A horrific piece of British national amnesia bobs to the surface in Fenby's absorbing account of the ill-fated Lancastria.
Although the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in the early summer of 1940 had been a remarkable achievement, it was far from the total success that Winston Churchill claimed. Of the half-million members of the force, 150,000 remained in France. Perhaps as many as 6,000 of those unlucky souls, along with a number of women and children, boarded the Lancastria, a converted Cunard liner, in the days before June 17, when a German dive-bomber dropped four bombs on the ship. Within 20 horrible minutes, described in detail through a rich collection of firsthand narratives, the vessel turned turtle and sank. At least 3,500 died, maybe 4,000. Churchill ordered an immediate gag on the catastrophe. So much was going wrong at the time—France was suing for peace, invasion forces were massing on the other side of the Channel, the Luftwaffe was clearly getting ready to bomb British cities—that he feared for the British spirit. Then, “in the rush of events, as he put it, he forgot to lift the ban.” And so the greatest maritime disaster of the 1900s went missing. Fenby (Chiang Kai-Shek, 2004, etc.), however, has done a thorough job of interviewing the survivors (who still hold an annual memorial service), gaining pictures of what it was like simply getting to St-Nazaire, where the ship was anchored; the atmosphere aboard; and then what it was like to be in the drink, amid burning oil, with planes sweeping in to machine-gun the survivors. The writer provides startling imagery—because of the all the men clinging to the hull, the turned-over Lancastria resembles a whale in khaki—and good stories, like the one of French girls dispensing wine-bottle corks to plug strafing holes in rowboats.
The horror of war brought pungently to life, with tragedies strewn everywhere, touching everybody.