Noncombatant servicemen and women are not free from danger. Such was the case of the medical corps during World War I. Medical units were located close enough to the front to see and hear bombardments. Sometimes camps were bombed — either accidentally or on purpose — ambulances hit land mines, and hospital ships sunk. (This post is a companion piece to Melina Druga’s WWI Trilogy, Angel of Mercy, Those Left Behind and Adjustment Year, available wherever eBooks are sold.)
One such hospital ship was the HMHS Britannic. Another was the HMHS Llandovery Castle.
The Llandovery Castle was one of five hospital ships that served Canada during the war. It regularly traveled between Britain and Halifax, taking patients home. It was commissioned in 1916 and was equipped to carry 622 patients and 102 medical personnel.
June 27, 1918
Off the coast of Ireland, a German U-Boat fired on Llandovery Castle, striking the ship with a torpedo.
The ship began sinking quickly, and lifeboats were lowered.
Firing on a medical vessel violated the Hague Convention. The U-Boat resurfaced and machined gunned the lifeboat occupants in an attempt to silence the witnesses. The German crew also made fictitious entries in the submarine’s logbook.
Only one lifeboat escaped the slaughter. Its 24 survivors, six of whom were members of the medical corps, were rescued 36 hours later.
“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,” Sergeant Arthur Knight said in the official documentation of the sinking. “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.”
The ship sank in 10 minutes, killing 234 people. Among those murdered were all 14 nursing sisters.
The death toll would have been much higher had it not been for the fact that the ship was returning to Europe and had no patients on board.
The event was used widely in Allied propaganda on both sides of the Atlantic.
After the War
The captain of the U-Boat, Helmut Brümmer-Patzig, 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. Brümmer-Patzig fled and was never prosecuted. He later served in the German Navy under Adolph Hitler.
Memorials for Llandovery Castle‘s medical personnel were installed in three hospitals – one in Britain and two in Canada.
Updated: 26 October 2020