Browne rejects plea for medals to mark 1940 sinking of Lancastria

DES Browne, the Defence Secretary, has formally rejected calls for the survivors and victims of Britain's worst maritime disaster to be honoured with a medal.

In a letter to a MSPs, he said the UK government would not sanction the casting of a commemorative medal to recognise the sinking of the Clyde-built Lancastria during the Second World War.

Last night, campaigners said the letter underlined the "dismissive, almost contemptuous" attitude the Ministry of Defence had demonstrated over the issue.

In his letter to Holyrood's public petitions committee, which is considering a plea for the Scottish Government to issue a medal, Mr Browne commended the work of the Lancastria Association, which has been campaigning for the victims to be honoured, and said the sacrifice of the thousands who died "must never be forgotten".

However, he said commemorative medals were instituted only to recognise Royal coronations and jubilees, and he signalled the government did not plan to change this.

He went on: "Official medals approved by Her Majesty the Queen are only awarded for military campaign service, long service, individual achievement and for individual acts of gallantry. There is no tradition in the United Kingdom to offer medals to commemorate specific incidents like the sinking of the HMT Lancastria."

Mark Hirst, of the Lancastria Association of Scotland, condemned Mr Browne's response, which included a suggestion the group might issue a "commemorative certificate" to survivors.

Mr Hirst, whose grandfather survived the disaster in June 1940, said the "patronising reference" to a certificate "sums up the MoD's attitude with regard to the survivors and relatives of victims of the Lancastria disaster".

He went on:

"The MoD has consistently refused to meet with our association. They have refused to designate the wreck site as an official war grave.

"They are also withholding a series of official documents related to the disaster and are now refusing to commemorate Lancastria veterans elsewhere in the UK by striking a medal in recognition of their efforts and supreme sacrifice."

The Defence Secretary's formal response makes it more likely the Scottish Government will issue medals. However, this will mean only the 400 Scots victims will be honoured.

Some 4,000 soldiers and sailors died when the Lancastria was sunk by the Nazis on 17 June, 1940 – two weeks after Dunkirk – while evacuating service personnel from France.

Fearing for national morale, Winston Churchill, the then prime minister, slapped a "D- notice" on the tragedy, banning any reports of the sinking.

Backed by The Scotsman, the families of victims and survivors have been campaigning for a commemorative medal to be struck in honour of the victims.