27th Jun 1918: Sinking of HS ‘Llandovery Castle’ one of most controversial events of WW1

llandoverycastle-1One of the more controversial events during the Great War was the sinking of the Canadian Hospital Ship Llandovery Castle by a German submarine, U-86, off the coast of Southern Ireland. Launched in September 1913 the Llandovery Castle (photograph right before commisioned as a Hospital Ship) was requisitioned in 1916 and was used to transport the 22nd Battalion from Alexandria to Marseille in March 1916 as the AIF moved from Egypt to France for the fighting on the Western Front. She was commissioned as a hospital ship on 26th July 1916, and assigned to the Canadian Forces, equipped with 622 beds and a medical staff of 102.

The ship was returning to England after having brought Canadian casualties back to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Being a Hospital Ship, it was clearly identified as such with a brightly illuminated Red Cross, was unarmed and running with full lights. On board, the crew consisted of one hundred and sixty-four men, eighty officers and men of the Canadian Medical Corps, and fourteen nurses, a total of two hundred and fifty-eight persons. The Llandovery Castle was struck by torpedo at night, and despite difficulty the crew and medical staff were able to get into a number of lifeboats before she sank, and they started to pick up survivors in the water. The submarine came up and interrupted the recovery and went alongside the Captain’s lifeboat. The U-boat commander took Captain Sylvester on board and started questioning him along with a Canadian Medical Officer in the belief that the ship had eight American Flying Officers on board. This was denied and the Captain and Medical Officer were allowed back into the lifeboat. However with most of the U-boat crew now below deck in preparation for diving, orders were given to open fire on the lifeboats to destroy the evidence of the torpedoing. Only one lifeboat survived the attack. It was picked up by the destroyer Lysander on the morning of 29th June, 36 hours after the attack. Just twenty four Victory_bonds_(Llandovery_Castle)people survived the attack on the lifeboats, including six members of the Canadian Army Medical Corps. All 14 Nursing Sisters on board lost their lives. For the Canadians this was the most significant naval disaster in the war, and given the status of the ship and the medical crew on board was met with outrage. After the war, the British initiated a War Crimes trial against the officers of U-86. The commander, Helmut Patzig could not be found and was never brought to trial. The two other officers, Ludwig Dithmar and John Boldt were tried and convicted. The men were sentenced to 4 years of hard labour, but escaped while underway to the prison. It is unclear if they were ever recaptured.

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