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Atrocity on the Atlantic

Attack on a Hospital Ship During the Great War

by (author) Nate Hendley

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Feb 2024
Naval, Mass Murder, World War I
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How a German submarine sank a Canadian military hospital ship during the First World War and sparked outrage.

On the evening of June 27, 1918, the Llandovery Castle — an unarmed, clearly marked hospital ship used by the Canadian military — was torpedoed off the Irish Coast by U-Boat 86, a German submarine.

Sinking hospital ships violated international law. To conceal his actions, the U-86 commander had the submarine deck guns fire on survivors. One lifeboat escaped with witnesses to the atrocity. Global outrage over the attack ensued.

The sinking of the Llandovery Castle was adjudicated at the Leipzig War Crimes Trials, an attempt to establish justice after hostilities ceased. The Llandovery Castle case resulted in a historic legal precedent that guided subsequent war crime prosecutions, including the Nuremberg Trials.

Atrocity on the Atlantic explores the Llandovery Castle sinking, the people impacted by the attack, and the reasons why this wartime atrocity was largely forgotten.

About the author

Nate Hendley was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1966 but grew up in Waterloo, ON. From 1985 – 1989, he attended Trent University in Peterborough, ON, and graduated with an Honours BA in Cultural Studies.In 1991 he returned to school to study journalism at Conestoga College in Kitchener, ON. Shortly thereafter, he began freelancing. Since the early 1990s, Nate has written hundreds of news articles, features, profiles, investigative pieces, advertorials, corporate stories and public relations items.His writing credits include The National Post, The Globe and Mail, Marketing Magazine, eye weekly, The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Journal, etc. He is particularly adept at writing about political, social and cultural issues, automotive, high-tech and business topics and health-related concerns. In addition to his work as a journalist, he is a published author, formerly with Altitude Publishing, and now with Five Rivers.Nate is the Ontario Regional Director of the Professional Writers Association of Canada. PWAC is a national organization that represents the interests of freelance writers.

Nate Hendley's profile page

Excerpt: Atrocity on the Atlantic: Attack on a Hospital Ship During the Great War (by (author) Nate Hendley)

CHAPTER ONE: “Do You Think There Is Any Hope for Us?”

No one saw the torpedo coming. If it left a wake in the water, nobody noticed. The explosives-laden warhead detonated on the port side of His Majesty’s Hospital Ship (HMHS) Llandovery Castle near the No. 4 hold, devastating the engine room. Several stokers were killed or incapacitated, and the ship lights instantly went out. After the emergency generator kicked in, the lights flickered on again, providing some dim illumination in the darkness.

It was 9:30 p.m. ship-time, Thursday, June 27, 1918, and the Llandovery Castle was heading back to Britain from Canada to pick up another transport of wounded Canadian soldiers. These men would be returned to Canada for a long convalescence. When the torpedo struck, the Llandovery Castle was approximately 114 miles southwest of Fastnet Rock, the southern most place in Ireland.

Captain Edward Sylvester felt a tremendous shock from the explosion. At first, he didn’t realize the ship had been torpedoed. The Llandovery Castle was travelling at 13.6 knots — 13.6 nautical miles (15.64 regular miles) per hour — on a calm sea. There had been no warnings about German submarines (Unterseeboots, or U-boats for short) in the area.

If momentarily perplexed by the cause of the blast, Captain Sylvester immediately realized that the ship he commanded was sinking fast. He rang the engine room with the thought of ordering the sailor in charge to stop and then reverse the engines. The idea was to halt the ship’s forward momentum, which was accelerating the flood of water through the hole made by the torpedo.

There was no response from the engine room. Presumably, everyone in the room was dead or seriously injured. The hospital ship continued plowing ahead, rapidly filling with water. At five hundred feet long and weighing 11,423 tons, the Llandovery Castle was relatively big, but the single torpedo had managed to inflict tremendous damage.

“About three minutes after the explosion, the carpenter reported the ship was hit in the No. 4 hold and would not remain afloat. I then gave orders to lower all the boats and send them away,” Captain Sylvester later explained.

Sylvester was an experienced captain in his midfifties. As a young man, he had trained on His Majesty’s Ship (HMS) Worcester and then taken a job with the Union Steam Ship Company. The Union Steam Ship Company merged with the Castle Mail Packets Company in 1900 to become the Union-Castle Mail Steamship Company. The latter operated a vast fleet of passenger ships and other vessels. Sylvester stayed on as captain of the Llandovery Castle when it was chartered by the Canadian government in March 1918 to transport wounded men back home.

Captain Sylvester was responsible for the 258 people on board, a total that included 164 crew members and ninety-four Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC) personnel. The CAMC treated injured troops. Their ranks included doctors, orderlies, and fourteen nursing sisters — the name given to female Canadian military nurses at the time.

