The Sinking of the Lancastria: The Twentieth Century's Deadliest Naval Disaster and How Churchill Made it Disappear

The Sinking of the Lancastria: The Twentieth Century's Deadliest Naval Disaster and How Churchill Made it Disappear

by Jonathan Fenby
     
 

On June 17, 1940, just after the Dunkirk evacuation had supposedly ended in success, several thousand of the many British troops still left in France boarded a five-decked cruise liner called the Lancastria. Right after they boarded, the ship was dive-bombed by the German Luftwaffe, and a short time later the 17,000-ton Lancastria sank. German fighter planes

Overview

On June 17, 1940, just after the Dunkirk evacuation had supposedly ended in success, several thousand of the many British troops still left in France boarded a five-decked cruise liner called the Lancastria. Right after they boarded, the ship was dive-bombed by the German Luftwaffe, and a short time later the 17,000-ton Lancastria sank. German fighter planes strafed the oil slick sea, setting it ablaze as British troops banded together singing "Roll Out the Barrel" in the hopes of mustering any hope that still remained. In the end, with 4,000 soldiers, women, and children dead—with some estimates as high as 6,000—the disaster would eclipse that of both the Lusitania and the Titanic. Although the story was picked up in the United States a few weeks later, it was reported only once by any British news outlet, and as the war progressed the tragedy eventually vanished. Author Jonathan Fenby argues that this was the result of a ruthless but necessary kibosh put in place by Winston Churchill in order to preserve British morale. Through firsthand interviews with survivors, some of whom had never spoken about it to anyone until being interviewed for this book, Fenby reconstructs the entire tragic saga.

Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
A horrific piece of British national amnesia bobs to the surface in Fenby's absorbing account of the ill-fated Lancastria. Although the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in the early summer of 1940 had been a remarkable achievement, it was far from the total success that Winston Churchill claimed. Of the half-million members of the force, 150,000 remained in France. Perhaps as many as 6,000 of those unlucky souls, along with a number of women and children, boarded the Lancastria, a converted Cunard liner, in the days before June 17, when a German dive-bomber dropped four bombs on the ship. Within 20 horrible minutes, described in detail through a rich collection of firsthand narratives, the vessel turned turtle and sank. At least 3,500 died, maybe 4,000. Churchill ordered an immediate gag on the catastrophe. So much was going wrong at the time-France was suing for peace, invasion forces were massing on the other side of the Channel, the Luftwaffe was clearly getting ready to bomb British cities-that he feared for the British spirit. Then, "in the rush of events, as he put it, he forgot to lift the ban." And so the greatest maritime disaster of the 1900s went missing. Fenby (Chiang Kai-Shek, 2004, etc.), however, has done a thorough job of interviewing the survivors (who still hold an annual memorial service), gaining pictures of what it was like simply getting to St-Nazaire, where the ship was anchored; the atmosphere aboard; and then what it was like to be in the drink, amid burning oil, with planes sweeping in to machine-gun the survivors. The writer provides startling imagery-because of the all the men clinging to the hull, the turned-over Lancastria resemblesa whale in khaki-and good stories, like the one of French girls dispensing wine-bottle corks to plug strafing holes in rowboats. The horror of war brought pungently to life, with tragedies strewn everywhere, touching everybody.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780786715329
Publisher:
Da Capo Press
Publication date:
04/28/2005
Pages:
269
Product dimensions:
5.64(w) x 8.48(h) x 0.97(d)

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