Needless casualties of war

History for the curious with John G. McKay

Published on January 31, 2014

On June 27, 1918 His Majesty's Canadian Hospital Ship Llandovery Castle was steaming fully illuminated at 9:30 p.m. 114 miles southwest of Fastnet Rock, inbound for Liverpool when she crossed paths with German U-boat SM U-86 commanded by Oberleutnant Helmut Brummer-Patzig.

There is little doubt that Brummer-Patzig knew he had encountered a hospital ship, and knew that firing upon her was against international law, and standing orders of Kaiserliche Marine, the German naval high command. Nonetheless, a single torpedo struck the ship just abaft the engines at Hold #4, inflicting mortal damage.

The explosion killed or injured the engine room crew and destroyed communication with the bridge, but it didn't shut down the engines, which kept the ship moving forward.

HMCHS Llandovery Castle was a 10,639-ton steamer commissioned by the Canadian government to transport war casualties from Liverpool to Halifax. She carried 622 beds served by a medical staff of 102, including a Ward Matron and 13 nursing sisters. Her civilian crew numbered 164.

Despite the fact that Llandovery Castle was painted white, had the mandatory broad green stripe right round the ship below her boat deck, and displayed large red crosses on either side of her funnel, with red crosses painted at intervals on the green stripe, all of which was brightly illuminated at night, Brummer-Patzig deliberately torpedoed her.

Because the crippled ship was still moving, lifeboats were launched but encountered great difficulty unfastening the rope falls that were kept under strain by the moving ship once they reached the water. Sgt. A. Knight of the Canadian Army Medical Corp took charge of the launching of #5 lifeboat, which contained 9 men and all 14 nursing sisters. Sgt. Knight later testified that they hastily loaded the boat and lowered it, but could not free it from the ropes. He broke the boat's axe trying to cut the ropes, and then they broke all of the oars trying to hold the boat away from the sinking ship. When the ropes finally freed themselves from the pulleys topside, the boat drifted toward the stern of the ship, which was just going under.

Helpless without oars, the lifeboat was drawn into the vortex of the sinking stern and capsized, throwing everyone into the water. After three unsuccessful attempts at remaining on the surface, Sgt. Knight finally grasped a piece of floating debris. Although everyone was wearing a life vest, there was no sign of anyone from the lifeboat on the surface.

When the ship sank, it was seen that other lifeboats had got off, but by that time U-86 had surfaced nd was ranging among the lifeboats. Finally, Brummer-Patzig ordered his crew to ram the lifeboats and machinegun the survivors in the water. One boat, the captain's boat, escaped into the descending darkness by raising its sail and speeding away from the scene. Sgt. Knight was picked up by the captain's boat and later testified that about 20 shells were fired by the U-boat's deck gun at the lifeboats still on the surface. Of the 266 personnel on the ship, 24 survived.

Three of the nursing sisters were from the Maritimes: Matron Margaret Marjory Fraser, age 33, Born in New Glasgow, was the daughter of Lieutenant Governor Duncan Cameron Fraser; Nursing Sister Minnie Follette, age 33, born in Port Greville; and Nursing Sister Rena McLean, age 38, born in Souris P.E.I. None of the 14 nursing sisters survived.


John G. McKay is an Amherst resident who has written numerous short novels on the history.