The Llandovery Castle could accommodate hundreds of patients, but this was a return voyage, so the ship wasn’t carrying any when it was hit. Regardless, the ship was supposed to be off-limits. Under the Hague Conventions of 1907, which reinforced previous international treaties regarding warfare, hospital ships could be stopped, boarded, and searched, but they could not be attacked. To guarantee this status, hospital ships were not allowed to carry guns, armed soldiers, or war supplies.

Following Hague rules, the Llandovery Castle was painted white, with horizontal green stripes along each side interspersed with large red crosses. The ship flew a Red Cross flag, a white flag with a red cross at the centre, and was as brightly lit as a Christmas tree, with white-and-green electric lights. Unlike war vessels, hospital ships were supposed to make themselves as visible as possible. The ship’s name had been passed on to German authorities, so they could add it to a list of vessels to avoid, in theory at least.

Germany had ratified the Hague Conventions, including the agreement to refrain from attacking hospital ships, before the war started, but that meant little to Oberleutnant zur See (first lieutenant at sea) Helmut Patzig. He was the commander of U-86. His sub had been stalking the Llandovery Castle for hours, slowly manoeuvring into position to launch a torpedo.

Born in Danzig (now in Poland and called Gdansk) in 1890, Patzig joined the Imperial German Navy in 1910. While he initially served on a battleship, Patzig asked to be transferred to the navy’s fledgling U-boat division a year after the war broke out. This was a risky move since submarines, which were relatively new weapons at the time, had a tendency to sink or experience severe mechanical issues. No matter: Patzig thrived in this environment and became watch officer of U-55 in 1915. He served on the same sub until September 1917.

By the time Patzig took command of U-86 in January 1918, he had earned the Iron Cross First and Second Class. In the months leading up to the Llandovery Castle ambush, he sank over a dozen vessels.

Patzig knew perfectly well that the Llandovery Castle was a hospital ship (his own crew would later testify they recognized the ship’s hospital lights from a distance). Like many of his colleagues, however, the first lieutenant was convinced such ships routinely violated Hague rules by transporting soldiers and war supplies. The German Imperial Admiralty felt the same way and permitted attacks on hospital ships — albeit only in the Mediterranean Sea and in a zone running from the English Channel to the North Sea.

The Llandovery Castle carried nineteen lifeboats, which could accommodate roughly fifty people apiece. The ship also had smaller rafts that could be used in dire emergencies. Given that there were no patients on board, there should have been plenty of available lifeboat space. However, the torpedo blast damaged most of the lifeboats on the port side, rendering them unseaworthy. Also, because the ship was sinking so quickly, it wasn’t clear if any lifeboats could get away.

Standing on the bridge, Captain Sylvester barked orders into a megaphone as Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Macdonald, commander of the CAMC personnel, helped launch lifeboats, which were secured to ropes that hung from davits — cranes used to lower or raise lifeboats along the side of the ship.

The Llandovery Castle kept plowing forward, however, enormously complicating the lifeboat-launching process. Seawater continued to pour in, causing the deck to slope, making it “a matter of great difficulty” to get the lifeboats underway, as a subsequent report put it. Still, there was no panic on board, as the crew and medical staff made their way to the lifeboats.

In the wireless room, a Marconi operator desperately tried to send out a distress call. Telegram networks that transmitted messages tapped out in Morse code had been around for decades. “Wireless telegraphy” on board ships was something new, however. In a wireless system, messages were conveyed via radio waves, not cables. This technology enabled long-distance communication to and from vessels after they left port.

Italian engineer Guglielmo Marconi — the man who developed the “wireless” system — famously tapped a Morse code message from Europe to Newfoundland, without the need of an undersea cable. The Llandovery Castle was only trying to send a message for a fraction of that distance to receivers in Ireland or Great Britain. However, the ship’s wireless telegraphy system had been damaged by the torpedo and no messages got through. Eventually, the operator gave up and left, to try to find a lifeboat. Nobody outside the immediate area knew that the Llandovery Castle had been torpedoed and was sinking fast.

Sylvester raced to his cabin to grab some items before the ship went down. These included “an electric torch” — that is, a battery-powered lamp or flashlight — and a tin of tobacco. He had a pipe on him and figured the tobacco might come in handy for later. Fully equipped, he dashed back to the deck to supervise the lifeboats.

Witnesses said that at least three lifeboats from the starboard side of the ship and two from the port side made it to the water. A government report later concluded that almost everyone on board managed to get into a lifeboat “save those killed by the explosion.”

Private William Pilot was on his third round-trip back to England on the Llandovery Castle when the ship was hit. Born in 1893 in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Pilot had enlisted in late 1914, in Toronto. He was shipped to the United Kingdom in May the following year, where he ended up in the Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion. Bicycle troops served as dispatch riders, transporting messages — a vital task when shellfire destroyed radio and telegram cables. Pilot was injured on October 8, 1916, in Courcelette, France. “While carrying stretcher, was wounded in right leg below knee joint inner side. Shrapnel fragment removed. No fracture,” states his medical case sheet.

