On the evening of 27 June 1918, while sailing from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Liverpool, England, the Canadian hospital ship Llandovery Castle was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat (U-86). Of the 258 crew and passengers, only 24 survived. Almost all the Canadian Army Medical Corps personnel were killed: six male officers, 64 enlisted men and 14 nursing sisters. Only one lifeboat escaped; the rest were either sucked under as the ship sank or attacked by the U-boat. The submarine’s officers were later charged with committing a war crime.
The Llandovery Castle was built in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1914, as part of the Union-Castle Line, and sailed between London and Africa. Like many other ships, it was requisitioned for war service during the First World War. The Llandovery Castle was recommissioned as a hospital ship in July 1916. It was equipped with 622 beds and a medical staff of 102 and assigned to the Canadian forces to transfer sick and wounded Canadians from Europe to Nova Scotia. She was one of five Canadian hospital ships in the First World War.
Sinking of HMHS Llandovery Castle
On 27 June 1918, HMHS Llandovery Castle was about 200 km off the coast of southern Ireland. It had delivered recovering soldiers to Halifax on 17 June and was making the return trip to Liverpool. The ship was carrying 258 people, including 164 crew, 80 officers and enlisted men and 14 nursing sisters of the Canadian Army Medical Corps; there were no patients on board.
That evening, the ship was sighted by a German U-boat (U-86). The captain apparently believed that the ship was carrying troops and ammunition and decided to attack, firing the submarine’s torpedoes. HMHS Llandovery Castle sank within 10 minutes. Although several lifeboats were launched, only one survived the attack. Its 24 passengers, including 18 crewmen and six Canadians, were later rescued by the destroyer HMS Lysander. The other lifeboats were either sucked under the ship as it went down or targeted by the U-boat. In total, 234 died, including all 14 nursing sisters.
The sinking of HMHS Llandovery Castle was the deadliest Canadian naval disaster during the First World War. The fate of the crew, particularly the nursing sisters, angered the public and became a rallying call. The Allies capitalized on the horrific event and created posters and illustrations that featured dying nursing sisters in the sea, targeted by U-boat machine gunners.
War Crimes Trial
In 1921, three U-86 officers, including the captain, Helmut Patzig, were charged at the Leipzig war crimes trials. Patzig, however, fled Germany and avoided trial.
The defence stated that they thought the ship was carrying troops and ammunition. The evidence, however, indicated that at the time of the attack, HMHS Llandovery Castle had been sailing with clearly identifiable lights and a large Red Cross symbol prominently displayed amidships. Under the Hague Convention, it was against international law to attack a hospital ship. Though Patzig had the right to stop and search the ship, he decided instead to attack.
The court found that when Patzig became aware of his error, he turned the U-boat’s guns on the helpless survivors in an attempt to kill all witnesses. Patzig also swore his crew to secrecy and faked the logbook so the U-boat could not be connected to the sunken ship.
The court sentenced the two U-86 officers to four years in prison. Patzig escaped trial and sentencing and served in the German navy during the Second World War.
One hundred years after the sinking of HMHS Llandovery Castle, a new opera was composed in remembrance of the 14 Canadian nursing sisters who died in the tragedy. The Llandovery Castle, composed by Stephanie Martin with a libretto by Paul Ciufo, was first performed in Toronto in June 2018.