The heroic evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk may have been a "miracle of deliverance", in Churchill's words, but just weeks later another evacuation from France turned into a nightmare. On 17 June 1940, the Lancastria, a former cruise liner which had been put into service as a troopship by the UK government, was playing a key role in Operation Aerial, a bold attempt to get more civilians and soldiers out of France. The Lancastria picked up thousands of people while anchored near St Nazaire on the west coast of France. They included refugees and members of the RAF. The captain had been explicitly ordered to pick up "as many men as possible without regard to the limits set down under international law."
Shortly after, the Lancastria was attacked by German planes, with one bomb falling into the smokestack, triggering an explosion in the engine room. Oil cascaded into the sea and caught fire. The Germans circled back and started gunning down the survivors flailing in the flaming waves. Untold numbers were drowned or shot - it's thought that at least 4,000 perished, making this disaster worse than both the Titanic and Lusitania sinkings combined.
SS PRINCESS ALICE
Not all ship disasters happen on the open seas. One of the worst in British history took place on the tranquil River Thames, back in 1878. One evening in September of that year, a paddle steamer called the SS Princess Alice was making her way back from a trip from London to Gravesend and Sheerness. Many Londoners were on board, relaxing after a pleasant outing to the Rosherville pleasure gardens in Gravesend.
The peace was promptly shattered by the sight of another ship bearing down on them. This was the SS Bywell Castle, on her way to pick up a cargo of coal. Thanks to a tragic miscommunication between the two captains, calamity unfolded, with the ships ploughing into each other and the Princess Alice utterly destroyed.
People didn't just drown - they were engulfed in raw sewage from recently opened sluices, and more than 650 perished in the vile waters. A journalist described the grim aftermath: "In the next fortnight we were familiar with the sight of strangers, generally in couples, walking with dazed and melancholy aspect through streets, waiting for their dead to be brought on shore; and every day we saw the same sad faces as they passed down the dread array of corpses in the Dockyard, looked for the loved ones, who would see them never more on earth."
The 19th Century also saw a terrible river disaster unfold in the United States. On 27 April 1865, a steamboat called the Sultana was the site of a horror on the Mississippi. At the time, the nation was still reeling from the devastating Civil War, and the Sultana had been hired to transport thousands of Union soldiers who'd been released from Confederacy prison camps. Eager to make as much money as possible, the captain had massively overloaded the Sultana, while also skipping some necessary repair work for the ship's boiler.
Thousands of passengers were packed on a ship designed to carry less than 400. The wooden decks creaked and buckled under the sheer weight of human beings. Then, without warning, the boilers exploded. The smokestacks collapsed onto the passengers, with shrapnel and boiling water going everywhere. Those who weren't killed instantly would drown or die from hypothermia in the Mississippi. The exact number of fatalities has been debated, but it's the lowest estimate is around 1,200.
The worst maritime disaster ever to occur during peacetime was not the Titanic. And it took place within living memory - on 20 December 1987. Somehow, despite claiming well over 4,000 lives, the Dona Paz is not a household name in the west, though it has been dubbed Asia's Titanic.
The Dona Paz was a passenger ferry which, on the fateful night of its sinking, was travelling within the Philippines, from Leyte island to Manila. The hulking ship was overcrowded, with thousands of extra passengers on top of those listed on the official manifest. People were forced to share beds and sleep in the corridors. Almost all would perish when the ship collided with an oil tanker - an impact which tore the Dona Paz open and set the structure alight.
Chaos ensued amid the roaring flames, with passengers unable to find life jackets, and being forced to cling onto suitcases as they bobbed between the burnt corpses around them. Only 26 people survived the hellish inferno.