The Cunarder Lancastria
Service Career
In the lore of maritime disasters the tragic loss of HMT Lancastria has remained an obscure footnote in history books. But in a disaster where the number of lives lost exceeds the combined number lost on both Titanic and Lusitania, the tragedy is deserving of attention. To this point, however, the loss of Lancastria has been largely overlooked in history books and by the public at large.
The story of Lancastria began in Scotland in 1920 under the name Tyrrhenia. In the aftermath of the Great War, the tonnage of the British merchant fleet had been greatly reduced, and an ambitious ship building program was put into place to replace that which had been lost. The Anchor Line, of which the Cunard Line held a majority stake, was among those placing orders for ships, and in 1920 the hull was laid for a ship to be called Tyrrhenia. Problems at the W. Beardmore & Co, Ltd. shipyards would delay completion and delivery of the ship by two years.
The design of Tyrrhenia followed closely with a number of other Anchor Line and Cunard ships of the day. She sported a large single funnel and twin masts, and was powered by oil burning double reduction geared turbines. Company advertisements pointed out that her single funnel design did not reduce her power, contrary to popular opinion of the time, but was a testament to the adoption of the latest inventions and methods of marine engineering. At 16,250 gross tons and 580 feet, Tyrrhenia was hardly a large ship, but the use of a single funnel allowed for designers to utilize more interior space, creating public rooms that were on a grand scale and similar to those of pre-war vessels. As such, the ship was comfortably appointed and accommodated just over 1,800 passengers in three classes.
The maiden voyage of Tyrrhenia followed on June 19, 1922. Trading on the Liverpool to Montreal route, the ship never enjoyed popular affection, and was even nicknamed “Soup Tureen” by her crew. The name did not keep, however, as in January 1924 it was decided to withdraw her from service and refit her as a primarily Cabin Class vessel. Passenger accommodations were rearranged so that she carried passengers in just Cabin and Third Class, and she emerged from the refit with new interiors and a new name. From 1924 until her demise, she would sail as Lancastria.
In the years immediately after being renamed, Lancastria was coupled with the Tuscania and served in tandem with the Caronia and Carmania on the “Cabin Channel Service”—from New York to Plymoth, Le Havre and London. In 1932 it was realized that Lancastria was better suited to cruising, and she was reassigned to a cruise only role. As a cruise ship her itineraries would include cruises to the Mediterranean and Northern Europe. These all-inclusive voyages—some of which lasted 51 days—included stops in all the notable western European locales. Lancastria would serve in this role until the outbreak of war in 1939.
During the early days of war, Lancastria was primarily used on the Atlantic as a cargo carrier. However, in April 1940 she was officially requisitioned as a troopship, becoming His Majesties Transport (HMT) Lancastria. One of her first assignments was to evacuate British Troops from Harstaad, Norway. Though spotted and attacked by German aircraft, she escaped unharmed.
Lancastria carried out several more incidental voyages before being returned to Liverpool for a refit in June 1940. Shortly after the refit was completed, she was given orders to sail in Operation Aerial to evacuate British Forces from France. On 17 June, she was moored off St. Nazaire, France and began to take on both civilian and military refugees. Every bit of interior space was utilized, and she was soon crammed with over 6,000 people—with estimates as high as 9,000—but the exact total is unknown.

Lancastria in her final moments.
Image provided courtesy of the HMT Lancastria Association
Nazi bombers had struck earlier in the day—damaging one carrier—and soon reappeared. In short order the Lancastria was straddled with bombs, one of which ruptured her fuel tanks and spilled oil into the water. A bomb put directly down her funnel proved to be the death blow, and she began to list heavily and settle down quickly. The grisly scene that played out was as bizarre as it was horrifying. As the Lancastria rolled to her side, those on her hull began singing “Roll the Barrel” and “There’ll Always Be an England”. The ship sank in twenty short minutes, and only 2,447 survivors were pulled from the oily waters.
Having already suffered terrible defeat in France, British Prime Minister Churchill placed a D-notice on the sinking, which prevented it from being reported in the press. It would be over a month before the disaster received any mention in British papers, and even then the story never received wide circulation. To this day the story has never achieved the infamy of the Titanic or Lusitania disasters, even though it is estimated that up to 5,000 people may have perished. Though no formal memorial has been designated for those who died, the Lancastria disaster remains the worst maritime disaster in British history.
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