Pilot recovered and was sent back in action. In March 1918, he joined the medical staff of the Llandovery Castle as an orderly, a job that could entail heavy physical work. Among other duties, orderlies might be called on to move patients on stretchers and ease them in and out of bed or on and off examination tables. Orderlies also helped prep patients for surgery, ran baths for them, and assisted doctors and nurses when needed.

Pilot would later detail his experience on the sinking ship in a diary, handwritten in a neat, cursive style in dark ink: “Quite a mess up with lifeboats being smashed or swamped. After being in two finally climbed aboard ship again although decks were underwater. Then got away on a raft with two sailors.”

The rafts could fit around twenty to thirty people. Pilot and his companions floated inside one of them, waiting for rescue.

Private Shirley Taylor of Saint John, New Brunswick, found himself in a similar position. Taylor was below decks in his “sleeping quarters,” as a report put it, when the torpedo struck. Taylor rushed to the port side of the ship to access his pre-assigned lifeboat but found it was wrecked. He ran to the other side of the ship to try his luck there. He observed Lifeboat No. 9 dangling over the side, so he slid down a rope and clambered aboard. A deckhand joined him. The lifeboat tipped, spilling Taylor and everyone else into the water. Although it was late June, the ocean was frigid. Being immersed in the North Atlantic could lead to hypothermia and then death within minutes. The private clung to an oar, then a crate, alternating between shouts and loud whistles to gain the attention of anyone in an upright lifeboat.

Private Frederick Cooper, who was born in Great Britain like many of his CAMC colleagues, was walking on the starboard deck when the attack occurred. The explosion tossed him against the ship railings. Cooper quickly grasped that the ship was in serious trouble and rushed to find a lifebelt. He saw a lifeboat suspended in air over the side of the ship, the ropes and pulleys jammed up. Crew members managed to untangle the ropes and lower the lifeboat, with about twenty people, onto the water. The lifeboat promptly collided with another lifeboat and several people were tossed overboard. Private Cooper looked about for a way to save himself.

For Acting CAMC Sergeant Arthur Knight, the situation must have seemed horribly familiar. Knight was born in Brighton, England, and came to Canada in 1910. He worked as a brass finisher at a London, Ontario, firm that made caskets then joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) — Canada’s military mission in Europe — on September 27, 1915. Twenty-nine years old at enlistment, Knight served in a field ambulance unit then at Moore Barracks, Shorncliffe, in the United Kingdom before being transferred to a hospital ship called the Letitia.

Like the Llandovery Castle, the Letitia was a former liner that had been turned into a hospital ship to take badly wounded Canadians home. On the first day of August 1917, the Letitia slammed into rocks in the waters outside Halifax Harbour. It was foggy, as it so often is on the East Coast, and the harbour pilot, whose job was to board ships and bring them safely into harbour, didn’t see the hazard in time. The Letitia stuck fast on the rocks, with 546 patients plus the crew on board. Fortunately, no one was hurt in the accident.

A fleet of rescue vessels raced to the scene and took off all the injured men. The captain and some crew briefly stayed on board, but when it became apparent the ship was too wrecked to be towed ashore, they also departed in rescue boats. One crewman was somehow left behind by mistake. He tried to swim to shore, but drowned, becoming the only fatality connected to the incident. The Letitia remained jammed on the shoal for months, then finally broke in two and slid underwater.

There was little chance of any rescue ships arriving to save the Llandovery Castle passengers, however.

Having survived one hospital ship disaster already, Sergeant Knight was determined to beat doom again. He raced to Lifeboat No. 5, which was dangling precariously from the davits. Knight climbed into the lifeboat, which contained eight crew members and all fourteen nursing sisters from the ship.

Two of the nurses in the lifeboat were in bedclothes. The rest were wearing their unforms, which featured blue tops with high necklines and wristlength sleeves, white veils, and white aprons that descended to the ankles. All the nursing sisters wore lifebelts, the Great War equivalent of a personal floatation device.

With difficulty, the men working the ropes managed to lower Lifeboat No. 5 onto the ocean. Getting away from the ship, which was still sinking and moving forward at the same time, was another matter. The lifeboat ropes had become tangled and couldn’t be unfastened. As it bounced on the ocean waves, the lifeboat remained stuck to the hull of the Llandovery Castle. Sergeant Knight grabbed an axe and hacked at the ropes as others pulled and tugged to loosen the binds.

“I broke two axes trying to cut ourselves away but was unsuccessful,” Knight later reported.

Lifeboat No. 5 banged against the steel hull of the ship. People inside the lifeboat pushed against the hull with oars. These efforts failed and all the oars snapped or broke. Then, miraculously, the ropes slackened, and the lifeboat drifted away from the sinking ship. With no workable oars, however, the lifeboat remained dangerously close to the Llandovery Castle.

