Lancastria sinking off St Nazaire

RAF personnel being evacuated from Brest

Ports utilised during the evacuation of British and Allied forces, 15–25 June 1940, under the codename Operation Ariel.

During Operation Aerial, Admiral Dunbar-Nasmith had two tasks at the ports in the southern sector. As well as rescuing a large number of British, Polish and Czechoslovakian troops, he also had the job of trying to stop the French Atlantic fleet from being surrendered to the Germans.

About 85,000 Polish troops had been deployed to France, under the command of General Władysław Sikorski, and were still in the process of being established as fighting formations when the Battle of France erupted. This army was partially destroyed during the hostilities, but over 24,000 men would be evacuated to the United Kingdom where they would form a Polish Free Army.

Similarly, the Czech army in exile in France formed a division consisting of about 5,000 men, commanded by General Rudolf Viest. During the battle this unit was involved in heavy fighting, but most of its personnel were evacuated to reform in Britain as the 1st Czechoslovak Mixed Brigade Group.

In the first instance, it seems that Dunbar-Nasmith was not completely aware of the urgency of the situation and his first action was to send senior naval officers to Brest and Saint-Nazaire on 16 June to begin the process of evacuating stores and equipment. This he thought would take about a week to complete. In Britain the War Office had a clearer picture of what was happening, and he was ordered to begin the evacuation of troops immediately.

The evacuation from Brest occurred between 16 and 17 June, during which a total of 28,145 British and 4,439 Allied personnel were rescued. This included a large number from the RAF, mainly ground crews of the Advanced Air Striking Force. There was very little interference from the Luftwaffe, who carried out no heavy air raids against the port during the extraction process.

Churchill was worried that the French Atlantic Fleet, which was anchored at Brest, would ultimately fall into enemy hands and had ordered Dunbar-Nasmith to do all he could to persuade the French naval commanders to sail to Britain. However, at 16:00 on 17 June most of this armada set sail for French North African ports such as Casablanca and Dakar, with only a small number steering a course for Britain.

The evacuation from Saint-Nazaire did not go as smoothly as at some of the other ports and certainly drew more attention from the Luftwaffe. Saint-Nazaire is situated at the mouth of the River Loire, which is subject to very strong currents so the larger ships had to wait along the shore at Quiberon Bay before moving to the port to pick up evacuees or otherwise have them ferried and boarded offshore. Fifty miles up the river is the port city of Nantes, from where Dunbar-Nasmith was led to believe that somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 Allied troops were evacuating to Saint-Nazaire, hoping to be evacuated, but he had no idea of when they were expected to arrive.

Lifting this number of men would be a huge undertaking. Dunbar-Nasmith accordingly assembled an impressive rescue force consisting mainly of the destroyers HMS Havelock, HMS Wolverine and HMS Beagle; the passenger liners MV Georgic, SS Duchess of York, RMS Franconia and RMS Lancastria; the Polish ships MS Batory and MS Sobieski; and several commercial cargo ships. Waiting at anchor in Quiberon Bay these ships were very vulnerable to air attack, but British fighter aircraft managed to restrict the Luftwaffe to minelaying. However, this in itself caused delays because special ships fitted out as minesweepers would have to sweep and clear the channels of mines before the evacuation ships could move.

The evacuation started on 16 June when MV Georgic, HMS Duchess of York and the two Polish ships sailed to the port and lifted 16,000 troops before taking them to Plymouth. During the hours of darkness, ships continued to load equipment from the harbour, and two further destroyers, HMS Highlander and HMS Vanoc, arrived to lend a hand.

Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft of No. 73 Squadron flew their last sorties from their base at Nantes before flying off to southern England. Unserviceable Hurricanes were burned by their ground crews, who then made their way towards Saint-Nazaire to be evacuated aboard the ill-fated liner RMS Lancastria.

