Death of thousands on the troopship Lancastria
Sudbury men died in the worst single disaster in British maritime history. More passengers were lost in the sinking of the troopship Lancastria in June 1940 than the combined death toll on the liners Titanic and Lusitania. The most frequently quoted estimate is 4,000.
Lancastria was bombed lying at anchor off the French port of St Nazaire. The Germans had cut off escape routes to the Channel ports, France was on the verge of collapse and many of the remaining British servicemen made for the Atlantic coast.
As many as 7,000 were loaded on board the converted Cunard liner in a desperate effort to evacuate as many troops as possible. Some sources put the figure as high as 9,000 including civilian refugees.
The German Luftwaffe scored several hits on the crowded ship before the fatal bomb went down the funnel. The troopship sank in 20 minutes with thousands trapped below decks and others clinging to the hull. About 2,500 were picked up, survivors telling of being machine gunned as they struggled in the oil-covered sea.
Publication of the story was forbidden under the Official Secrets Act out of fear that news of the disaster would damage the country’s morale. Survivors were sworn to secrecy and the dead listed as missing in action.
Lance Corporal Donald Theobald, a successful light heavyweight boxer serving in the Military Police, was an unsung hero of the Lancastria disaster as his parents Herbert and Lily discovered when a letter from a survivor arrived at their home in Humphry Road. They learned that their twenty-two-year-old son had used his strength to help others as the ship sank.
The body of Private Ernest Walter Smith of the Royal Army Service Corps was one of many from the Lancastria washed up on the western beaches of France in the months that followed the sinking. The French buried them in their own cemeteries. He was 25 and lived in Upper East Street.
Corporal Charles Alfred Golding, 31, serving with the RAF as ground crew, must have been hoping for a reunion with his wife Joyce at their home in Plough Lane. It was not be. It is likely that he was among 800 RAF personnel killed or trapped when a Luftwaffe bomb scored a direct hit on the hold where they were billeted.