Big ships can create a whirlpool when they sink, dragging down smaller craft or swimmers. This is what happened to Lifeboat No. 5. “We were carried towards the stern of the ship when suddenly the poop deck seemed to break away and sink. The suction drew us quickly into the vacuum,” recalled Sergeant Knight.

According to Knight, the nursing sisters accepted their fate with stoic resolve: “I estimate we were together in the boat about eight minutes. In that whole time, I did not hear a complaint or a murmur from one of the sisters. They were supremely calm and collected. There was not a cry for help or any outward evidence of fear. In the entire time, I only overheard one remark,” said Knight.

Nursing Sister Margaret Fraser, the matron or leader of the nurses, looked at Knight and asked, “Sergeant, do you think there is any hope for us?”

“No,” he replied.

Caught in the suction, the lifeboat tipped and all the passengers spilled into the ocean. Knight caught a glimpse of the nursing sisters flailing in the water. He was the only surviving witness to their last moments.

Knight was dragged under the surface, rose, then smacked his head on a heavy piece of floating debris. The dazed sergeant sank again, only to be jarred by a powerful, new explosion. The blast was likely caused by the cold ocean water splashing against the ship’s red-hot boilers. The explosion likely saved Knight’s life, as it propelled him back to the surface. Floating there, he shivered and tried to get his bearings.

Ship’s purser Henry Evans also witnessed the death throes of Lifeboat No. 5. He was in his cabin when the attack occurred. Hearing the torpedo explode, he rushed on deck and helped launch lifeboats. At one point, Evans slid down a rope-ladder into a lifeboat, but the small craft swamped, and the purser fell into the ocean. Kept buoyant by his lifebelt, Evans tried to swim to Lifeboat No. 5. He never reached it. In the water, he watched as it capsized, overwhelmed by the vortex of the sinking ship.

“There were some sisters and men in the boat,” Evans later testified, referring to the doomed nurses.

Evans swam away, as other lifeboats floundered in the whirlpool stirred up by the Llandovery Castle going under the water. People grabbed debris and screamed for help. A small handful of lifeboats managed to stay afloat, and those in them were madly rowing them away from the scene.

Sergeant Knight seized a floating piece of wood to keep himself from sinking. Knight was so cold and disoriented that he didn’t even notice that U-86 had surfaced and was cruising toward him.


The U-boat was a strange, savage weapon, one that was used to deadly effect by the Imperial German Navy. Before the war, such vessels were seen as little more than interesting novelties. Then, on September 22, 1914, a single German U-boat in the North Sea sank three aging British armoured cruisers in under an hour. Nearly 1,500 British sailors were lost in this one-sided encounter. The world was shocked; Germany was delighted and made more U-boats.

Approximately 230 feet long and less than twenty-one feet at its widest, U-86 was built in Kiel, Germany, in 1915 and entered service a year later. The sub was grey in colour; its top was flat, save for a jutting conning tower and its deck gun. U-86 had two hulls — a round outer hull gave the vessel its cigar-like shape, and an inner pressure hull prevented the sides from collapsing when the sub went underwater. Fuel and ballast tanks were positioned between the hulls, while horizontal rudders on the sides helped guide and steer the sub during dives.

Like other U-boats, however, U-86 spent most of its time on the surface. Generally, it only submerged to fire a torpedo, escape attack, or give the crew a rest. Engine technology was the issue. On the surface, using a pair of sixcylinder, four-stroke diesel engines, it could reach 16.8 knots — faster than the Llandovery Castle had been going when it was hit.

Its diesel engines could only be used on the surface, however. They required oxygen to function, and so they couldn’t be used underwater. Operating them underwater would have consumed the sub’s limited supply of fresh air and emitted dangerous fumes, asphyxiating the crew. Submerged, U-86 had to switch to an electric battery engine that didn’t rely on oxygen, but it only offered enough power to propel the sub at half the speed and a fraction of the diesel’s range. U-86 would travel nearly five thousand nautical miles while on patrol from June 20 to July 12, 1918 — almost all of it on the surface. Less than two hundred nautical miles were logged underwater.

Prior to submerging, U-86, like other subs, had to disconnect its diesel engines, seal hatches, and ready the electric motors. Once all openings were fastened shut, “sea water is admitted into big open tanks. Powerful suction engines, in the central control of the boat, draw out the air from these tanks, so as to increase the rapid inrush of the water. The chief engineer notifies the captain as soon as the tanks are sufficiently filled, and an even weight is established so as to steer the boat to the proper depth for attack,” explains the Journal of Submarine Commander von Forstner, a First World War memoir.

