Llandovery Castle

Llandovery Castle

HMHS Llandovery Castle

Leslie Chapman had been a career seafarer; for many years he was a member of the Southampton Master Mariners’ Club (‘The Cachalots’), to whom he bequeathed a great legacy in the form of an autobiography of his life at sea; in particular, it is a crucial piece of documentary evidence of the very human consequence to a merchant navy officer who suffered, and very nearly died, at the hands of Helmut Brümmer-Patzig, who commanded U-86 in the attack on the hospital ship Llandovery Castle.[1]

Leslie had joined Union-Castle Line with a brand-new Master’s Certificate of Competency, as the war clouds were gathering over Europe and, in the summer of 1914, was appointed to the Union-Castle express passenger mailship Balmoral Castle. On the third day of the voyage out of Southampton bound for Cape Town, war was declared and they received instructions to proceed on the voyage but not to show navigation lights, while port holes had to be covered with dead lights, as there were German cruisers about in the South Atlantic. They were to make the voyage back to Southampton in convoy, and Marischal Murray set the scene very well at this time, when there was no fear of merchant ships being sunk by submarine:

The ships themselves were immediately painted grey, but in 1915 when the danger from raiders appeared to have passed, Union-Castle vessels for some months reverted to their peace-time colours. Then the war became more serious, and by 1916 the ships were painted black. About October, 1917, dazzle-painting (camouflage) became compulsory.[2]

Grossing 11,423 tons, Llandovery Castle was not an express liner, but had been the first Union-Castle ship built solely for the East African trade, competing with Ellerman’s fine fleet – as well as the German Ost-Afrika Linie. She had entered service a little earlier in 1914 and, following the outbreak of war continued to serve in peace-time duties for a while before she was requisitioned for trooping duties. Then, on the 26th July 1916, she was commissioned as a hospital ship to serve the Canadian forces, with 622 beds and 102 medical staff evacuating wounded from the Western Front to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Painted white overall, with a bold yellow funnel, green hull stripe and red crosses prominently displayed, there was no mistaking her function, which guaranteed her safety under the Manual of Laws of Naval War, as provided under Article 41:

Military hospital ships, that is to say, ships constructed or assigned by States specially and solely with a view to assisting the wounded, sick and shipwrecked, the names of which have been communicated to the belligerent Powers at the commencement or during the course of hostilities, and in any case before they are employed, shall be respected, and cannot be captured while hostilities last.

Military hospital ships shall be distinguished by being painted white outside with a horizontal band of green about a metre and a half (five feet) in breadth.[3]

Leslie Chapman had been promoted to Second Officer when he was now appointed to Llandovery Castle. He had served in her on her maiden voyage in happier times, and now found that the same Master and Chief Officer were still with her, as on the maiden voyage. They now proceeded to evacuate Canadian troops from Avonmouth to Halifax, Nova Scotia. On the 27th June 1918, they were 116 miles west of Fastnet lighthouse, on the voyage back to Avonmouth to evacuate more patients, with a full complement of medical and nursing staff; the following is written in Leslie’s own words[4]:

Damn! Not a thing in sight, only our own boat bobbing up and down like a cork on a boundless ocean. Only too well had U-86 carried out his plan of wiping out all trace of his dastardly act of sinking a regulation hospital ship. Not content with this, he had done his best to sink all the lifeboats with their occupants. But he did not succeed. Our own boat with 24 men still survived the terrible ordeal.

A few hours previously, in the darkness of the night, the Llandovery Castle had been steaming along, everybody on board thinking she was free from attack, having a band of green lights amounting to approximately 500 lamps, right around the ship, in addition to four illuminated red crosses consisting of 70 red lights, to indicate to friend and foe alike that she was a hospital ship on her errand of mercy, fortunately returning from Canada, with no patients on board.

