Sinking of the Lancastria, 17 June 1940

A painting on paper showing survivors from the sinking of the British ship ‘Lancastria’. This was regarded as the worst loss of life that Britain ever suffered from one vessel. The ‘Lancastria’ was a Cunard liner built by William Beardmore & Co, Dalmuir in Glasgow. She made her maiden voyage under the name of ‘Tyrrhenia’, travelling from Glasgow to Montreal on 13 June 1922. Between the wars she spent many years as a cruise ship. Her final peace-time cruise was in the Bahamas in September 1939 which ended with the ship docked in New York, at the outbreak of WWII. There she was adapted to become a troopship. She successfully dodged German bombing in the North Sea while helping with the evacuation of troops from Norway. The ‘Lancastria’ then took part in Operation Aerial at St Nazaire, France, evacuating more British troops. Early on the morning of 17 June 1940 she anchored off St Nazaire at Charpentier Roads to begin evacuating British troops and some civilians. This continued well into the afternoon when it is estimated that there may have been over 7000 people on board a ship which was at capacity at 3000. It was at this point that German aeroplanes flew overhead, sighted the unprotected ship and began bombing her. Four bombs hit, including one which dropped down the funnel and exploded in the engine room. Less than 20 minutes later, the ‘Lancastria’ rolled onto her port side and sank. Many people perished although some made it to the two launched lifeboats, while others jumped overboard as the boat sank. The constant presence of enemy aircraft made any rescue operation very difficult. As one of the bombs had ruptured the ‘Lancastria’s’ fuel tank causing fuel oil to leak making pulling survivors from the water extremely difficult and frequently unsuccessful. It is estimated that 4500 or 5000 people died with about 2500 rescued. Initially the story was suppressed in Britain to keep up morale.

This painting graphically focuses on the plight of the survivors in one of the two life boats. Crowded with people, the name ‘Lancastria’ is clearly visible on its side. Others who could not find room in the lifeboat or jumped from the ship can be seen in the water, swimming and clinging to planks of wood floating on the surface. The sinking ship can be seen in the distance several fires still raging. Many other people can be seen swimming away from the boat as German bombers fly overhead. The oil slick which added to the misery of the figures in the water is clearly shown. In the distance on the far left a ship heading towards the survivors is also under air attack. The painting reflects the suffering and terror of the event particularly through the eloquent gesture of the most prominent figure in the lifeboat. The clear blue sky serves to accentuate the unreality of the scene. The painting is signed in monogram ‘RWM’.

Object Details

ID: BHC0673
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: May, Robert W.
Events: World War II, 1939-1945
Vessels: Lancastria (1922)
Date made: After 1940; 1960s?
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. We regret that Museum enquiries have not been able to identify the copyright holder and would welcome any information that would help us update our records. Please contact the Picture Library.
Measurements: Painting: 355 mm x 445 mm; Frame: 615 mm x 720 mm

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