During a dive, U-boats had to keep moving forward, while the rudders guided it beneath the waves. Complete submersion might take ninety seconds with an experienced crew, or several minutes with a new crew. Regardless, the U-boat was helpless during the process, unable to use its deck gun or torpedoes and vulnerable to being shelled or rammed. Under the waves, U-86 had to move continuously, like a shark, or it would sink. If U-86 went deeper than fifty metres (164 feet), water pressure would crush its hulls.

While underwater, maintaining oxygen for the crew was as imperative as maintaining power in the electric batteries. “It is essential before a U-boat submerges to drive out the exhausted air through powerful ventilating machines and to suck in the purest air obtainable,” writes von Forstner.

Underwater, this air was augmented by oxygen cylinders and a chemicalbased air purification system that reduced carbon-dioxide levels. The goal was to prevent cerebral hypoxia among the crew (caused when the brain doesn’t get enough oxygen). “Preparations of potassium” were the main chemicals used for the air-purification process, according to von Forstner.

This set-up provided temporary relief, however; at most, a U-boat could only spend a few days underwater. Beyond that, the sub needed to surface, take in fresh air, and recharge the electric batteries — as this involved the sub’s main engines, the process could not be done underwater. The recharging process took several hours.

Beneath the surface, the crew avoided moving around or talking too much to preserve oxygen. If the water was shallow and familiar to the captain, subs sometimes rested on the ocean bottom — briefly. True submarines that could spend weeks underwater were still many years away.

Surface travel could be dangerous too, with waves crashing over the top of the U-boat. Everyone up top would be exposed to wind and rain, and sometimes they had to be secured to the sub with ropes so they wouldn’t be washed overboard.

The interior of these submarines is described in the book U-Boat Stories: Narratives of German U-boat Sailors, a collection of German maritime memories from the Great War:

[I]magine a steel cylinder … terminating in a point at either end. In the centre of it on the upper side is a tower. Aft — that is, at the back end — there are two torpedo tubes on the underside. Next to them is the electric kitchen, then the electric motors, and then the Diesel engine room. Then the control room, with the compass, the horizontal rudder-wheel, and the valves. In front of that is the officers’ and warrant officers’ room. Right in front, in the bow, are two more torpedo tubes. Between every compartment is a bulkhead, and a hatchway leads from the conning tower to the body of the vessel. The control room is the most important part of the boat — as indeed, its name implies. The periscopes are in the conning tower. Built against the exterior of the boat are the diving tanks which give the boat its shape. To them are attached the horizontal rudders, two on each side, one in front and one behind.

U-boat conning towers sometimes contained tiny windows that offered a glimpse of the undersea world. Most crew members, however, were not allowed to access the conning tower lookout or use the periscope. As a result, the majority of sailors in a sub were never able to see their surroundings.

Powerful as they were, U-boats were finicky and fragile. A single shell could rupture their hulls. U-boats could be rammed and sunk by ships, and they sometimes struck sea mines and exploded. In a sinking submarine, the crew had almost no chance of escape.


Subs in U-86’s class typically carried a crew of thirty-five. Some of these men stood on the submarine deck and conning tower, gaping at the destruction they had wrought. Petty Officer Walter Popitz of U-86 observed three or four lifeboats in the water and many people trying to swim. The U-boat made no attempt to rescue anyone but eased near Sergeant Knight.

“It was then pitch dark and I heard an order in good but slightly accented English to go alongside of what proved to be a submarine.… I scrambled aboard the submarine and seven or eight Germans gathered around me asking ‘What do you want?’” Knight later recounted to reporters.

Before Knight could respond, four German sailors grabbed him and tossed him back into the freezing water. Knight kept sinking and rising. He grabbed more wreckage to remain afloat and didn’t try to climb onto the sub again.

Major Thomas Lyon had been playing cards with some nurses when the torpedo hit. Five feet eleven inches tall, with grey eyes, brown hair, and a moustache, Lyon was thirty-six years old. Scottish by birth, he had graduated from Edinburgh University’s medical school then trained as a physician and surgeon before moving to Canada in 1912. He headed to British Columbia, where he worked as a doctor serving remote communities among other positions. At the outbreak of the war, Lyon joined a militia unit as a medical officer then volunteered for the CAMC.

On April 10, 1915, Lyon signed an attestation paper — the document marking his introduction into the military. He promised to “be faithful and bear true Allegiance to His Majesty King George the Fifth, His Heirs and Successors” and to “faithfully defend His Majesty, His Heirs and Successors, in Person, Crown, and Dignity, against all enemies and will observe and obey all orders of His Majesty, His Heirs and Successors and of all the Generals and Officers set over me. So, help me God.”

The form also noted Lyon was unmarried and Presbyterian.

Lyon worked at various hospitals during his military service and suffered from serious illnesses himself. He had narrowly avoided being torpedoed on a previous hospital ship. After the Llandovery Castle was hit, Lyon realized he didn’t have his glasses with him. “I am some what short sighted and had not my glasses,” Major Lyon would later explain.