The Lancastria was built on the River Clyde by William Beardmore and Company for Anchor Line, a subsidiary of Cunard. She was launched in 1920 and was originally called the RMS Tyrrhenia. Designed to carry 2,200 people, including three passenger classes and a crew of 375, she made her maiden voyage from Glasgow to Quebec City in June 1922. In 1924 she was refitted for two classes, renamed Lancastria and sailed scheduled routes between Liverpool and New York until 1932, after which she was employed as a cruise ship. She was requisitioned by the Ministry of War Transport as a troopship in October 1939 and became His Majesty’s Transport (HMT) Lancastria.

On 13 June 1940 she was in Liverpool in readiness for dry-docking and essential repairs, including the removal of 1,400 tons of surplus oil fuel. Her crew had been given shore leave although her chief officer, Harry Grattidge, remained with the ship for the initial stages of dry-docking. Around midday he went to the Cunard office, where he was instructed to recall the crew immediately because the ship had to set sail at midnight. Remarkably, all but three of the crew returned to the ship in time, although naturally the repairs had not been implemented.

The Lancastria first sailed to Plymouth under the command of Captain Rudolph Sharp and from there, accompanied by another of Cunard’s requisitioned ships, the RMS Franconia, set off for Brest with orders to proceed to Quiberon Bay. Approaching their final destination the Franconia was attacked by a single Junkers Ju88 bomber, which caused sufficient damage for her to be returned to Liverpool.

Later that day the Lancastria was ordered to a spot roughly five nautical miles south of Chémoulin Point and nine nautical miles west of Saint-Nazaire, where she arrived early in the morning of 17 June. Here she was loaded with men while at anchorage, with the evacuees being ferried out to her in tugs, tenders and other small craft.

Nobody knows how many people were onboard the ship, but by mid-afternoon on 17 June, estimates vary from around 4,000 to an incredible 9,000; the general consensus is 6,000 plus. Captain Sharp had been instructed by the Admiralty to disregard the limits set down under international law and to load as many men as possible. For a ship that could only comfortably support 2,200, we can only imagine how cramped it must have been, particularly on the upper decks, where men would have occupied every available space.

What is known is that there was a varied group of people on board. As well as RAF personnel there were many of Major-General de Fonblanque’s lines of communication troops and men of the Beauman Division. There were certainly Royal Army Service Corps and Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps troops on board. There were also many civilians, such as embassy staff and employees of Fairey Aviation of Belgium (Avions Fairey), the Belgian-based subsidiary of the British Fairey Aviation company that built aircraft for the Belgian government. Its workers had been evacuated to France in order to relocate to British aircraft factories and had ended up at Saint-Nazaire, from where they were taken out to the Lancastria.

The Lancastria was only one of a number of ships in the area, which soon drew the attention of the Luftwaffe. At around 13:50 aircraft attacked and hit the nearby 20,000-ton Orient liner SS Oronsay. Although a bomb hit her bridge, destroying her compass and all her navigating equipment, she survived the attack and fortunately there were no fatalities.

The Lancastria was by now fully loaded and was given the all-clear to depart, but unfortunately the Royal Navy had no spare destroyers to provide her with an escort. Captain Sharp, concerned about the possibility of being a target for German submarines if she set sail alone, decided to wait for the Oronsay to accompany her along with the first available escort destroyer.

While the ship waited a further air raid began, and consequently, at around 15:48, she received four direct hits from Junkers Ju88s belonging to Kampfgeschwader 30. This caused the ship to list, first to starboard and then to port, before she finally rolled over and sank, all within the space of twenty minutes.

The sea where the ship went down was covered with leaking oil including the 1,400 tons that had not been removed in Liverpool, much of which was now burning on the surface. Many of the survivors drowned or were choked by the smoke. The ship only carried 2,000 lifejackets and it is probable that some of these would not have been accessed in time. German aircraft also flew over the scene repeatedly, strafing the men in the water with machine guns and using tracer bullets to light up more of the oil slick.

The actual air raid finished at approximately 16:30 and a number of both French and British vessels came to pick up survivors. For instance, the trawler HMS Cambridgeshire, which was the first vessel to arrive, took on board around 900, most of which were then transferred to the steam merchant ship John Holt. There were 2,447 survivors in total but the number of those who died is unknown. Over the years The Lancastria Association, established to preserve the memory of those who perished, has researched a list of 1,738 people who were known to have been killed. However the real figure is unquestionably much higher than that: modern estimates range from between 3,000 and 5,800 fatalities, which would represent the biggest loss of life in British maritime history.

