HMHS Llandovery Castle

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HMHS Llandovery Castle
"HM Hospital Ship, Llandovery Castle".png
HM Hospital Ship Llandovery Castle
United Kingdom
NameRMS Llandovery Castle
NamesakeLlandovery Castle
OperatorUnion-Castle Line house flag.svg Union-Castle Line
BuilderBarclay Curle, Glasgow
Yard number504
Launched3 September 1913
CompletedJanuary 1914
FateRequisitioned, 1916
NameLlandovery Castle
Commissioned26 July 1916
FateSunk by SM U-86, 27 June 1918
General characteristics
TypeOcean liner / Hospital ship
Tonnage10,639 GRT
Length500 ft 1 in (152.43 m)
Beam63 ft 3 in (19.28 m)
Speed15 knots (28 km/h; 17 mph)
  • As ocean liner:
  • 429 passengers (213 1st class, 116 2nd class, and 100 3rd class)
  • As hospital ship:
  • 622 beds and 102 medical staff

HMHS Llandovery Castle, built in 1914 in Glasgow as RMS Llandovery Castle for the Union-Castle Line, was one of five Canadian hospital ships that served in the First World War. On a voyage from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Liverpool, England, the ship was torpedoed off southern Ireland on 27 June 1918. The sinking was the deadliest Canadian naval disaster of the war. 234 doctors, nurses, members of the Canadian Army Medical Corps, soldiers and seamen died in the sinking and subsequent machine-gunning of lifeboats. Only 24 people, the occupants on a single life-raft, survived. The incident became infamous internationally and was considered, after the Armenian genocide, as one of the war’s worst atrocities. After the war, the case of Llandovery Castle was one of six alleged German war crimes prosecuted at the Leipzig trials.

Service history[edit]

Llandovery Castle was one of a pair of ships (her sister ship was SS Llanstephan Castle) built for the Union Castle Line, following the company's acquisition by the Royal Mail Line in 1912. The ship was built by Barclay, Curle & Co. in Glasgow, launched on 3 September 1913, and completed in January 1914.[1] Initially sailing between London and East Africa, from August 1914 she sailed on routes between London and West Africa.[2] She was commissioned as a hospital ship on 26 July 1916, and assigned to the Canadian Forces, equipped with 622 beds and a medical staff of 102.[1]


Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Howard MacDonald of Nova Scotia, HMHS Llandovery Castle was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine SM U-86 on 27 June 1918.[3] Firing at a hospital ship was against international law and standing orders of the Imperial German Navy. The captain of U-86, Helmut Brümmer-Patzig, sought to destroy the evidence of torpedoing the ship. When the crew, including nurses, took to the lifeboats, U-86 surfaced, ran down all but one of the lifeboats and machine-gunned many of the survivors.

Only 24 people in one lifeboat survived.

Lt.-Col. Thomas Howard MacDonald.

They were rescued shortly afterwards by the destroyer HMS Lysander and testified as to what had happened.

Only 6 of the 97 hospital personnel survived. Among those lost were fourteen nursing sisters from Canada, including Rena McLean[4] and the Matron Margaret Marjory (Pearl) Fraser, formerly of Nova Scotia (daughter of Duncan Cameron Fraser who served as Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, 1906-1910 ).[5][6]

Sergeant Arthur Knight was on board lifeboat #5 with the nurses. He reported:

Our boat was quickly loaded and lowered to the surface of the water. Then the crew of eight men and myself faced the difficulty of getting free from the ropes holding us to the ship's side. I broke two axes trying to cut ourselves away, but was unsuccessful.

With the forward motion and choppy sea the boat all the time was pounding against the ship's side. To save the boat we tried to keep ourselves away by using the oars, and soon every one of the latter were broken.

Finally the ropes became loose at the top and we commenced to drift away. 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, the boat tipped over sideways, and every occupant went under.

Matron Margaret Marjory (Pearl) Fraser (daughter of Lt. Governor of Nova Scotia Duncan Cameron Fraser).

