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Llandovery Castle

The Sinking of the Canadian Hospital Ship

One 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, on 27 June, 1918 (Macphail 236). 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 (Macphail 236).

According to the Hague Convention, an enemy vessel had the right to stop and search a Hospital Ship, but not to sink it. U-86 made no attempt to search the ship, but rather torpedoed it.

Even though the Llandovery Castle sank within ten minutes, a number of boats were lowered successfully and the ship was abandoned in a calm and efficient manner. Three lifeboats ultimately survived the sinking of the vessel undamaged and proceeded to rescue survivors from the water. They were interrupted by U-86’s commander, First-Lieutenant Helmut Patzig, who intercepted the boats and started interrogating crew members to obtain proof of the misuse of the hospital ship as an ammunition carrier (Macphail 236). When no proof could be obtained, Patzig gave the command to make clear for diving and ordered the crew below deck.

Patzig, his first and second officers, Ludwig Dithmar and John Boldt, and the boatswain’s mate, Meissner, stayed on deck. The U-boat did not dive, but started firing at the life boats in order to kill all witnesses and cover up what had happened. In his effort to conceal this event, Patzig extracted promises of secrecy from the crew, and faked the course of U-86 in the logbook so that nothing would connect U-86 with the sinking of the Llandovery Castle.

Only one lifeboat survived the attack. It was picked up by the destroyer Lysander on the morning of 29 June, 36 hours after the attack. Twenty-four people survived both the sinking of the Llandovery Castle and the attack on the lifeboats, including six members of the Canadian Army Medical Corps (Macphail 236). All 14 Nursing Sisters on board lost their lives (Macphail 361).

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 as accessories (Macphail 236). The men were sentenced to four years of hard labour, but escaped while en route to the prison. It is unclear if they were ever recaptured, but it is certain that they never served more than four months.

Extracts from the official report, as printed in Our Bit: Memories of War Service By a Canadian Nursing Sister, by N.S. Mabel B. Clint can be found here.

The Canadian Survivors

The six Canadians that survived, along with 18 of the Llandovery Castle crewmen.

The Canadians Who Lost Their Lives

The Canadian Army Medical Corps personnel who lost their lives in the attack on the Llandovery Castle are as follows.


Nursing Sisters:

Enlisted Men:

(Macphail 361-374)

Extracts from the Official Account of the sinking

Deliberate in its conception, every circumstance connected with the incident reveals the German in the light of the cunning murderer, who employs every foul means to destroying all trace of his despicable crime… systematic attempts of the sub-marine to ram, shell and sink the lifeboats, and wreckage, on which floated helplessly the 248 unfortunate victims, 116 miles from land, off the coast of Ireland…. only one boat with 24 survivors escaped. Six were saved out of 97 C.A.M.C. personnel…. A stirring record of the perfect discipline of all ranks, and the loading of the lifeboats in the face of every possible obstacle… Official verification of the facts confirms the supreme devotion and valiant sacrifice of the medical personnel and the ship's company, whose courage and resignation were in keeping with the proudest traditions of the Army and Merchant Marine Services…. This crime surpassed in savagery the already formidable array of murders of non-combatants by the Germans…

The ship went down within ten minutes of being struck, and for upwards of two hours the submarine repeatedly attempted to blot out all traces of the deed by rushing to and fro among the wreckage, and firing twenty shells or more from the large gun they carried. Three efforts were made to run down the boat that escaped, after shelling it. The hour was 9.30 P.M. Without any warning a terrific explosion wrecked the after part of the ship, killed the engine room crew and all lights went out. The scene was appalling. On all sides survivors were crying for help… The submarine commander ordered one boat to leave the drowning, and put a C.A.M.C officer on board his vessel… (The enemy later fired into and sank several boats.) One man who climbed on to the submarine was thrown off the deck.… The 'U' boat remained on the spot for two hours, and made no response whatever to the cries for help coming from all directions.

“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. 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." (Story of the Sergeant in charge of the boat, who sank three times, but was Rescued.)

Through all this record, nothing stands out more brilliantly than the coolness and courage of the Sisters, whose sacrifice under the conditions described will serve to inspire men and women throughout the Empire with a yet fuller sense of appreciation of the deep debt of gratitude this nation owes to the Nursing service.

Works Cited:

B: Macphail, Andrew. Official History of the Canadian Forces in the Great War 1914-19: The Medical Services. Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1925. link

N: Andrew Macphail, Official History of the Canadian Forces in the Great War 1914-19: The Medical Services (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1925),

SN: Macphail, Official History of the Canadian Forces in the Great War 1914-19,

Links to more information on the Llandovery Castle:

Newspaper Transcripts

Sinking of the Llandovery Castle

The War Crime Trial - Llandovery Castle. Excerpt from The Leipzig Trials, by Claud Mullins, which describes the War Crime Trials of the U-Boat crew who sank the Llandovery Castle.

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Last Updated: February 2000.