7th May 1945. Not Forgotten.
The last merchant ship to be sunk in World War II was Today in 1945 when U-boat (2336) torpedoed the 2878 tons SS Avondale Park in the Firth of Forth, a few hours before the midnight cessation of hostilities. The U-boat captain said he hadn’t received notice of the ceasefire.(1)
The Avondale Park was owned by Witherington & Everett of Newcastle-on-Tyne and was on its way from Hull to Belfast to join a convoy, and a Canadian ship on lease to the Ministry of War Transport.
More than 32,000 British and Commonwealth merchant seamen lost their lives as well as 50,000 Royal Navy and 1,500 Maritime Royal Artillery gunners in the war.(2)
2000 merchant vessels were sunk in the war, not all on Atlantic convoys, but many after running the gauntlet of the English Channel which was constantly under attack from enemy planes and shore gunfire.
However the biggest maritime disaster in WWII and now largely forgotten was the sinking of the troopship and ex Cunard liner RMS Lancastria on June 17th 1940 which was holed below the waterline and sank off St. Nazaire.(3)
The ship was evacuating thousands after the collapse of the Battle of France, under Code Name ‘Ariel’, organized by Admiral William Milbourne James, C-i-C Portsmouth between 15-25 June.
Some 5,000 servicemen and others were crammed aboard after Dunkirk, some 3-4000 died, the exact number not known as they gave up counting those boarding.(4)
It wasn’t until July 26th that buried in The Times newspaper the disaster was minimally reported, as Churchill was loath to tell the nation of further losses after Dunkirk, for the sake of morale.
However the Lancastria tragedy constituted the greatest single loss of life at sea, more than the combined losses of the Titanic (1912) and Lusitania (in WWI) put together.
It tells us something about the human psyche that we find it difficult to cope with disaster other than where great feats of heroism are concerned. They are monumental tragedies just the same, but it must be galling to be forgotten.
(1) The Chief Engineer George Anderson of Spennymoor, Durham, and William Harvey are commemorated being 2 killed, out of 38 crew.
(2) The largest merchantman to be sunk was the Canadian Pacific, SS Empress of Britain.
(3) Launched in 1920 and constructed by Beardmore she was sister ship to RMS Cameronia.
(4) Some say it proved again the bad luck associated with changing a ship’s name, for she was originally the Tyrennia until 1924.
wearvalleyadvertiser.co.uk. Ian Noble. 12.5.2015/Pic of Plaque.
bbc.co.uk/scotland news/Pic of sinking. Graham Fraser 13.6.2015.