One dark night in the summer of 1918, the HMHS Llandovery Castle was steaming through the waters of the North Atlantic. She was far off the southern tip of Ireland, nearly two hundred kilometers from the nearest land. It was a calm night, with a light breeze and a clear sky. The ship had been built in Glasgow and was named after a castle in Wales, but now she was a Canadian vessel. Since the world had been plunged into the bloodiest war it had ever seen, the steamship had been turned into a floating hospital. She was returning from Halifax, where she had just dropped off hundreds of wounded Canadian soldiers. On board were the ship's crew and her medical personnel — including fourteen nurses. They were just a few of more than two thousand Canadian women who volunteered to serve overseas as "Nursing Sisters," healing wounds and saving lives and comforting those who couldn't be saved. As the ship sliced through the water, big red crosses shone out from either side of the hull, bright beacons in the dark. The trip was almost over. Soon, they'd be in Liverpool.But then, without warning, the calm of the night was shattered by a terrible explosion. The ship had been hit by a torpedo. All the lights on board went black. The wireless had been knocked out, too; there would be no S.O.S. And when the captain ordered the engines reversed, there was no reply; the engine room had been hit, the men inside were already dead or wounded. So the ship continued to surge forward into the waves, filling with water as the prow plunged beneath the surface of the ocean. Within minutes it was clear: the Llandovery Castle was doomed.
|Mary Agnes McKenzie|
|HMHS Llandovery Castle|
It took only ten minutes from the time of the explosion to the moment when the last of the Llandovery Castle disappeared beneath the waves. And she took Lifeboat No. 5 with her. Everyone on board was flung into the churning water. The nurses were all wearing life jackets, but most — if not all of them — were probably drowned right away. Sergeant Knight never saw any of them ever again. He was only saved by a lucky explosion — maybe the boilers exploding as the ship sank toward the ocean floor — which propelled him back to the surface. If McKenzie or Douglas or any of the other nurses did survive, they found themselves stranded in the dark waters, clinging to the wreckage as the night's final horrors got underway.
The U-boat wasn't finished yet.
The captain of the submarine had just committed a war crime. It was illegal to attack a hospital ship. The red crosses on the sides of the Llandovery Castle had been brightly lit and easy to see. The Germans hadn't given any warning or tried to board and search the ship first — which would have been within their rights. Instead, they'd simply fired their torpedoes. That was against international law and against the standing orders of the Imperial German Navy. So now, it seems, Captain Patzig was anxious to cover his tracks.
At first, the U-86 submarine seized one of the lifeboats and accused the Canadian crew of harbouring American flight officers or of shipping ammunition. But the crew denied it. And when it became clear they weren't getting anywhere, the Germans let that lifeboat go. As it rowed away to safety, Captain Patzig tried a new approach: the U-boat turned on the other survivors.