Contrary to popular belief, the noncombatant medical corps during World War One were not free from danger. They were located close enough to the front to see and hear bombardments. Sometimes medical camps were bombed, either accidentally or on purpose, ambulances hit land mines, and hospital ships were sunk.
One such hospital ship was the HMHS Britannic. Another was the Llandovery Castle.
What Was the Llandovery Castle?
The HMHS Llandovery Castle was one of five hospital ships that served Canada during the war. It regularly traveled between Britain and Halifax, taking patients back home. It was commissioned in 1916 and was equipped to carry 622 patients and 102 medical personnel.
June 27, 1918
On June 27, 1918, off the coast of Ireland, HMHS Llandovery Castle was struck by a torpedo fired by a German U-Boat. The lifeboats were lowered as the ship was sinking fast.
To cover up the sinking, which violated the Hague Convention, the U-Boat resurfaced and machined gunned the occupants. The German crew also made fictitious entries in the submarine’s logbook.
Only one life boat escaped the slaughter. Its 24 survivors, six of whom were members of the medical corps, were rescued by a destroyer 36 hours later.
The ship sank in 10 minutes, and 234 people were killed. Among those murdered were all 14 nursing sisters.
“Unflinchingly and calmly, as steady and collected as if on parade, without a complaint or outward sign of emotion, our fourteen devoted Nursing-sisters faced the ordeal of certain death . . . a matter of minutes . . . . as our lifeboat neared the mad whirlpool of waters where all human power was helpless. Our boat had been quickly loaded and lowered, but there was great difficulty in cutting the ropes, and the oars were all broken in preventing it from pounding against the ship’s side. Finally we commenced to drift away in the choppy sea, and were carried towards the stern, when suddenly the poop-deck seemed to break away, and the suction, tipping the boat over sideways, drew every occupant under. We had been in the boat about 8 minutes. It was the last I saw of the Sisters, and though they all wore lifebelts, it is doubtful if any came to the surface again.” – Sergeant Arthur Knight from official documentation on the sinking.
The death toll could have been much higher had it not been for the fact that the ship was returning to Europe and had no patients onboard.
The event was used widely in propaganda on both sides of the Atlantic.
After the War
After the war, the captain of the U-Boat along with two lieutenants were arraigned on war crimes during the Leipzig War Crimes Trials in 1921. The lieutenants were sentenced to four years in prison, but escaped while on their way to detention. The captain, Helmut Brümmer-Patzig, fled and was never prosecuted. He later served in the German navy under Adolph Hitler.
Memorials were installed in three hospitals – one in Britain and two in Canada.
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