Lyon managed to make it back to his room, where he grabbed a flashlight and a lifebelt. He noticed that all the other cabins were empty. On the deck, Lyon encountered several crew members and medical personnel, and observed three lifeboats in the water. Lyon approached Captain Sylvester and another officer on the bridge, only to receive some bad news.

“The Captain said the ship would sink in a minute and there were no boats left,” recalled Major Lyon.

No seaworthy boats, that is. Then, a ship’s officer announced that there was in fact a serviceable lifeboat left — Lifeboat No. 4, which was dangling over the side, partly in the water, partly in the air. Accompanied by Captain Sylvester and others, Major Lyon raced to untangle the ropes affixed to the lifeboat. The boat was lowered onto the water, and a few people scrambled on board, including Lyon and Sylvester. There were slightly under a dozen occupants in the lifeboat, and they rowed furiously to get away from the ship, which was now standing almost straight up, bow facing the sky as it sank. The men in the lifeboat had only travelled about forty feet when the Llandovery Castle completely disappeared under the surface. It had taken roughly ten minutes for the vessel to sink after being torpedoed.

People were screaming and struggling in the water. Major Lyon and Captain Sylvester shone their flashlights on the scene, and the occupants of Lifeboat No. 4 began plucking people from the ocean. They soon rescued nearly a dozen men, including privates Cooper, Taylor, and Pilot, and some crew members.

Rescue efforts were abruptly halted, however, when U-86 motored beside the lifeboat. A German sailor shone a light on the lifeboat.

“Come alongside,” barked someone on the sub, speaking in English.

“We are picking up men from the water,” responded an indignant occupant of Lifeboat No. 4.

“Come alongside at once,” repeated the English-speaker.

To emphasize the point, a sailor on the U-boat fired a pistol in the air twice. A threat was issued in English, either from the same speaker or from Commander Patzig himself (witness accounts differ). The men in the lifeboat were warned that the sub would fire its “big gun” next if they didn’t comply. The big gun was a 10.5 cm deck cannon, used to blast holes in the sides of ships. The guns were aimed to hit the ships below the waterline. With holes in their hulls below the waterline, the ships would fill with water and sink, sparing the need for a torpedo. On June 21, Patzig had sunk a 339 ton Norwegian merchant ship called the Eglantine with 56 cannon shots.

The torpedo was the submarine’s most powerful weapon, but U-86 carried only twelve of them, which meant Patzig had to be selective in their use. Roughly twenty feet long, torpedoes were large, bulky, and expensive. Once in attack position, the U-boat’s torpedoes could be readied in tubes that were situated in the bow or stern of the vessel. Eyeing a ship through a periscope, Commander Patzig would have to make complicated calculations involving distance, speed, water conditions, wind, and potential impact. Even if everything went to plan, the failure rate for torpedoes ran high. Torpedoes frequently went off-course, failed to detonate, or simply sank to the bottom. U-86 had actually fired two torpedoes at the Llandovery Castle, for example — the first of them missed the ship.

Captain Sylvester decided it was best to heed the sub’s command. The men in Lifeboat No. 4 used their oars to pull up next to U-86. The Germans wanted to speak with the highest-ranking ship officer in the lifeboat. Captain Sylvester left the lifeboat and stepped onto the submarine deck near the conning tower. An English-speaking U-boat sailor told him to identify his vessel.

“The hospital ship Llandovery Castle,” said Captain Sylvester.

“Oh yes, but you were carrying eight American flight officers,” stated the interrogator.

Taken aback, Captain Sylvester said, “I beg your pardon; we are not. We have seven Canadian medical officers on board and the ship is chartered by the Canadian government to carry sick and wounded men from England to Halifax.”

The interrogator refused to budge: “You have been carrying American flight officers.”

“I have been running to Canada for six months with wounded and give you my word of honour that we have carried none except patients, medical staff, crew and sisters,” insisted the captain, referencing a pair of trips made before Ottawa chartered the ship.

The interrogation lasted about five to ten minutes, then Sylvester was sent back to the lifeboat. The Germans said they wanted to talk to a Canadian medical officer. Major Lyon was the senior medical officer present, so he jumped from the lifeboat onto the sub. As he landed, a German sailor grabbed his arm, causing him to fall. Lyon hit the deck hard, breaking his right foot. Wincing in pain, the major did his best to answer questions.

“You are an American flight officer,” said the English-speaking interrogator.

“No. We never carried anything but patients,” replied Lyon.

The Germans, the major later told reporters, “seemed obsessed with the idea that American aviators were aboard, and it took us some time to convince them otherwise.”

The U-boat crew felt they had grounds for suspicion. Two years earlier, a German U-boat sank a British passenger liner, the Lusitania, in roughly the same area. Only a third of the 1,959 passengers and crew members on board survived. The dead included 123 Americans, which enraged the United States.

