By June 1940 the British Expeditionary Force had been pushed back to the French coast by the advancing German army. Among the thousands of British troops heading for the beaches was my great uncle Charles Muller, a sapper in the Royal Engineers.
Originally named the Tyrrhenia, the cruise ship Lancastria was launched in 1920. She received her new name in 1924, following a refit, because people had difficulty spelling and pronouncing her original name. She could carry 2,200 passengers. The vessel was built for the Cunard company and used to sail routes between Liverpool and New York. After 1932 she was employed for cruises through the Meditteranean and Northern Europe.
Lancastria Enters World War II
At the outbreak of World War Two, Lancastria was sent to New York to await orders. While there, she was painted battleship grey, and a 4” gun was fitted to her aft-deck. She officially entered war service on the 13th of April 1940. On joining the war, her designation changed from RMS (Royal Mail Ship) to HMT (His Majesty’s Transport).
Lancastria’s first wartime operation was successfully helping evacuate thousands of allied forces from Norway. She then headed to Liverpool for an overhaul and to rest her crew. She pulled into Liverpool’s docks on 14th June, paying off her crew at 11:00 am. But within hours her captain Rudolph Sharp had received new orders. Under great secrecy the Lanacastria was ordered to Plymouth immediately, necessitating a rapid recall of its crew. She left Liverpool that night arriving in Plymouth on the 16th.
On the evening of the 16th Lancastria set sail for Brest, France as part of Operation Ariel, the removal of British troops from France following the successful evacuation of troops from Dunkirk two weeks earlier.
Setting Sail For France
On the morning of Monday, the 17th of June 1940 the HMT Lancastria sailed towards the coast of France. A few miles short of St. Nazaire a crewman from a French pilot boat boarded Lancastria. The pilot advised Captain Sharp that it would be wiser not to continue. He said that anchoring the Lancastria so close to shore would be like putting “your head into a noose… when they see you anchored outside, a sitting target…”. Captain Sharp shrugged his shoulders and replied: “What alternative have I got?”.
Charles William Muller was born in 1904 in the village of Sheet, Hampshire, England. He was the youngest brother of my grandfather, Arthur Muller, and son of Louis Muller and Alice Kemp. In 1911, at the time of the UK Census, he was living in Mill Cottages, Sheet, aged 7. He married Ruth Rutter in 1930 and had three children – Mavis, Hazel, and Mervyn.
Charles’ daughter, Hazel was married in 1951. On the marriage certificate, Charles’ occupation is recorded as a Railway employee. Since he died in 1940 we can assume that he was a railwayman before the outbreak of World War Two. It’s not surprising then that when the war started he joined the 159th Railway Construction Company, a branch of the Royal Engineers. He was sent to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force and was most likely in the Rennes area before evacuating to the coast. By June 1940 he had joined the thousands of British troops heading for the ports and beaches of Northern France, hoping to be evacuated home to England.
As the Lancastria sat off the French coast, Charles Muller and his comrades from the 159th Railway Construction Company boarded and settled down as best they could for the trip home.
The Sinking of HMT Lancastria
At 1:50 pm on the 17th June 1940, the HMT Lancastria was advised to leave French waters, but without an escort, Captain Sharp did not want to run the risk of running into a German U-Boat. He decided to wait. Just before 4 pm, the Luftwaffe attacked the vulnerable liner, and she sank in twenty minutes, taking Charles Muller and thousands of men with her. There are 1,738 known deaths, Charles is one of them, but in reality, there was anything between 6,000 – 9,000 people aboard the HMT Lancastria when she sank. Only around 2,500 are known to have survived.
The sinking of HMT Lancastria was covered up during WWII due to concerns of morale. To this day there are details about the disaster that have not been made public. The sinking of the Lancastria is the worst single loss of life in British maritime history and the bloodiest single engagement for UK forces during WWII. The event claimed more lives than the combined losses of the Titanic and the Lusitania.
Remembering Charles Muller
Charles Muller was never found but he is commemorated on the war memorial in the center of his home town, Petersfield, in Hampshire. His name is also listed in the Dunkirk War Memorial along with other comrades who were never found.
By far the best reference for information about the Lancastria came from the Lancastria Archives. This site has detailed information about the ship and the whole story around the sinking.
- Lancastria Archive
- RMS Lancastria, Wikipedia
- Fig 1. The RMS Lancastria by Odin Rosenvinge
- Fig 2. The Lancastria Sinking off the Coast of France (Imperial War Museum)
- Fig. 4 Memorial to the Fallen with No Known Grave (copyright GJRicketts)
- Fig. 5 British Military Cemetery, Dunkirk (copyright GJRicketts)
- Fig 6. Charles Muller on the Wall of the Unknowns (copyright GJRicketts)