With the fall of France the ship was crammed with British nationals and military personnel evacuating France after the loss of Dunkirk. Its unknown how many people were onboard, estimates are between 4,000 and 9,000! The official capacity was just 2,200 including crew. The Captain had been ordered to;
“load as many men as possible without regard to the limits set down under international law”
Departing from St Nazaire she was attacked late afternoon and received three direct hits, she sank in just twenty minutes.
“There were 2,447 survivors, of whom about 100 were still alive in 2011. Many families of the dead knew only that they died with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF); the death toll accounted for roughly a third of the total losses of the BEF in France.” Wikipedia
News of the sinking was suppressed by the British government at the time, it was such a huge loss of life coming on the back of the fall of France, Churchill felt quite simply the newspapers had had enough bad news.
So its sinking has largely been overlooked but in the 1970s the story surface again.
A friend of mine had a Grandfather who as part of the BEF was being evacuated on the Lancastria when it was sunk, after some time in the water he was rescued. Opening the newspaper one morning he found himself looking at a picture of himself, thirty years previously covered in oil and being handed a cup of tea!