Monday, June 9, 2014

"Greater love hath no man . . ."

HMT Lancastria

On June 17, 1940, while evacuating troops from France, and loaded well past her official capacity of 2,200 souls plus crew, the HMT Lancastria was attacked by Luftwaffe bombers off St. Nazaire.  She received three direct hits, and turned over and sank in twenty minutes, taking an unknown number with her (estimates range from 4,000 to 9,000).  The actor David Niven was aboard, having left Hollywood at the outbreak of war to rejoin the British Army.  Niven related the following account of the Lancastria's sinking to William F. Buckley:
"[O]ne bomb hit, went down the funnel and blew a huge hole in the side, and she quickly took on a terrible list. In the hold there were several hundred soldiers. Now there was no way they could ever get out because of the list, and she was sinking. And along came my own favorite Good Samaritan, a Roman Catholic priest, a young man in Royal Air Force uniform. He got a rope and lowered himself into the hold to give encouragement and help to those hundreds of men in their last fateful hour.’
‘Knowing he couldn’t get out?’ ‘Knowing he could never get out, nor could they. The ship sank and all in that hold died. The remainder were picked up by the destroyers and came back to England to the regiment I was in, and we had to look after them, and many of them told me that they were giving up even then, in the oil and struggle, and the one thing that kept them going was the sound of the soldiers in the hold singing hymns.’”
By itself, the sinking of the Lancastria accounted for about a third of all British casualties in France during that phase of the war.  The loss of life was so immense that the British government kept the sinking secret; by the 17th of June France's surrender to the Nazis was imminent, and Churchill is said to have remarked 'The newspapers have got quite enough disaster for today, at least.'  The story was broken in the US by the NYT five weeks later, and then reported in the UK, but since the survivors, as well as all who came to the aid of the Lancastria, faced court martial if they discussed the disaster, the full story did not come out until after the war.

h/t Creative Minority Report

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