The Sinking of the Lancastria

Jonathan Fenby asks why the greatest maritime tragedy ever to affect Britain was hushed up at the time and has remained a virtually untold story. 

Postcard of RMS LancastriaWhen word of Britain’s worst-ever maritime disaster (in terms of lives lost) was brought to him as he sat in the summer sunshine in the garden of Downing Street, Winston Churchill made an instant decision. It was less than three weeks since the end of the evacuation from Dunkirk. The French army was disintegrating, and the government, which had fled from Paris to Bordeaux, had opened negotiations with Germany for an armistice. More bad news was the last thing the Prime Minister wanted. So he told the media not to run the story, and they followed his instruction, despite the death toll which exceeded 3,500.

The news broke in a New York newspaper five weeks later, and the British press covered it – but only for a day. Since then, outside its home port of Liverpool and the association of survivors, the sinking of the Lancastria in 1940 has remained as hidden as Churchill wished. The news might never have found its way across the Atlantic had it not been for photographs of the stricken ship taken by Frank Clements, a sailor on another vessel, which found their way to the New York Sun. Few histories of the Second World War mention it, while the Royal Navy’s official account of the conflict makes only a passing reference.

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