Sunk in a little-known WWII operation with heavy loss of life
Operation Dynamo (the evacuation of over 300,000 British and French troops from Dunkirk in early June 1940) was followed by two lesser-known evacuations. Operation Cycle involved the evacuation of 11,000 Allied troops from Le Harve on 10-13 June. Operation Ariel involved the evacuation of an even larger number of Allied personnel from Cherbourg, St. Malo, Brest, St. Nazaire, La Pallice, Bordeaux, Le Verdon, Bayonne, and St. Jean-de-Luz. Among the vessels dispatched to the Loire River estuary off St. Nazaire was the troopship HMT Lancastria. It had started life in 1922 as the RMS Tyrrhenia and was designed to carry up to 2,200 passengers in three classes. She was renamed RMS Lancastria in 1924 and refitted for two classes. She was requisitioned as a troopship immediately after the outbreak of World War II (becoming the HMT Lancastria) and was involved in the evacuation of troops from Norway in April. On 14 June 1940, a flotilla, including the troopships RMS Lancastria, Duchess of York, Franconia, Georgic, and Oronsay were dispatched to the Loire River estuary to evacuate Allied troops and a number of British civilians trapped in St. Nazaire. The Franconia was damaged en route by bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe and returned to port for repairs. The remaining vessels arrived on 16 June and the evacuation began. By the afternoon of 17 June, the RMS Lancastria (the master of which had been given orders to ignore capacity limits) embarked between 4,000 and 9,000 persons. Then the Oronsay was bombed. As the HMT Lancastria was preparing to depart, it too was struck by three bombs. The overloaded ship rolled over and sank within 20 minutes. There were 2,477 survivors. Officially, the death toll from the sinking of the Lancastria was 1,738, but unofficial estimates range to in excess of 4,000. Even using the official number, this was the worst ever loss of life from the sinking of a British ship. Approximately 200,000 persons were safely evacuated during Operation Ariel. Due to wartime security, the sinking was kept out of the press, family members only learning details after the war ended. On 12 June 2008, the Scottish Parliament presented HMT Lancastria Commemorative Medals to survivors and relatives of victims and survivors of the HMT Lancastria, including to the family of Captain Rudolph Sharp, the master.