16 Sep 20
Posted by: Dr James Bosbotinis

The sinking of the Lancastria, a troopship evacuating British forces, civilians and refugees from France in June 1940, resulting in perhaps the loss of over 4,000 lives, is the worst maritime disaster in British history. As the author highlights, the sinking was subject to a D-Notice and the official report into the incident remains classified until 2040. This book seeks to tell the story of the sinking, its aftermath and why it was covered up. For this reviewer, the book was of particular interest because my grandfather had been with the Royal Air Force in France in 1940, and had recounted how, making his way back to the French coast, he had missed the ship he was due to be evacuated on, but saw that ship, the Lancastria, struck by a large explosion. By focusing on the human aspect of the sinking of the Lancastria, the author, Stephen Wynn, a retired policeman, now writer (his first book was inspired by his two sons, both injured in Afghanistan), provides a poignant and thought-provoking account.

At 184 pages and covering 11 chapters and an ‘In Closing’, The Lancastria Tragedy is a concise book. The author provides in the first chapter a short history of the ship, followed by two brief chapters covering the post-Dunkirk evacuations from France: Operations CYCLE and AERIAL respectively. Proceeding from this, the book is dedicated to the personal accounts from survivors, including a then-99-year-old veteran interviewed in 2016, and the families of those lost. The penultimate chapter lists those military personnel killed in the sinking, compiled using principally the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website. As Wynn explains, although 1,738 were known to have been lost on the Lancastria with 2,477 survivors, the actual casualty toll was much higher due to it not being known how many were embarked on the ship. One of the eyewitness accounts included, that of Jesse Fenton, a soldier who survived the sinking, recalled hearing the Chief Officer shout that there were already 6,700 onboard. Regarding the reason for the ‘cover-up’ – survivors were instructed not to talk about the sinking, and until the US press reported it, the British press had been restricted, Wynn acknowledges that Churchill in his memoirs, wrote of wanting to avoid damaging morale with further bad news, but also speculates that Churchill may also have wanted to avoid the fate of his immediate predecessor Neville Chamberlain.

The Lancastria Tragedy is for the most part, well-written, although there are a few notable typos, for example, when referring to the resignation of Chamberlain, he is called Macmillan, whilst 1919 is referred to as during the First World War. However, the typos are few and do not detract from the quality of the book. The length of the chapters also warrants noting; chapter two is only three pages in length, whereas some are around seven pages, others around 18; chapter one is 31 pages in length, whilst chapter 10, which the casualty list, covers 56 pages. A plate of black and white photographs covering eight pages is included. This book provides a poignant account of the sinking and its aftermath, and very much focuses on the human aspect, rather than the naval or military history. For this reviewer, given the personal connection, it was particularly interesting to read the accounts of the attack and subsequent rescue efforts, which were themselves subject to attack. The Lancastria Tragedy provides a worthwhile account of what is still a little-known disaster, and for this reviewer, thought of the twists and turns of fate in war.