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British troop ship Lancastria sank 70 years ago: a secret disaster

June 17, 2010 - FRANCE

The British troop ship Lancastria sank in minutes off the French coast after being bombed by German planes in 1940. An estimated 4,000 troops and civilians died. Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered a 100-year gag on publication of the details. The 70th anniversary will intensify the campaign for official recognition of the sinking as the greatest maritime disaster in Britain's history, with twice the combined death toll of the Titanic and Lusitania.

The exact death toll will never be known as the chief purser stopped counting after more than 6000 had boarded the Lancastria, a Cunard liner built in the 1920s and requisitioned as a troop ship in WWII. Members of The Lancastria Association of Scotland, which was founded by a survivor, Major C V Petit, plan to visit the site of the wreck on the anniversary. There also will be memorial services in St. Nazaire, the port near the site of the sinking, and in London. The London service will be held on the first Sunday after the anniversary at St Katharine Cree church. The prime minister's gag prevented the 2477 survivors or those who went to the aid of the stricken ship from discussing what they had seen, and banned newspapers from reporting the tragedy. He argued that in 1940, after Dunkirk, to reveal the truth would have been too damaging for civilian morale. The association has campaigned since 2005 for greater recognition of an event which, as a result of Churchill's gag notice, is largely unknown. It has launched an international petition for official legal designation of the wreck of the Lancastria as a maritime war grave. In May 2006 the French Government placed an exclusion zone around the wreck. The association points out that there is still no official memorial to the victims. The association also wants an official commemorative medal medal for the survivors. The ship was built on the Clyde River in Scotland, and captained by a Scot. The Scotsman newspaper, which defied Churchill's ban, and some Scottish legislators have taken up the cause. As of Feb 2010, Britain's Ministry of Defence had not agreed to the medal, and there was little movement on the quest for the memorial site. A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence argued that the ministry "does not issue commemorative medals to mark specific incidents during the Second World War."

Lancastria Association of Scotland

The 'Lancastria' - a Secret Sacrifice in World War Two (BBC 5 Nov 2009)

Browne rejects plea for medals to mark 1940 sinking of Lancastria (Scotsman 31 Dec 2007)

Medal honors the heroics of wartime ship's captain (Scotsman 24 Jul 2009)

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Date written/update: 2010-06-17