The seriously wounded were taken to Saint-Nazaire for medical treatment but most of those whom were rescued were ferried back to Plymouth. The destroyers HMS Beagle and HMS Havelock took 600 and 460 respectively; the John Holt carried 829; the tanker Cymbula another 252; and the liner RMS Oronsay 1,557. Lesser numbers were also evacuated in other ships.

Coming amidst the news of so many unfolding disasters, Winston Churchill initially forbade newspaper editors to publish the story, and consequently the sinking did not become common knowledge in Britain for a number of years. The families of those who were known to have perished were simply told that their loved ones died fighting with the BEF in France. Churchill intended to lift the ban after a few days but the disaster was quickly followed by the French surrender, the fear of invasion and the start of the Battle of Britain. Under the intense pressure of these momentous occasions Churchill forgot to lift the ban until he was reminded of it again later in the war.

Later, on the night of 17 June, HMS Cambridgeshire was ordered to evacuate the commander-in-chief of the BEF, Alan Brooke and his staff. Because the ship had been involved in the rescue of men from the Lancastria, there were no rafts or lifejackets onboard and the decks were strewn with discarded clothing. The ship sailed from Saint-Nazaire at 15:00 on 18 June and arrived in Plymouth late on the afternoon of the following day, having acted as an escort to a convoy of evacuation ships en route.

After the sinking of the Lancastria the evacuation from Saint-Nazaire continued, with a convoy of ten ships lifting 23,000 men just after dawn on 18 June; this left only 4,000 still to be evacuated. However, the next part of the operation became slightly frantic as Dunbar-Nasmith was informed that the Germans were about to storm the port. At 11:00 a.m. that same day, further ships picked up the last 4,000 men but failed to retrieve a large amount of military equipment and supplies in their haste to escape.

The next day the Germans had still not arrived, but Dunbar-Nasmith was led to believe that some 8,000 Polish soldiers had reached the port. Seven transport ships and six destroyers were accordingly sent to pick these men up but they could only find 2,000. These men represented the final evacuation from Saint-Nazaire. In total, 57,235 troops had been rescued, 54,411 of which were British, with most of the others being Polish.

Further south, the final place due for evacuation in accordance with Operation Aerial was La Pallice, the commercial deepwater port of the city of La Rochelle. Unfortunately, when the senior naval officer reached here on 16 June, he discovered quantities of soldiers waiting to be lifted but no transports, as all of the ships he had been promised had been sent to Brest and Saint-Nazaire instead. He decided to requisition some cargo ships that he found in the harbour and embarked the troops on these, although again all their vehicles and equipment were left behind. This convoy eventually got away safely on 18 June.

On two occasions after La Pallice had been cleared, Dunbar-Nasmith was informed that further troops had reached the port. Twice he ordered ships to fetch them away. On 19 June around 4,000 Polish troops were embarked, but the following day very few men were found. As well as the Poles, 2,303 British soldiers were also rescued from La Pallice. This marked the end of Operation Aerial as it had originally been planned; but by now things had moved on again and there were stories of more troops gathering even further south.

The ships that were left empty at La Pallice and therefore not required were sent further south again to Bordeaux, which nestled along the River Gironde. There were now practically no British troops left in France but there were embassy and consular staffs to be brought away, as well as considerable numbers of Polish and Czech troops and British and foreign civilians desperate to leave France before the German conquest was complete.

The first British ships arrived in the Gironde estuary on 16 June. These were the cruiser HMS Arethusa and the destroyer HMS Berkeley. They carried the senior naval officers given the task of directing these final rounds of evacuations. After delivering her passengers, the Arethusa was stationed off Bordeaux to act as a radio and communications centre. The next day all British and some Allied shipping in the port was ordered to make their way to England, while the embarkation of Czech and Polish troops and civilians began. Similar traffic continued through the next two days, with several thousand souls evacuated.