This attack was depicted as an act of German barbarism — a savage attack against a defenceless, unarmed ship carrying civilians. In truth, the Lusitania was transporting war supplies: 5,671 cases of ammunition and cartridges, “along with 189 containers of unspecified ‘military goods,’” according to the book German Submarine Warfare in World War I.

That hardly justified the murder of civilians, but it fed into the belief among U-boat crews that the Allies weren’t playing fair. If the Allies used civilian ships to transport war goods, it seemed reasonable to assume they used hospital ships in the same manner. There is no evidence that this was the case, but the sub crew remained obstinate in their belief. The sailors were “coolly polite” as they flung accusations at him, Lyon recalled. He would later muse about the possibility that spies had fed the Germans stories about American pilots being transported on Canadian hospital ships.

Finally, Major Lyon was told to get back to the lifeboat. As he tried to limp away, a German officer took him aside and whispered a warning in English.

“Clear off at once,” said the officer.

Major Lyon relayed this warning to his fellow passengers in Lifeboat No. 4. Captain Sylvester said he had been given the same advice. The lifeboat contained a sail, and this was hoisted. As the lifeboat tried to get away, the submarine began circling through the debris.

Lifeboat No. 4 was “making good speed north” but the sub “persisted in following us, occasionally speeding across our bow or stern, missing us by inches,” wrote Private Pilot in his diary.

The U-boat stopped moving, and a voice called out, demanding to speak to yet more men. The sub commander seemed determined to get the information he wanted to hear.

Two members of the ship crew — Second Officer Leslie Chapman and Fourth Officer Darley Barton — were ordered onto the sub. Was the Llandovery Castle carrying American pilots, demanded the U-boat crew. The officers said no. Then, the interrogator introduced a new subject.

“You had ammunition on board; there was a loud explosion,” said the sailor.

Chapman and Barton realized the man was referring to the second loud blast, almost certainly caused by the boilers bursting on contact with the frigid ocean. Chapman explained this to his interrogator. The U-boat crew pondered the matter then told the officers to go back to the lifeboat.

Lifeboat No. 4 had acquired some passengers by this point. Purser Evans spotted the lifeboat, swam to it, and was plucked out of the water, exhausted, soaked, and freezing. CAMC orderly George Hickman was another new passenger.

At some point in the evening, U-86 intercepted Lifeboat No. 7, which contained Hickman. Hickman was ordered onto the sub and told to go below decks. He was instructed to write down the name of the ship he’d been on. Hickman wrote “ Llandovery Castle,” and an officer checked the name against a list of known ships in a manual. Most U-boats carried these manuals, which offered the names of all known Allied ships, along with their images and other information. This guide made it easier for the sub commander to identify targets and claim gross tonnage sunk after a successful kill.

Hickman was asked if there were any American flying officers on the Llandovery Castle. He said no. Hickman was told he could go, but when he went up to the sub deck via a metal ladder, he discovered his original lifeboat was gone and Lifeboat No. 4 was now alongside the sub. Either the U-boat had abandoned Lifeboat No. 7, or it moved off on its own accord. In any case, Hickman became part of the contingent on Captain Sylvester’s lifeboat.

As Lifeboat No. 4 fled the area, First Lieutenant Patzig issued commands. Most of the U-boat crew who were topside went below decks. Only Patzig, a pair of lieutenants named Ludwig Dithmar and John Boldt, and a fourth man named Meissner remained on top. Meissner was the sub’s gunner and he set up the 10.5 cm stern cannon on the deck.

Below decks, Petty Officer Popitz was startled to hear the deck gun firing. There were no enemy ships in the vicinity, so the U-boat crew assumed the lifeboats were being shelled. No one went up top to intervene.

Sergeant Knight was still struggling in the water when the firing began. Some of the shells were being directed at the lifeboat he was attempting to approach. Knight was swept into a trough and momentarily lost sight of the lifeboat. When he crested, the lifeboat was gone. He seized another piece of wreckage and clung to it. He counted about twenty shots in total.

Lifeboat No. 4 was roughly half-a-mile from the U-boat when the shelling started. Major Lyon offered a slightly more conservative estimate regarding the barrage.

“I can recall at least twelve shots, presumably in the area where the lifeboats and survivors were supposed to be. One shell came very close to our own boat,” stated Lyon.

In his diary, Pilot said the sub tried to shell Lifeboat No. 4, but “owing to the complete darkness … he did poor shooting.”

If not motivated by sheer sadism, the only reason for the Germans to shell the lifeboats was to eliminate witnesses. After getting the same answers from all the people he interviewed, Patzig must have realized his mistake. The Llandovery Castle didn’t contain any American flyers or munitions. It was an unarmed hospital ship, and U-86 was in violation of Hague rules. As mentioned, German Admiralty directives allowed the hunting of hospital ships in designated areas, but the seas off the coast of Ireland were not included. So, Patzig was doing his best to kill all possible witnesses to his war crime.

