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Forgotten Wrecks of the First World War

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On 17th April 1917, HMHS Lanfranc set out from Le Havre to Southampton carrying 234 wounded British soldiers & 167 wounded German prisoners of war. She carried 52 medical staff & there were 123 ship’s crew.

At about 19:40, when the Lanfranc was about 1/3 the way through her journey, she was struck by a torpedo on the port side between the engine room and number 3 hold.  The engines were immediately stopped as the ship listed to port, settled rapidly by the stern, and then slowly came again into an upright position.  The master gave the order to prepare lifeboats and to abandon ship.

Three of her boats were smashed by the explosion.  Both escorts were within about a mile of her at the time, one on either bow, and while P37 closed the LANFRANC, the BADGER searched for the submarine (now known to be SM UB-40 under the command of Oblt. Hans Howaldt (Pour le Mérite) which evaded capture.

As the Lanfranc was at the time of the explosion steaming 14 knots, it would have been dangerous to lower her boats at once.  As soon, however, as she had lost sufficient way, one boat at a time was lowered on each side, eight boats getting away safely.  Unfortunately one boat on the starboard side sank stern first, and nearly all the occupants were thrown into the sea, but were picked up later by lifeboats from the BADGER or sailing trawlers.   Both escorts had by this time come alongside, and at very great risk, owing to the condition of the Lanfranc and the high seas running, had been embarking the wounded passengers, both British and German.

Of the 576 persons onboard that evening only 34 lost their lives, 14 British wounded, 15 German wounded and 5 crew, the Hospital Ship Lanfranc had sunk in just over 1 hour.  

The sinking was vigorously reported in the British press; with much play given to the fact that the attack was without warning and the HMHS Lanfranc was specifically painted in accordance with the Hague Convention (unlike transport ships which had no distinguishing markings).

Researched and written by Andrew Daw (MAT HLF Forgotten Wrecks Volunteer).