But this was not the case. At 9.20 pm I suddenly found myself blown out of my bunk and landed on the floor of my cabin. On my rude awakening I did not grasp what had happened until a brother officer came running off the bridge, and said we had been torpedoed. The vessel commenced sinking by the stern quickly and the Captain gave the order to abandon ship, and send an SOS on the wireless. This was not possible, because the apparatus had been smashed by the explosion.  We had a difficult job getting the boats into the water, as the vessel took a starboard list, rendering some of the port boats useless. The ship was still moving through the water, slowly, as we could not use the engines to take the way off her, the torpedo having it us in the engine room, the most vital spot. This put all machinery out of action, including the dynamos. An attempt was made to start the emergency dynamo, but this was situated in the steering engine room right aft; as we got the first flicker of light, her stern went under, and stopped the machinery, so all the boat launching was done in the dark, not making things any easier. We eventually got five boats clear, full of people, two with people in were dragged under, and they were thrown into the water. The Chief Officer met me on the boat deck, and informed me that he had kept an accident boat till the last for the people who had lowered the boats to get away in.

Knowing we did not keep food or water in an accident boat, I did not relish drifting around the Atlantic without these, and said I was going down with the ship; and get it over with. How lucky I was; the boast was never heard of again. Soon after this, I looked over the port side, and saw a boat hanging stem up in a davit, the bow just touching the water; I made for the forward fall fast, just as a man came along, and I explained to him what I intended to do. I lowered the aft fall, and the boat levelled up about three feet clear of the water. I yelled out to lower away at the same time as I did. The launching was successful as the ship was still, in the water, but sinking fast.

All the gear was intact, including water and biscuits, as everything had been lashed to the thwarts, and could not tip out. I then called out as loud as possible, to find out if there were any more people on board, and said I had a boat in the water. Ten men came along, amongst them the Captain, who had stuck to the bridge to the last. The man who had helped me to launch the boat, was a very small bedroom steward, who had never lowered a boat before; he did a wonderful job. At the last moment I remembered George, my pet canary, and dashed back into my room, where, with the help of my torch, I found him amongst the wreckage, still in his cage. I stuck him into a cigarette tin by banding his tail round, fortunately the one I kept his daily supply of seed in so he did not go hungry, and put it into my pocket then rushed back to the boat. We had barely pushed off, when there was a tremendous explosion, the forward funnel crashed down and the vessel stood bolt upright and went down like a stone. I could not help exclaiming at the time, “What a wonderful sight under any other circumstances.” The captain replied, “There goes my ‘diary’, that I have kept all my seafaring life.”  He was over sixty and very sad. The noise was deafening, the boilers bursting, the crockery smashing, and hundreds of tons of coal and sand ballast shifting all at once. But it was over quickly. Ten minutes after the time she was struck, she disappeared beneath the waves, leaving only wreckage floating on the surface, and to lend weirdness to the sight, several calcium lights were burning, attached to lifebuoys, which had floated off as the vessel sank.

So I had seen the last of this fine vessel, in which I had sailed with the same Captain four years previously on her maiden voyage. After the noise had ceased, cries for help could be heard all around us, and we immediately pulled towards the wreckage and started picking people up out of the water. We had succeeded in picking up 12 men – the last one was the Purser, Evans – when I saw a lamp flashing. Thinking it was another boat I answered with my torch. Imagine our surprise on receiving an order to “Come alongside at once you Englishmen.” At the same moment we saw the dark outline of a German submarine coming towards us. I hailed him and told him to wait as we had several people alongside of us in the water. I was answered by the contents of two revolvers, which were fired in the darkness, and we were threatened with, as he called it, the big gun if we didn’t come to him at once. During this time the Captain of the Llandovery, being an elderly man, and a bit shaken, had left things to me, the next senior officer in the boat; he said we had better pull alongside, to avoid any further trouble. Compelled to leave our shipmates to drown, we went alongside the submarine, which proved to be U-86, and in very good English I was ordered to come on board. Not being very anxious to do so I pretended not to hear him. The officer then flashed a torch on to me and said, “Come quickly you, with the white hat, or I will shoot you.” There now being no doubt as to the one he wanted, I hoisted myself onto the U-boat’s deck, my heart I must admit feeling much lower than it usually did. I was immediately questioned about the ship, and the lieutenant showed no surprise when I told him it was a hospital ship, and that there were fourteen nurses adrift in the boats. In the meantime, the Fourth Officer was ordered on board for questioning.