Sergeant Knight was picked up by Lifeboat No. 4 during the barrage, becoming the last person to be rescued. There were now two dozen people in the lifeboat — six Canadian medical personnel and eighteen British crew members.

Relying on oars, the sail, and Captain Sylvester’s guidance, the men steered the lifeboat as fast as possible away from the U-boat, leaving behind 234 dead colleagues. They headed in the general direction of Ireland, their presence concealed from the U-boat in the darkness. It had been about two hours since the torpedo attack.

The weather was still calm, as the North Atlantic goes, so the survivors didn’t face powerful winds or towering waves. They hoped that, with luck, they might eventually land on the Irish coast and get help. In the meantime, they had to cope with hunger and cold.

“The Germans sent us afloat into the darkness without a word of farewell, suggestion, direction, or anything, but we were all thankful to get away from them. The uncertainty of our position overcame thoughts of my own injury, but above all, I could not help wondering what had become of the others. After the submarine disappeared with a swish all was stillness — a terrible stillness. There were no more cries for help heard,” Major Lyon later told a newspaper.

He added, “I can emphatically state that the submarine made no attempt to rescue anyone, but on the contrary, did everything in its power to destroy every trace of the ship and its personnel and crew.”

As U-86 headed back to base, the mood below decks was sombre. “During the following days [the U-86 crew] were extremely depressed. A subsequent collision with a mine, which placed the U-boat in the greatest danger, was regarded as a punishment for the events of the 27th of June,” stated a later judicial court ruling.

Lieutenant Patzig might not have been worried about divine punishment, but he did note the incident in his Kriegstagebuch (“Boat was strongly shaken. Ran on a mine. Engines stopped. Battery gas, smoke, and fire in the foreship. Lights out.”). He praised the “resolute calm” of the technical crew who dealt with the sea mine aftermath and said all his men demonstrated “outstanding spirit” during the voyage.

This jarring event served to heighten an already unpleasant atmosphere. Like all submarines, the interior of U-86 was gross and uncomfortable; the air reeked of machine oil, food, dirty clothing, and body odours — to save on water, crews didn’t bathe and often wore the same clothes for the entire patrol, which could last weeks. The fact that space was limited in the subs was made worse by the fact that the sub was also crammed — filled with food, fuel, deck gun shells, and other provisions. Adding to the misery, the interior remained consistently humid, regardless of the outside temperature, keeping clothes and bedding permanently moist. At one point, U-86’s batteries became extremely hot, resulting in “oppressive heat and a lack of air” inside the sub, wrote Patzig.

Two days after attacking the Llandovery Castle, Patzig gathered his crew in the cramped sub control room. “Whatever has happened, I take on my conscience before God, and I want you to say nothing about it,” stated Patzig.

He said he would take full responsibility for the attack on the Llandovery Castle, but he told the crew that they were forbidden from talking about the incident to anyone. The sub contained a pair of prisoners from the steamship Atlantian, which U-86 had sunk previously. One prisoner was a British wireless operator named J. Crosby. Patzig repeated his order to the prisoners — do not say anything about a torpedoed hospital ship. The captive men were not in a position to disagree.

Patzig was determined to leave both Allied authorities and his own superiors in the dark. His Kriegstagebuch, which was otherwise packed with details about weather, atmospheric conditions, ships he stalked, and mechanical issues on the sub, omits any reference to the Llandovery Castle. Patzig’s entry for June 27, 1918, offers blasé observations such as “12.00 Noon — Atlantic WNW 3, Sea 3, cloudy — Course 190 degrees” and nothing more.

Patzig even falsified a chart depicting his route. The doctored chart made it seem like the sub was nowhere near the bit of ocean where the Llandovery Castle was torpedoed.

If the mood on the sub was sombre, Patzig’s hunting instincts remained intact.

On July 1, U-86 sank two more vessels — an American troopship called the USS Covington and a British steamer called the SS Origen. These attacks were detailed in Patzig’s war diary, which also included a handwritten tally of successful kills. Four vessels and their estimated tonnage were mentioned in the summary: the Eglantine, the Atlantian, the Covington, and the Origen. The Llandovery Castle was conspicuously absent from the list.

Patzig figured if his war diary wasn’t questioned and everyone kept their mouth shut, no one would find out about the war crime he had committed.

Then, having covered his tracks, “Captain Patzig and his sea wolves” continued their voyage home, wrote Toronto newspaper, the Globe

Editorial Reviews

The sinking of the Llandovery Castle was the worst war crime committed against Canadians in the First World War. The prosecution of this case set the stage for the Nuremberg war crimes trials a generation later. Nate Hendley has done a great job of telling this important story. It’s a part of our history that needs to be remembered.

Mark Bourrie, author of Big Men Fear Me and Bush Runner

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