Shropshire soldier died in wartime disaster which was hushed up

After the death of Shropshire soldier James Brown, his grieving parents were kept in the dark by officialdom about what had happened.

Last moments of RMS Lancastria
Last moments of RMS Lancastria

His death, and that of thousands of others in the same disastrous incident, was hushed up.

The story of the tragedy is to be told by Telford historian Chris Owen as part of his latest book 'Ironbridge In World War Two,' which is expected to be published in the new year.

It is a sequel to his 'Ironbridge in the Great War' which includes the satellite communities of Coalport, Jackfield and Madeley.

While everybody has heard of the miracle of the Dunkirk evacuation of late May and early June 1940 after Hitler's forces overran France and pushed British troops back to the sea, much fewer know of the later evacuations which took place.

And it was during one of these that the liner RMS Lancastria, which was packed with troops and other evacuees, was sunk.

Ironbridge in World War Two by Chris Owen

"Casualties of the sinking were estimated to be around 6,500 making this the biggest single loss of life in British maritime history," says Chris.

"Among the final collated statistics this single catastrophic incident accounted for over one third of the total British Expeditionary Force losses in Europe.

"Coming two weeks after the Dunkirk evacuation of the BEF from mainland Europe, Winston Churchill decided that the nation was too distraught and morale-battered to be told."

Of Brown, Chris has not been able to turn up many details.

"The Wrekin Honour roll carries a stark entry: 1917041 Lance Corporal James BROWN, Royal Engineers. Lived at Coppice Farm, Madeley. Lost on RMS Lancastria at St Nazaire, 17th June 1940. A Stuka dive bomber dropped a bomb down the funnel of the Lancastria blowing the bottom out of the ship, which sank and settled in 20 minutes. Most of the men who were aboard had considered themselves safe and undressed for bed. Father to John W. Brown, Hillcrest, 8 Talbot Close, Wrockwardine Wood."

SS Lancastria, originally named Tyrrhenia, was a cruise liner with a maximum capacity of 2,200 passengers, but had been pressed into wartime action as a troop carrier, and at the time of the attack may have had as many as 9,000 on board, of whom fewer than 2,500 survived the sinking.

The liner had been converted into a troopship.

"Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided, given the seriousness of the situation, that the nation was not ready to hear of this later disaster and slapped a 'D Notice' – official press gagging order – on UK newspaper publishers preventing them from reporting the events.

"It was to be a further six weeks before the nation officially learned of the appalling disaster.

"Lance Corporal Brown's parents were also kept in the dark about their son's demise as the only notification they received was a War Department telegram reporting he was listed as missing in action presumed dead."

Anyone with further information or seeking to pre-order the book can contact Chris at chris.w.a.owen@gmail.com by email.

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