On 19 June the destroyer HMS Berkeley took aboard the various embassy and consular staffs that had made their way to Bordeaux and transferred them to the Arethusa. The Berkeley was then relieved by the cruiser HMS Galatea and sailed back to Plymouth with the president of Poland, Władysław Raczkiewicz, and many of his ministers and a number of other important dignitaries on board. Embarkation of Allied troops and civilians continued meanwhile from Le Verdon-sur-Mer, at the mouth of the River Gironde, where a large contingent of 6,000 Polish troops had arrived.

The operation continued to stretch further south where the Polish ships MS Batory and MS Sobieski and the liners MV Ettrick and SS Arandora Star went to Bayonne, where between 19 and 20 June they rescued roughly 9,000 men. These ships then continued on to Saint Jean-de-Luz, very close to the border with Spain, where poor weather delayed the start of the evacuation until 24 June. The British ambassador to France, Sir Ronald Campbell, stayed with the French government, which had moved from Paris to Bordeaux, until 23 June, then made his way to Arcachon before finally being evacuated from Saint Jean-de-Luz.

On the political front, Paul Reynaud had resigned as prime minister of France on 16 June, in the belief that he had lost the support of his Cabinet. He was succeeded by Marshal of France Philippe Pétain, who delivered a radio address to the French people announcing his intention to seek an armistice with Nazi Germany. At 18:36 on 22 June the French effectively surrendered, when they signed the armistice near Compiègne, which would take effect after midnight on 25 June. Signatories for Germany included Wilhelm Keitel, the commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht, while those on the French side were more junior, such as General Charles Huntziger. This agreement established a German occupation zone in northern and western France that encompassed all English Channel and Atlantic ports. Italy also received a small zone in the south-east, and an unoccupied zone would be governed by the newly formed Vichy government led by Philippe Pétain which, though officially neutral, was generally aligned with the Nazis.

When Hitler received word from the French government that they wished to negotiate an armistice, he symbolically selected the Compiègne Forest as the site for the negotiations, as this was the site of the 1918 armistice ending the First World War. Hitler considered this location to be the ultimate revenge for Germany over France. With that said, in the final sentence of the preamble the drafters inserted the following: ‘Germany does not have the intention to use the armistice conditions and armistice negotiations as a form of humiliation against such a valiant opponent.’ Furthermore, in Article 3, Clause 2, the drafters stated that their intention was not to heavily occupy France after the cessation of hostilities.

So, on 21 June 1940, in the very same railway carriage in which the 1918 armistice had been signed, which had been retrieved from a museum and placed on the precise spot where it was located in 1918, Hitler sat in the same chair in which Marshal Ferdinand Foch had sat when he faced the representatives of the defeated German Empire. After listening to the reading of the preamble, Hitler left the carriage, just as Foch had done in 1918, leaving the negotiations to the high command of the armed forces, namely Keitel. The negotiations lasted one day, until the evening of 22 June 1940. General Huntziger had to discuss the terms by telephone with the French government representatives in Bordeaux, mainly with the newly nominated defence minister, General Maxime Weygand.

Soon news of the armistice had reached the French authorities in the various ports, who informed the British that all evacuations must end at noon on 25 June. Despite this, the last troopship did not leave until 14:30 on that day after a total of 19,000 military personnel, mostly Polish troops, were rescued from Bayonne and Saint Jean-de-Luz.

In defiance of French instructions, a final set of evacuations took place from ports along the Mediterranean coast of France, including Sète, from 24 and 26 June. From here, another 10,000 troops, mostly Polish and Czechoslovakian, as well as a few civilian refugees embarked for Gibraltar before moving on to England. One of the Czech soldiers was Franta Belsky, who prior to the war had been an art student in London, as he recalled:

I had just started at the Central School of Art in London and hearing that a Czechoslovak army was being formed in France, I trotted off to the embassy and joined up – I was eighteen. We were impatient for the first transport to go and I waited and sculpted and had time to take my entrance to the Royal College of Art before we left.

We crossed the Channel with British troops but as civilians – oh, those eggs and bacon served to them. We entrained at Le Havre for a journey across chaotic France, taking five days and four nights. We kept stopping all the way and I kept asking the railwaymen for coloured chalks and started decorating the front of the engine, gradually down the sides of the train: with a panorama of the Prague castle, slogans, songs, fighting soldiers.

