RMS Lancastria was a British ocean liner requisitioned by the UK Government during World War II.
She was sunk on 17 June 1940 during Operation Ariel. Having received an emergency order to evacuate British nationals and troops in excess of its capacity of 1,300 passengers, modern estimates range between 3,000 and 5,800 fatalities—the largest single-ship loss of life in British maritime history.
The sinking of HMT Lancastria claimed more lives than the combined losses of the RMS Titanic (1,517 passengers and crew) and RMS Lusitania (1,198 passengers).
17 June 1940
By the mid-afternoon of 17 June she had embarked an unknown number (estimates range from 4,000 up to 9,000) of civilian refugees (including embassy staff and employees of Fairey Aviation of Belgium), line-of-communication troops (including Pioneerand Royal Army Service Corps soldiers) and Royal Air Force personnel. The ship's official capacity was 2,200 including the 375-man crew. Captain Sharp had been instructed by the Royal Navy to "load as many men as possible without regard to the limits set down under international law".
At 13:50, during an air-raid, the nearby Oronsay, a 20,000-ton Orient Liner, was hit on the bridge by a German bomb. Lancastriawas free to depart and the captain of the British destroyer HMS Havelock advised her to do so; but, without a destroyer escort as defence against possible submarine attack, Sharp decided to wait.
A fresh air raid began before 16:00. Lancastria was bombed at 15:48 by Junkers Ju 88 aircraft from Kampfgeschwader 30. Three direct hits caused the ship to list first to starboard then to port, while a fourth bomb fell down the ship's smokestack, detonating inside the engine room and releasing more than 1,200 tons of crude oil into the Loire estuary. Fifteen minutes after being hit, Lancastria began to capsize and some of those who were still on board managed to scramble over the ship's railing to sit on the ship's underside. Lancastria sank within twenty minutes.
When German aircraft began strafing survivors in the water, the fuel oil which had leaked into the sea ignited, and was quickly transformed into a flaming inferno
Many drowned; others were choked by the oil, or were shot by strafing German aircraft
Survivors were taken aboard other evacuation vessels, the trawler HMT Cambridgeshire rescuing 900. There were 2,477 survivors, of whom about 100 were still alive in 2011. Many families of the dead knew only that they died with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF); the death toll accounted for roughly a third of the total losses of the BEF in France. She sank around 5 nmi (9.3 km) south of Chémoulin Point in the Charpentier roads, around 9 nmi (17 km) from St. Nazaire. The Lancastria Association names 1,738 people known to have been killed.
In 2005, Fenby wrote that estimates of the death toll vary from fewer than 3,000 to 5,800 people although it is also estimated that as many as 6,500 people perished, the largest loss of life in British maritime history.
Rudolph Sharp survived the sinking and went on to command the RMS Laconia, losing his life on 12 September 1942 in the Laconania incident off West Africa