I estimate we were together in the boat about eight minutes. In that whole time I did not hear a complaint or murmur from one of the sisters. There was not a cry for help or any outward evidence of fear. In the entire time I overheard only one remark when the matron, Nursing Sister M.M. Fraser, turned to me as we drifted helplessly towards the stern of the ship and asked: "Sergeant, do you think there is any hope for us?"

I replied, "No," seeing myself our helplessness without oars and the sinking condition of the stern of the ship.

A few seconds later we were drawn into the whirlpool of the submerged afterdeck, and the last I saw of the nursing sisters was as they were thrown over the side of the boat. All were wearing lifebelts, and of the fourteen two were in their nightdress, the others in uniform.

It was doubtful if any of them came to the surface again, although I myself sank and came up three times, finally clinging to a piece of wreckage and being eventually picked up by the captain's boat.[7]

Afterward, HMS Morea steamed through the wreckage. Captain Kenneth Cummins recalled the horror of coming across the nurses' floating corpses:

We were in the Bristol Channel, quite well out to sea, and suddenly we began going through corpses. The Germans had sunk a British hospital ship, the Llandovery Castle, and we were sailing through floating bodies. We were not allowed to stop - we just had to go straight through. It was quite horrific, and my reaction was to vomit over the edge. It was something we could never have imagined ... particularly the nurses: seeing these bodies of women and nurses, floating in the ocean, having been there some time. Huge aprons and skirts in billows, which looked almost like sails because they dried in the hot sun.[8]

War crimes trial[edit]

After the war, three officers from U-86, Kapitänleutnant Helmut Brümmer-Patzig, and Oberleutnants Ludwig Dithmar and John Boldt, were charged with committing a war crime on the high seas. On 21 July 1921, Dithmar and Boldt were found guilty in one of the Leipzig War Crimes Trials and were both sentenced to four years in prison. The sentences of Dithmar and Boldt were later overturned on the grounds that they were only following orders and that their commanding officer alone was responsible. Patzig, however, had fled to Danzig, then an independent city, and thus was never prosecuted as a result.[9] Outside of Germany, the trials were seen as a travesty of justice because of the small number of cases tried and the perceived leniency of the court.[10] According to American historian Alfred de Zayas, however, "generally speaking, the German population took exception to these trials, especially because the Allies were not similarly bringing their own soldiers to justice."[11] (See Victor's justice.)


The Canadian reaction was typified by Brigadier George Tuxford, former homesteader from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan and commanding officer of the 3rd Infantry Brigade, 1st Canadian Division: "Amongst those murdered were two Moose Jaw nurses, Sister Fraser and Sister Gallagher. I gave instructions to the Brigade that the battle cry on the 8th of August should be "Llandovery Castle," and that that cry should be the last to ring in the ears of the Hun as the bayonet was driven home."[12]

There is a memorial plaque to Matron Margaret Fraser and the 13 other Canadian nurses sponsored by Lady Dufferin was placed at the Nurses House of the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital in London, England.[13]

There are also memorial plaques to the ship at the Stadacona Hospital, CFB Halifax, Nova Scotia, Montreal General Hospital and the Children's Hospital in Halifax, the latter two monuments unveiled by Margaret C. MacDonald.[14]

An opera based on the sinking of the ship premiered in Toronto on the 100th anniversary of the sinking in June 2018.[15] The opera is composed by Stephanie Martin with a libretto by Paul Ciufo,[16] and according to one reviewer "breaks the story down into nine scenes set on the ship and, at the end, in the lifeboats, before the chorus steps out of time to reflect on what we have seen and heard."[17]

Nursing casualties[edit]