On arrival at the depot camp in Agde (a concentration camp built for the Spanish Civil War Republican refugees) I was called to the education officer: would I like to stay as the resident artist? ‘Sir, I came to fight; kindly send me to a unit’, was my reply. I still designed a few field post stamps and badges before getting to a battery of First World War horse drawn 75’s.

We were idealistic students, all lumped together under ex-Foreign Legion NCOs. We decided to ask for a transfer to a new crack anti-tank battery. We lived to see the Fall of France – the sister battery had eleven survivors. Cut off from everywhere except the Southern ports my lot made for Sète. Rumours abounded that we were going to Africa, to the Foreign Legion – we would have gone anywhere.

Back in London, unknown to us, the exiled president Edvard Beneš asked Churchill for help. Instantly he diverted cargo ships to pick us up, take us to Gibraltar and from there to England, where we landed five weeks after the Dunkirk evacuation. We entered the British Army, swore allegiance to The King and regrouped in Cholmondeley Park.

After the war Franta Belsky became a notable sculptor, Among his most important works is the Royal Air Force Memorial in Prague, which celebrates Czechs who served with the RAF during the war.

Collectively, operations Cycle and Aerial accounted for the rescue of 191,870 military personnel. This figure comprised 144,171 British, 18,246 French, 24,352 Polish, 4,938 Czechs and 163 Belgians; also rescued were 310 artillery guns, 2,292 vehicles, and 1,800 tons of stores. However, most equipment, especially tanks and other heavy vehicles, had to be left behind. When combined with Operation Dynamo, a total of 558,032 men were rescued from the French ports.

Moreover a large number of civilians also safely reached home from many different starting points. Except for the figure for the Channel Islands, there is no accurate assessment of the number of civilians evacuated, but it is that some 10,000 passed through Gibraltar from French Mediterranean ports. It therefore seems likely that between 30,000 and 40,000 more British persons also reached the UK during this period.

Although the BEF had now been completely evacuated and all British forces had been returned home, there was still one pressing issue which Churchill felt he had to deal with. Although the French army had surrendered, its navy, one of the greatest in the world, remained intact. Churchill was still fearful that its ships would be delivered up to the Nazis, even though their commander, Admiral François Darlan, insisted that they would not. However, Churchill was not prepared to take the gamble and tried to convince his War Cabinet that attacking the French fleet was their best course of action. The Cabinet was not convinced as they still considered France to be a friendly power. Churchill demanded that the French fleet either surrendered to Britain, or sailed to British ports. Darlan refused, and Churchill finally got the backing of his War Cabinet and ordered an attack on the French ships.

On 3 July the British surrounded the French fleet at the port of Mers-el-Kebir outside Oran in Algeria. Churchill sent Darlan a message to sail his ships to Britain or the USA, or to scuttle them within six hours. The French showed the British an order they had received from Darlan instructing them to sail the ships to the USA if the Germans broke the armistice and demanded them.

Meanwhile, the British intercepted a message from the Vichy government ordering French reinforcements to move urgently to Oran. Churchill was through playing games and ordered the attack to his commanders. An hour and a half later the British attacked. In less than ten minutes, 1,297 French personnel were dead and three battleships were sunk. One battleship and five destroyers managed to escape.

While the French were furious over these events, the reaction in England was the exact opposite. The day after the attack Churchill went to the House of Commons to explain why he had ordered it. For the first time since taking office as prime minister, Churchill received a unanimous standing ovation.

Britain now stood completely alone, with only her Commonwealth partners to lend support. The Germans were positioned all along the French Atlantic and Channel coasts, and Hitler ordered his military chiefs to draw up plans for the invasion of the country belonging to his one undefeated enemy. For the people of Great Britain the darkest days were still ahead, as Churchill announced to the nation:

What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over … the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.

But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, this was their finest hour.

ADMIRALTY WAR DIARIES of WORLD WAR 2   OPERATION AERIAL – Evacuation from Western France, June 1940