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Cries from the Deep

A tragedy along the Irish coast

David Marks Shribman

Atrocity on the Atlantic: Attack on a Hospital Ship during the Great War

Nate Hendley

Dundurn Press

240 pages, softcover and ebook

This is a story about an atrocity, and the likelihood that you don’t already know it is itself atrocious. It’s more than a hundred years old, with lessons for the current age. It is a story about tragedy, scandal, cover‑up, and, in time, a small measure of justice. It is not a tale about honour nor one about redemption; instead, it is about war, and seamen in submarines, and mendacity, and the kind of brutal things humans do to one another when they are just following orders, or think they are.

The tragedy occurred in the Atlantic, off the Irish coast, on June 27, 1918, not so very far from the end of the First World War. There are scant heroes here, mostly villains and victims. At the centre of this story are two vessels. One was a chartered hospital ship, operating in the open and above water — its intent entirely peaceful, its procession through the seas protected by international convention, its identity clearly marked by unmistakable symbols. The other was a German submarine, operating primarily under water — its intent menacing and deadly, its path clouded in stealth, its purpose also unmistakable. One tracked down the other, attacked and disabled it, and then shot the men and women who survived the initial assault.

Reminding readers of a German U-boat’s shameful actions during the First World War.


What followed the torpedo strikes was fear — of bullet wounds, of hypothermia and likely death — experienced by those in lifeboats and on rafts. There was also fear on the other side, aboard the submarine. Because the world would be aghast if it learned that submariners had attacked a hospital ship, the men in the German boat gunned down those trying to flee the scene in the cold waters of the North Atlantic, including nursing sisters, as the Canadian women on board were known at the time. Later came a trial in which one of the guiding principles of the next global conflict — the belief that men following commands were exempt from criminal charges if not from moral guilt — would be expressed repeatedly but, in a courtroom and in the annals of ethics, found wanting.

So An Atrocity on the Atlantic, Nate Hendley’s gripping history of HMHS Llandovery Castle, is ultimately about a reckoning. It is more than a submariner tale or the sort of abandon-ship yarn that makes for a full-length film and a haunting award-winning pop song, though both plausibly could someday come of it. It offers another reason to consider the 1914–18 struggle a military and moral catastrophe, though after all these years no new reasons are required. It is a story about war and war crimes, about humankind’s efforts to apply moral standards to its most brutal undertaking, even as today’s newspapers, newscasts, and news outlets provide ample evidence of the futility of such an endeavour.

The drama began innocently enough, with a British passenger liner that had been converted into a hospital ship and staffed by Canadian Army Medical Corps personnel and nursing sisters steaming across the sea to pick up the ill and injured of continental battles in the First World War. As the ship approached Ireland, U‑86 spotted it and torpedoed it, in the (mistaken) belief that American airmen were on board. Such an attack was against the generally accepted (but often flouted) laws of wartime behaviour, so the U‑boat commander ordered the brutal elimination of any evidence of his treachery. 

Hendley, a true-crime writer known for The Beatle Bandit, among other books, has here taken on a moral crime. He provides readers with vivid descriptions of the chaos as the vessel, which already had ferried 3,215 injured Canadians home, teetered on its side in its sixth voyage between Halifax and Great Britain. The account is captivating: men and nursing sisters fighting to avoid being drawn into the whirlpool as their craft sank beneath the sea. Hendley provides an arresting portrayal of how hopelessness and peril shrouded the scene, already a panorama of death. Perhaps most horrifying is the account of a U‑boat circling back to menace those already confronting the most chilling and challenging circumstances.

The submariners were not undertaking a rescue mission. On the contrary: when one of the survivors scrambled aboard the sub that had attacked his ship, four German sailors thrust him back into the water. Shots in the air were followed by threats, and eventually by the slaughter of the innocent. The death toll was 234 — only twenty-four escaped.

