims and survivors. Only a handful of news organisations attended.

Perhaps it was the rain that accounted for the lack of media interest. More likely it was a reflection that compared to the unsinkable reputation of the Titanic, the Lancastria is set to remain forever shrouded in darkness, like the silt-laden waters that surround the wreck site today.

• Mark Hirst is the grandson of Lancastria survivor Walter Hirst.