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Plea on Lancastria tragedy families

Published 29/05/2015

The Lancastria after being hit by German bombers off the coast of France in 1940 (Lancastria Association of Scotland/PA)
The Lancastria after being hit by German bombers off the coast of France in 1940 (Lancastria Association of Scotland/PA)

The Government has been urged to do more to recognise the lives lost in Britain's worst maritime disaster.

The HMT Lancastria troop ship was thought to be carrying more than 6,000 servicemen and civilians - with some estimates as high as 9,000 - when she was hit by German dive-bombers during the Second World War.

Only about 2,500 survived as she sank off the coast of France, representing a greater loss of life than the Titanic and Lusitania disasters combined.

Campaigners including General Lord Dannatt, a former head of the Army, and actress Joanna Lumley have written to Veterans Minister Mark Lancaster to ask what he can do to "ease the suffering" of the victims' relatives.

They also wrote a letter to the Times, which read: "T he sinking may have happened 75 years ago, but to those who still grieve it is not a dim and distant memory.

"The sadness of children orphaned that day who are still alive remains, and is exacerbated by the fact that Lancastria has never been given the status of official war grave by the British government.

"Furthermore, these relatives do not have a clear understanding of what happened as documentary evidence, they are told, remains unavailable, and possibly will not be revealed until 2040, which is of no comfort; indeed it adds to their distress as the relatives, themselves, will not be alive."

The signatories included author Louis de Bernieres, Tory MP Sir Nicholas Soames and Jacqueline Tanner, who survived the disaster when she was just two years old.

Launched as the cruise ship Tyrrhenia, the Lancastria was taken over as a troop ship in 1939.

After evacuating troops from Norway, she headed for France to rescue many of the 150,000 troops left behind after Dunkirk.

The ship was sunk by a German bomber off the French coast at St Nazaire on June 17 1940. Four bombs were dropped at 3.50pm, sinking the Lancastria within 20 minutes.

Prime minister Winston Churchill banned all news coverage of the disaster, fearing the scale of the tragedy would affect public morale.

There is a memorial to the victims in the grounds of the Golden Jubilee Hospital in Clydebank near Glasgow, which sits on the site of the former William Beardmore shipyard where the Lancastria was built.

There is also a monument in St Nazaire, near where she sank.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "The sinking of the HMT Lancastria remains the United Kingdom's greatest maritime disaster and, although it occurred over 70 years ago, the sacrifice of many thousands of servicemen and civilians, and the endurance of those who were saved that day, must never be forgotten.

"All known MoD records relating to the Lancastria have been available at the National Archives at Kew since the early 1970s.

"As the French government has provided an appropriate level of protection to the Lancastria through French law and it is formally considered a military maritime grave by the MoD, we believe that the wreck has the formal status and protection it deserves."

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