There was swift global condemnation, and the Allied world reacted with revulsion. The Guardian weighed in: “The Germans have never allowed considerations of humanity to stand in the way of their military [objectives], or they would never have begun their submarine campaign.” The Philadelphia Inquirer called out “something peculiarly infamous in a stealthy attack on a hospital ship.” And the Toronto Daily News said of the ship, “Her errand was totally unconnected with active warfare. The passengers were all in hospital work. Yet the Captain of the submarine sought to destroy passengers and ship without leaving a soul alive.”

A British inquiry was held. Was the hospital ship carrying American servicemen? No, it was not. Was the Canadian medical officer whom the German crew interrogated in fact an American flight officer traveling illegally on a hospital ship? No, he was not. Did the ship carry munitions? No, it did not. A question that Hendley poses and answers is relevant here: Was the Llandovery Castle the only hospital ship that faced remorseless attack? No, it was not. Five months earlier, after the attack on a British vessel, the Halifax Evening Star had printed a searing headline —“Nurses and Wounded As Targets for Hun Torpedoes”— and written of “German barbarity in the torpedoing of the hospital ship [HMHS] Rewa, made dramatic because the missile of destruction struck her where the Red Cross of Mercy was painted on her side, as if it were a bull’s eye for just such murderous shots.”

In the Leipzig war crimes trials that considered the attack on the Llandovery Castle —  German legal proceedings in 1921 that set a precedent followed at Nuremberg a quarter century later — the Germans insisted that the British routinely abused hospital ships’ wartime exemptions, thus justifying their U‑boat’s assault. This argument, of course, was an artful deflection, for that did not excuse the seaborne slaughter of so many. Additionally, there was no evidence that the ship was taking the sort of evasive action that might have signalled nefarious intent or the presence of armaments on board. Indeed, a question lingered in the air: Why didn’t the U‑boat crew stop and search the Llandovery Castle if they were so convinced that contraband or military personnel were present?

As the trial proceeded, the focus shifted from the initial attack on the ship to the subsequent attacks on its crew and passengers. In their ruling, the justices decried an “offence against the law of nations”:

In war on land the killing of unarmed enemies is not allowed . . . similarly in war at sea, the killing of shipwrecked people who have taken refuge in lifeboats is forbidden. . . . The killing of defenseless shipwrecked people is an act in the highest degree contrary to ethical principles. It must also not be left out of consideration that the deed throws a dark shadow on the German fleet, and specially the submarine weapon which did so much in the fight for the Fatherland.

Then there arose an issue that would have even more relevance in the next war: the obligation of military personnel to refuse to undertake actions that are illegal and that constitute atrocities. The judgment that emerged was unambiguous: following orders to commit a war crime is itself a crime.

The German commander was found guilty of homicide. Two of his lieutenants were sentenced to four years in prison as “accessories” to the crime. No one was happy with the rulings; the Germans considered them too severe, the Allies thought them too light. In time, the two lieutenants would escape from prison; the whole episode would disappear. Weary of war, Canadians were ready to move on. Their attention shifted to the Bolsheviks in Russia and the general strikers in Winnipeg.

This episode did make a brief reappearance in public consciousness through the pages of Charles Yale Harrison’s 1930 novel, Generals Die in Bed. The composer and conductor Stephanie Martin and the playwright Paul Ciufo collaborated on an opera, produced by Toronto’s innovative Bicycle Opera Project and featured on CBC Radio’s Sunday Edition in 2018. But if Canadians have reflected on the First World War, they have generally recalled the glory at Vimy Ridge in April 1917. If their thoughts have turned to disaster, the subject has tended to be the explosion at Halifax eight months after that.

There is one small shard of justice in this affair. It is fitting that despite the disaster on the high seas, several ships were converted into floating hospitals in the Second World War. One of them, commissioned in May 1941, eventually evacuated about 38,000 patients. It too bore the name Llandovery Castle.

David Marks Shribman won a Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting in 1995. He teaches in the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University.