Survivors mark secret wartime disaster that killed 7,000 troops

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Survivors of the worst maritime disaster in British history started a pilgrimage yesterday to the spot where RMS Lancastria was sunk in the Second World War.

Survivors of the worst maritime disaster in British history started a pilgrimage yesterday to the spot where RMS Lancastria was sunk in the Second World War.

A group of 60 survivors and relatives of survivors left London yesterday to travel to the French port of St Nazaire, Brittany, for a week of events to mark the 60th anniversary of the disaster.

The Lancastria was carrying up to 9,000 troops when it was bombed by German planes and sunk outside the port on 17 June 1940. As many as 7,000 lost their lives, making it Britain's worst sea disaster.

"More people lost their lives on the Lancastria than on the Titanic and Lusitania put together," said a spokeswoman for the Royal British Legion, which organised the trip with the Lancastria Association.

The sinking of the troop ship is not as well known as those of the passenger liners because Britain's wartime leader, Winston Churchill, kept it a secret for two months.

The loss of the Lancastria was the biggest setback in the otherwise successful Operation Ariel, the rescue of Allied troops left in France after the evacuation of Dunkirk.

Churchill decided Britain's national morale could not afford such a blow so close to the drama of Dunkirk. He also did not want the gloss taken off the "finest hour" speech he was preparing. News of the tragedy finally appeared in late July in The New York Times.

Thirty survivors of the Lancastria, aged in their 80s, and 30 of the relatives, met at the Union Jack Club in London yesterday morning, travelled to Portsmouth to catch a ferry to France and were to continue their journey to St Nazaire in the afternoon.

The highlight of the commemorative events will be when the survivors and relatives sail a boat over the site of the Lancastria's wreck to lay wreaths on Saturday.

In the days before that ceremony, commemorative services will be held at graveyards where troops who lost their lives were buried.

Hundreds of bodies washed up on the coast around St Nazaire after the sinking and were buried at cemeteries scattered around the area. The veterans will have time to visit the graves of their comrades

Thousands of Allied troops were told to make their way to Brittany to escape the advancing German forces when they were left behind at Dunkirk at the start of June 1940.

Some of these soldiers, and some women and children, were crammed on to the Lancastria, with estimates of the number on board between 7,500 and 9,000. When it sank, about 2,500 survived, putting the death toll between 5,000 and 7,000.

Hundreds of soldiers, who had not eaten for days before boarding the ship, were making their way to the restaurant areas when two bombs hit her.

The Lancastria sank within 25 minutes, taking thousands to a watery grave. Others died in burning oil on the water around her.

Due to the secrecy surrounding the sinking of the Lancastria, relatives of survivors are still coming forward. The legion would welcome any survivors or their relatives getting in touch.

A pilgrimage is made every two years to lay wreaths over the wreck.