Nursing casualties are listed on the Halifax Memorial, Point Pleasant Park, Halifax, Nova Scotia
  • Matron Margaret Marjory (Pearl) Fraser
  • Carola Josephine Douglas.[18]
  • Alexina Dussault.[18]
  • Minnie Aenath Follette.[18]
  • Margaret Jane Fortescue.[18]
  • Minnie Katherine Gallaher.[18]
  • Jessie Mabel McDiarmid.[18]
  • Mary Agnes McKenzie.[19]
  • Christina Campbell.[20]
  • Rena McLean.[18]
  • Mary Belle Sampson.[18]
  • Gladys Irene Sare.[18]
  • Anna Irene Stamers.[21]
  • Jean Templeman.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Union-Castle Mail Steamship Co". 2010. Archived from the original on 30 October 2013. Retrieved 20 January 2014.
  2. ^ Goossens, Reuben (2011). "Union Castle: SS Llandovery Castle". Retrieved 20 January 2014.
  3. ^ Hunt, M. Stuart (1920). Nova Scotia's part in the Great War. Halifax, Nova Scotia: The Nova Scotia Veteran Publishing Co. Ltd. pp. 409–410. Retrieved 20 January 2014. MacDonald went overseas January, 1915, unattached, with the rank of Major. He was first attached to the Canadian Convalescent Hospital at Bearwood Park. From there he went to Bath, thence to Moore Barracks Hospital, and was later appointed Medical Examiner of the Pension Board, London. He went to France as Medical Officer of a Labor Battalion. He was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and received the appointment of Commanding Officer of the medical personnel of the Hospital Ship Landovery Castle. Lieutenant-Colonel Macdonald was drowned.
  4. ^ "Biography – McLEAN, RENA MAUDE – Volume XIV (1911-1920) – Dictionary of Canadian Biography". Retrieved 14 June 2022.
  5. ^ She was born in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. She was living in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan when she signed up. There was great outrage in Moose Jaw about the manner of her death. (see below)
  6. ^ "Matron Margaret Marjory Fraser". Canadian Great War Project. 2014. Retrieved 20 January 2014.; Edmonton Bulletin, 2 July 1918
  7. ^ "The Sinking of the Llandovery Castle". The Great War Primary Documents Archive. 2012. Retrieved 20 January 2014.
  8. ^ "Obituary: Kenneth Cummins". The Independent. 18 December 2006. Archived from the original on 1 October 2007.
  9. ^ "Patzig's fate? Patzig's fate?". Retrieved 15 January 2011.
  10. ^ Yarnall 2011, pp. 194–5.
  11. ^ de Zayas, Alfred-Maurice (1989). The Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau, 1939-1945. University of Nebraska Press. p. 5. ISBN 0-8032-9908-7.
  12. ^ McWilliams, James L.; Steel, R. James (2001). Amiens: Dawn of Victory. Toronto: Dundurn Press. p. 31. ISBN 1-55002-342-X.
  13. ^ "Nursing Sisters Who Died Overseas Have Memorial in London Hospital". The Montreal Gazette. 17 September 1938. p. 6. Retrieved 20 January 2014.
  14. ^ Suttie, Margaret (2008). "World War I Honor Roll". The Alumnae Association of the Montreal General Hospital School of Nursing. Retrieved 20 January 2014.
  15. ^ Szklarski, Cassandra (8 November 2017). "Opera to focus on Great War nurses 100 years after hospital ship sinking". National Post. The Canadian Press. Retrieved 20 April 2018.
  16. ^ "About". Bicycle Opera Group. Retrieved 27 June 2018.
  17. ^ Gilks, John. "Review: The Llandovery Castle brings "real emotional power" to premier performance in Toronto". Opera Canada. Retrieved 20 February 2019.
  18. ^ a b c d e f g h i "World War I Canadian Dead (27 June 1918)". Canada at War. p. 1. Retrieved 19 December 2014.
  19. ^ Profitt, Vicki (6 July 2012). "Mary Agnes McKenzie, Lost on the Llandovery Castle". Illuminated History. Retrieved 20 January 2014.
  20. ^ "Nursing Sister Christina Campbell". 22 January 2010. Retrieved 20 January 2014.
  21. ^ a b "World War I Canadian Dead (27 June 1918)". Canada at War. p. 2. Retrieved 19 December 2014.

Further reading[edit]

  • Dianne Dodd. Canadian Military Nurse Deaths in the First World War. Canadian Bulletin of Medical History. Vol. 34, No. 2. 2016.
  • Cynthia Toman, "Sister Soldiers of the Great War: The Nurses of the Canadian Army Medical Corps." UBC Press. 2016.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 51°18′00″N 009°54′00″W / 51.30000°N 9.90000°W / 51.30000; -9.90000