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castleHMHS Llandovery Castle

The most feared ship in the German fleet was the shadowy U-Boat. The Germans used submarines to great effect during the Great War, striking warships and supply vessels alike. Allied propagandists sometimes drew on the fear of these vessels, shining a light on the most infamous attacks for their bond and recruitment campaigns. While today most people can recall the sinking of the Lusitania, it was not the only submarine attack to outrage the Allied world. Take, for instance, the Llandovery Castle.

The Llandovery Castle was a former passenger liner converted into a Canadian hospital ship. Because of Germany’s unrestricted submarine operations, hospital ships bringing the wounded across the Channel stopped displaying the regulation Red Cross marks and sailed under escort by British P-class patrol boats. However, until almost the end of the war, hospital ships that used the Atlantic and other routes outside recognized danger zones continued to sail under the Red Cross and shined their bright lights at night. They sailed without escort, were unarmed, and never carried non-wounded troops or munitions of war, even though the Germans accused them of doing so.

The Llandovery Castle was bound for Liverpool from Halifax, Nova Scotia. She was not carrying any patients but did have 258 crewmembers and medical personnel onboard, including 14 nurses. The ship was properly marked as a hospital ship in accordance with international law. At 9:30pm on June 27, 1918, 116 miles southwest of Fastnet Rock in Ireland, U-86, commanded by Kapitanleutnant Patzig, fired a single torpedo, striking the Llandovery Castle’s Number 4 hold and sinking her within ten minutes. The explosion extinguished all of the lights and destroyed the Marconi, thus preventing any S.O.S. signal from being sent out.

Shortly after the Llandovery Castle sank, U-86 surfaced and watched the cluster of lifeboats for a few minutes before the U-boat commander ordered the Llandovery Castle’s Captain Sylvester to come alongside. Kapitanleutnant Patzig alleged that there were eight American aviators on board but Captain Sylvester was quick to refute the claim. He explained that the vessel had been a hospital ship and pointed out that there were seven Canadian medical officers in the lifeboat with him. After some disagreement, U-86 turned away from Captain Sylvester’s lifeboat, gliding slowly toward the others before gaining speed. According to the English poet Sir Henry Newbolt, author of The Naval History of the Great War (1920), Patzig “took his U-boat on a smashing-up cruise among the survivors and by hurling it hither and thither he succeeded in ramming and sinking all the boats and rafts except one (the master’s boat) which escaped. The survivors in this boat heard the sound of gunfire behind them for some time (and) it can only be conjectured that the murderers were finishing up their work with shrapnel.” Captain Sylvester’s boat, with the 24 survivors onboard, was eventually picked up 50 miles from shore but no trace was ever found of the remaining 234 souls.

After the U-boat commander responsible for torpedoing the Dover Castle hospital ship was found innocent during the 1921 Leipzig war trials, the Reichsgericht initiated its own case on its own account concerning the sinking of the Llandovery Castle, as if to compensate the British. With U-boat commander Patzig safely in exile, the court found two subordinates guilty of not intervening when the captain ordered the crew to fire on the survivors.

The Canadian poster “Victory Bonds Will Help Stop This” (1918), part of the Arts of the Great War collection, shows the image of the torpedoed Llandovery Castle and a survivor cursing the U-boat behind him as he holds a fallen nurse. At the bottom of the poster reads “Kultur vs. Humanity.” Allied wartime propaganda characterized German kulture (culture) as cruel, destructive, and out of touch with civilized values.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Canadian War Museum. “Propaganda Posters: Kultur vs. Humanity.” Accessed August 31, 2011. http://www.civilization.ca/cwm/exhibitions/guerre/pdf/4-b-2-a-resourcespropaganda-posters_e.pdf

Gray, Edwyn A. The U-Boat War 1914-1918. London: Leo Cooper, 1972.

Horne, John and Alan Kramer. German Atrocities 1914: A History of Denial. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

Knight, E.F. The Union Castle and the War 1914-1919. London: Union-Castle, 1920.

IN THE COLLECTION

Poster:

197B “Victory Bonds Will Help Stop This,” Unsigned, Canada, Victory Bonds, 24×36

Books:

Gray, Edwyn A. The U-Boat War 1914-1918. London: Leo Cooper, 1972.

Horne, John and Alan Kramer. German Atrocities 1914: A History of Denial. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

Arts of the Great War Collection