The Union-Castle Line and the War

This excert was contributed by Lori Douglas.





by--E. F. KNIGHT

Published by--The Union-Castle Mail Steamship Co. Ltd.
3 & 4 Fenchurch Street, E.C.
London, 1920


One of the great works done by the steamship companies in the war consisted in the fitting and manning of many of their vessels as hospital ships. In consequence of the enemy's unrestricted submarine operations the hospital ships that used to bring the wounded across the Channel (English Channel) ceased to display the regulation Red Cross marks, and, under the new designation of ambulance transports, sailed under escort, comouflaged and armed like ordinary transports. From Havre they used to cross the Channel in a steady stream, brining the cot cases from the Western front to Southampton. The Union-Castle ships in the course of the war brought a total of 354,400 British wounded and over 9,000 enemy wounded into Southampton. The German submarines kept a sharp look out for vessels following this important route.

The ambulance transports, whether outward or homeward bound, used to sail by night only: for example, one would leave Havre early in the night and reach Spithead before the following dawn. The principal danger of the Channel crossing lay rather in the chances of collision than of enemy attack. These transports had to cross the routes of both the down-Channel and up-Channel traffic, and, of course, neither they nor the ships whose path they traversed displayed a glimmer of light. Captains who in the war had been engaged in all sorts of work---trooping in the Mediterranean, sailing for seven weeks on end in a slow convoy from South American ports, dodging enemy raiders on the coast of Terra del Fuego in unarmed cargo ships, and so forth----regarded this cross-Channel transport work with a ship-load of helpless cot cases as the hardest and most anxious work of all. There was little rest for them. One liner captain told me that he had once been twenty-one successive nights on the bridge when commanding an ambulance transport, going across the Havre on one night and returning the next. For at that particular time many of the ambulance transports had been injured by collision, and were being repaired; moreover, a big battle was in progress and the wounded were pouring into Havre.

The ambulance transports were escorted by P boats, which may be described as miniature destroyers used for escorting and patrolling. The bulk of the men who manned them had been taken form the merchant service. They could do their 25 knots in fine weather; but were too small to hold their own in the teeth of really heavy weather.

On the other hand, up to almost the close of the war the hospital ships that used the Atlantic and other routes that were outside the recognised danger zones still sailed under the Red Cross--with huge red crossed painted on both sides and at night showing the bright lights that distinguish this service. They sailed without escort, were unarmed, and, of course, never carried troops or munitions of war, though they were accused of doing so by the Germans, whose method it was on land or sea to excuse the neutrals of their own frightfulness by stating that we had set them the example. In the Mediterranean, too, our hospitals ships continued to sail under the Red Cross, but in their case a Spanish officer used to be taken on board at Gibraltar and accompanied a ship while she was transporting wounded men, serving as a guarantee to the Hun that nothing illegitimate would be done.

But towards the close of the war, realizing that their submarine campaign was a failure, the Hun ran amuck on the seas and committed objectless atrocities in a spirit savage malice. In our East Coast ports they will not forget how in July, 1918, a submarine sank two of our smacks off Lowestoft, took the crews on board, and, after depriving them of their lifebelts and destroying the smacks' boats, dived, leaving the fishermen on deck. Happily they were not all drowned, and some were rescued to tell the tale. In the same spirit the Huns sank our hospitals ships sailing under the Red Cross, and in some cases murdered the survivors who had taken to the boats.

Take the case of the GLENART CASTLE, of the Union-Castle line. Earlier in the war she had been struck by a mine or a torpedo off the Owers while carrying wounded from Havre to Southhampton. But in that occasion no lives were lost. All on board were safely transferred to boats, and the ship, in a sinking condition, was taken in tow, was brought into the dry dock at Portsmouth just as she was about to go down, and was salved. After she had been repaired she was removed from the cross-Channel route and was employed as a hospital ship in the Atlantic. At about four in the morning, February 26th, 1918, when in the neighbourhood of Lundy Island, outward bound, she was struck by a torpedo. She had all her Red Cross lights burning brightly. There could be no mistaking her. She sank in five minutes. So quickly had the disaster come that several of the boats which were lowered could not be cast off in time and were dragged down with the sinking ship. Practically all the crew, medical officers, and nurses, were precipitated into the water, many of them to cling on to the rafts that had been put over the side. The submarine was seen to come up, and she passed within 50 feet of some of the rafts, two officers being visible on the conning tower. About twelve hours later some of the survivors were picked up from the rafts by an American destroyer and a French vessel. Out of the 200 men and women in the ship 38 only were saved. It is believed that the submarine attacked the survivors in some of the boats or rafts, for bodies were found with wounds on them that could only have been inflicted by firearms.

