The British Empire and its effect on Plymouth

The Sinking of HMT Lancastria

Admiral Nasmith of Plymouth's Western Approaches Command was coordinating the highly dangerous evacuation from French ports as France fell to the German Army. Operation Ariel is lesser known than Operation Dynamo at Dunkirk but ultimately it succeeded in rescuing 200,000 soldiers and 20,000 sailors over and above those rescued from Dunkirk. Sadly, HMT Lancastria was caught fully loaded (indeed almost certainly overloaded) as it pulled out of St Nazaire carrying anywhere between 6 and 9,000 passengers. Junkers Ju 88 bombers bombed it and achieved a direct hit with one bomb thought to have gone directly down the funnel which led to the large ship sinking in just 15 to 20 minutes. There were desperate attempts to pick up survivors from the flotilla of small ships in the area who had been ferrying evacuees. The extent of this disaster was kept secret for fear of the effect on British morale at a key time in the war and when many were wishing to negotiate surrender terms. Therefore, the largely successful Operation Ariel was never fully appreciated by the British public at large as the focus was placed firmly on events at Dunkirk.

Empire in Your Backyard: Plymouth Article

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by Stephen Luscombe