Time to remember

AN IMAGE of war soon to be covered by a shroud of secrecy. The sinking of the Lancastria, built on the Clyde, captained by a Scot, and hit by a German Junkers Ju 88, was the worst single loss of life in British maritime history.

This photograph, taken less than 20 minutes after the bombing on 17 June, 1940, shows a few survivors struggling to keep their heads above water as the vessel, belching smoke, goes under with the loss of an estimated 4,000 lives.

So traumatic was the disaster that Winston Churchill, the prime minister, slapped on an order preventing details being published for 100 years.

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Today, a new battle has begun to create a commemorative medal in honour of the victims.

At the time this picture was taken, Reg Brown, a Royal Engineer, was still in the water, fighting for his life. Yesterday, Mr Brown, 87, said: "We swam through the dead, dodged the oil and the flames and dived down when the Germans strafed the water. We were lucky, but 67 years on we're still fighting for recognition."

It is a fight The Scotsman is proud to join. The Scotsman was the first and only British newspaper to defy a "D-notice" that banned any reporting of the sinking, which claimed the lives of 400 of the 1,000 plus Scots on board, to maintain morale at a time of national crisis.

We reported the heroism and courage of those on board a ship which was carrying infantry units such as the Fife and Forth Yeomanry attached to the 51st Highland Division; the 6th Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and the Kings Own Scottish Borderers.

Yesterday, MSPs also joined the campaign to secure a commemorative medal for survivors of the Lancastria or their families by agreeing to write to the Ministry of Defence, the Scottish Government and the Corporate body of the Scottish Government. Holyrood's petitions committee listened to an impassioned speech by Mark Hirst, whose grandfather Walter survived, but like everyone involved was sworn to secrecy under the threat of a court-martial.

Mr Hirst said last night: "It's excellent news that The Scotsman is to get behind our campaign. The newspaper was very courageous at the time to report the sinking and wrote a strong editorial. It's good to have its support once again. Our members and particularly the survivors will be delighted."

Earlier Mr Hirst, who lives in Abernethy, Perthshire, told MSPs: "Successive British governments have chosen not to mark or commemorate this incident. However, our view is that those who took part in this forgotten event deserve a level of official recognition." He appealed to MSPs to correct the "decades of silence" and reverse the "sense of ingratitude" that survivors and families of victims still feel to this day. The committee then agreed to find out if the Scottish Parliament had the authority to award such a medal.

The Lancastria Association of Scotland, which has members around the world, has campaigned since 2005 for greater recognition of an event which, as a result of Churchill's D-notice, is largely unknown.

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Fiona Symon, whose father Andrew Richardson, from Kirkcaldy, was one of the victims, said the disaster "cried out for acknowledgement". She added: "My mother died in 1992 still very bitter and sad. My father's life and the lives of the thousands who died with him seemed to be regarded by the country as being of less value than others who died in the Second World War who are remembered with honour. In many cases the survivors have suffered more than any of us. They've had to live out their lives with the horrendous memories and nightmares. Today, they would have been offered counselling but instead they were forbidden to talk about it and have been forgotten and ignored."

She said there was no shame in the disaster being covered up initially as "desperate times called for desperate measures". But she added: "The shame came in the silence and the cover up over the 67 years which have followed."

The Lancastria was launched in 1920 as a Cunard liner although her original name, Tyrrhenia, was changed after American customers said they could not pronounce it. The outbreak of war brought an end to scheduled sailings to New York and at first she carried cargo before being requisitioned in April 1940 as a troop ship, assisting in the evacuation of troops from Norway.

In June 1940 the Lancastria was sent to the mouth of the Loire as part of Operation Oriel to evacuate servicemen as well as women and children.

Although designed to carry 2,200 it was instructed to board men "without regard to the limits set down under international law". The estimated number ranges from 5,000 to 9,000. The three direct hits at 3:48pm caused the ship to list to starboard then port. It rolled over and sank in 20 minutes.

There were only 2,477 survivors, with more than 4,000 believed killed, a death toll that accounted for roughly a third of the total losses of the British Expeditionary Force in France. Among the survivors was the Captain, Rudolph Sharp.

That afternoon witnessed many acts of courage, among them by a Scots priest, Father Charles McMenemy, who led men to safety and gave his own lifebelt to a Sergeant Major who could not swim. The priest, one of four Catholic chaplains on board was picked up after 45 minutes in the water.

Reg Brown, who now lives in England, was in the water for more than three hours. "When we were picked up two lovely French nurses stripped off our clothes and poured brandy down our throats." He said he was delighted The Scotsman was taking up their fight.

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Last night, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said: "The MoD does not issue commemorative medals to mark specific incidents during the Second World War."

How paper stood up for truth


AFTER the troopship Lancastria was sunk by Nazi bombers at the cost of around 4,000 lives, the prime minister, Winston Churchill, imposed a "D notice" on the incident.

It prevented survivors or those who went to the aid of the stricken ship from discussing what they had seen, and forbade newspapers from reporting the tragedy.

However, The Scotsman refused to accept that such a disaster should be hidden from the public.

Under the editor, Sir George Waters, the newspaper took the decision to print the story, following a report in the New York Sun believed to be somewhat erroneous.

In an editorial, The Scotsman said such losses as those suffered in the tragedy "unfortunately cannot be avoided in withdrawal operations, and it may be wondered why the fate of the Lancastria was not disclosed until a report, not altogether accurate, had appeared in the American press".

The leader writer goes on to deliver a somewhat damning judgment of the government's actions.

"The government have given repeated assurances that it is not their policy to conceal news of losses and reverses, since they know the people of this country are not easily depressed by misfortunes.

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"There is no reason to suppose that in general the government are not fulfilling their undertaking of dealing honestly with the people in the publication of information, and there may have been special reasons for delaying the announcement of the loss of the Lancastria.

"Yet it is obvious that the belated release of news gives an opportunity for rumour to get busy, and to embellish facts in a sensationalist form.

"It also spreads suspicions that the government policy is to tell the public what they think is good for them and nothing more."

The writer concludes that "frank and timely publication of information, good or bad, is the best antidote for gossip and distrust".

Last night, Mark Hirst, of the Lancastria Association Scotland, said the opinion piece was "very strong and powerful", particularly given the stage of the war at which it was written.



THE Scottish Parliament's petitions committee yesterday agreed to write to the Ministry of Defence, the Scottish Government and the corporate body of the Scottish Government after a plea by relatives of the survivors for the Lancastria to be recognised.

The campaigners say in their petition that the UK government has not designated the wreck of the Lancastria a maritime war grave and there is still no official memorial to the victims.

They say the Scottish Parliament should commission a medal to go to each survivor or to the families of survivors.