During my cross-examination I inadvertently took the tin with George in it, out of my pocket. This was seized immediately, and I was looking down the muzzle of a revolver, the tin having been mistaken for a bomb. I quickly told him it was a canary, and after making sure, he handed the tin back. Eventually the Fourth Officer and myself were told to get back into the boat, with the parting words, “Don’t get wet, you may be a long time in the boat, but you may not.” While showing us the way with a torch, they suddenly saw the Captain and a Canadian doctor in the boat, and ordered them on board; the doctor was handled rather roughly when being helped on board, and one of his ankles was broken. The Captain said, “Goodbye. You know what course to steer for: Fastnet.” But thank goodness, after questioning them, they were both put back into the boat again. The reason for this soon became obvious. No sooner had we pulled away than the submarine tried to swamp us, and at the same time opened fire at point blank range with his gun, fortunately missing us, as we were too close for his gun to bear. The shell went over our heads, and before he could bear on us again, we were lost in the darkness. Finding other boats, however, he carried out his ghastly work, and as it transpire later, we were the only survivors, numbering twenty four out of a total of two hundred and fifty eight crew and medical staff.

The lifeboat was eventually sighted by a British destroyer, HMS Lysander, which came alongside and they struggled to climb aboard, all in a weak and traumatised state, but were revived with a hot bath and a good meal. Leslie had no idea that hot coffee could taste so good. George was given a much bigger biscuit tin. Leslie’s last words on the incident:

We were the sole survivors, and strangely enough, twelve of us were the last to leave the poor old Llandovery, after getting the other boats away. I was mightily glad to get home and see my wife and new born baby, which at one time, I had given up hopes of doing.

As a post script, after the war, the captain of U-86, Lieutenant Helmut Patzig, and two of his lieutenants, Ludwig Dithmar and John Boldt, were arraigned on charges of war crimes for the Llandovery Castle atrocity. The Allied powers had submitted a list of 900 names of individuals accused of committing war crimes to the German government. The Germans refused to extradite any German citizens to Allied governments for Trial, though, but proposed trying them within the German judicial system, which, perhaps rather lamely, was accepted and, furthermore, just 45 indictments were served out of the 900 names, and only 12 of those actually stood Trial, partly because the Allied criminal prosecution process had no precedent for investigating war criminals and bringing them to Trial, with the result that criminal identification, investigation and the production of evidence within the German process proved very difficult. It is a measure of the severity of the crime of U-86 that, on the 21st July 1921, Dithmar and Boldt were convicted and sentenced for their party in the Llandovery Castle crime. Both were convicted and sentenced to four years imprisonment, but they were both released after just four months in a German prison – which Leslie Chapman described as their ‘escape’ - after their convictions were quashed on appeal on the grounds that the captain was solely responsible[5]. Patzig was able to avoid prosecution as he managed to escape to the ‘Free’ City of Danzig before his Trial and avoided extradition. On the 20th March 1931 his charges were dropped under the Laws of Amnesty. Justice had been humiliated by superior political muscle, although the Leipzig Trials did establish a foothold[6] which would eventually evolve into the International Criminal Court.

Researched and written by MAT volunteer Dr Simon Daniels.

[1] See Daniels, S, 2007, Sea Changes, Southampton Solent University, Southampton
[2] Murray, M, 1953, Union-Castle Chronicle, Longmans, Green & Co, London
[3] Manual of the Laws of Naval War, Ibid
[4] See Daniels, Ibid
[5] Mullins, C, 1921, The Leipzig Trials: An Account of the War Criminals' Trials and Study of German Mentality, Witherby, London
[6] Willis, J, 1982,  Prologue to Nuremberg: The Politics and Diplomacy of Punishing War Criminals of the First World War, Greenwoord Publishing Group
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