The Union-Castle hospital ship LLANDOVERY CASTLE, bound from Halifax, Nova Scotia, for Liverpool, was torpedoed on June 27th, 1918, 114 miles south-west of the Fastnet Rock. She had 258 people on board, including 94 medical officers and nursing sisters of the Canadian Medical Staff. It was 9:30 p.m., a fine but dark night. The ship was displaying the regulation Red Cross lights. The explosion extinguished all the lights and wrecked the Marconi, so no S.O.S. signal could be sent out. Captain Sylvester, who was on the bridge, signalled to the engine-room, but got no reply. The torpedo had struck the after end of the engine-room, and had made it impossible to put the engines astern so as to stop the ship's way. This of course, made it dangerous to launch the boats, but it had to be done, as the ship was sinking rapidly. At least two of the boats were broken and swamped along the ship's side, but sufficient to accommodate the survivors seem to have got away. When it was reported to the captain that all others had left the ship he with the remaining ten men got into a boat and lowered themselves aft. They pulled away as hard as possible, but when they were only fifty feet from the ship her stern went under, her boilers blew up, her bow stood up in the air, and she went down--about ten minutes after the torpedo had struck her.

The captain's boat was now pulling to and fro among the wreckage picking up survivors. Among these was the purser, who had swam off to one of the boats containing several people. She had been injured in the launching, and while he was holding on to her side she sank and rolled over on top of him; but he got clear and swam till he was sighted by the captain's boat. The submarine now came up and ordered the boat to come alongside. The boat's occupants, before obeying the order, were endeavouring to reach and save some others who were struggling in the water. But the order was repeated in a peremptory fashion, two revolver shots were fired at the boat, and a Hun officer shouted that he would "fire the big gun" at her if there was not prompt obedience. So the boat was compelled to desist from the work of rescue and went alongside the submarine. The captain was taken on board, and the Hun commander said to him "You have eight American flight officers on board." Captain Sylvester denied this and explained that he had only members of the Canadian Medical Staff with him. One of these, Captain Lyon, was in the boat, and he was dragged on board the submarine with such brutal roughness that his foot was broken. He was accused of being a flight officer and denied it. Captain Sylvester was then asked if he had wirelessed. He replied that he had been unable to do so. Then he and Captain Lyon were allowed to return to the boat, probably owing to the intervention of the German second officer, who seemed friendly. He assisted Captain Sylvester to get into the boat, and said to him, "Get away quickly. It will be better for you."

The boat pulled away, and then the submarine acted in a strange manner. She dashed to and fro at full speed, probably among the other boats full of survivors; but it was too dark to see from the captain's boat what was happening. The submarine came alongside once more and this time the German's charge was that the LLANDOVERY CASTLE had carried ammunition. This was denied. Then the submarine went away and resumed her strange manoeuvres. In the course of these she charged down on the boat at full speed, as if to run her down, and narrowly missed her. After this the submarine went away to the northward. Her commander, by the way, had been heard to ask his officers in which directions the other boats had gone, and they had replied to the north. When about a mile off the submarine stopped and fired a shell, which passed over the boat. Then she fired about twelve shells in other directions, presumably at the other boats.

Not one of these other boats was heard of again. Out of the 258 souls who had been on the LLANDOVERY CASTLE the 24 in the captain's boat were the sole survivors. Destroyers were sent later to the scene of the disaster, but found no trace of these boats. The weather had remained quite fine, and the boats, if unmolested, would have reached the coast or would have been picked up on the way. The obvious presumption is that the Germans sank the boats and left their occupants to drown. The survivors in the captain's boat were picked up by a destroyer about thirty-five hours after the disaster, 41 miles from Fastnet.

Last Updated: 10 October, 2000.

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