The Sinking of the Cunard Liner SS Lancastria off St Nazaire on 17 June 1940 – Imperial War Museum, HU 3325.
What is not generally realised about the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from France in June 1940 is that not everyone left from Dunkirk. Several thousand men came out from St Nazaire on the edge of western France, and amongst these was Arthur Owen Stott, then Commanding Officer of No.2 GR&EU, one of the Army units which recorded the location of dead servicemen’s graves.
Stott was short and rather stout and nearly fifty. However, he still managed to escape with men who were mostly much less than half his age. Not only this but, when so much materiel was being jettisoned and so many records were being burned to save them from falling into enemy hands, he still managed to bring home the records of No.2 GR&EU. These would form part of the search for British military graves after D-Day, four years later, a search in which Stott played the commanding role.
Stott’s hand-written war diary for No.2 GR&EU, a page of which can be seen below, captures the chaos of those last desperate days in France in 1940.
Stott left France in the evening of 15 June, just a day and a half before the catastrophe of the sinking of the Lancastria. The Lancastria was crowded with troops and civilians. It was attacked shortly after leaving St Nazaire and went down with immense loss of life.
After the liberation of France, Stott, who was by then leading the Army Graves Service in Western Europe, investigated a fraudulent claim about those who had died when the Lancastria sank.
Generally, the people of the liberated countries were extremely helpful to the Army Graves Service, and it was a great rarity for anything to the contrary to be detailed in Graves Service records. However, in February 1945 Stott noted that an unnamed French civilian was making claims for compensation. The man said that:
he had found and buried a number of bodies washed up on the fore-shore following the sinking of the “Lancastria” off St Nazaire in June, 1940. The claims of this man, who is serving a sentence of five years’ imprisonment for fraud and collaboration with the enemy, were proved groundless.
TNA, WO 171/3926, 21 Army Group HQ, GR&E, War Diary, entry for 19 February 1945.
The fraudster was making a particularly heartless claim. It is estimated that at least 3,000 troops and civilians died in the sinking of the ship.