I first encountered the story of His Majesty’s Hospital Ship (HMHS) Llandovery Castle while doing online research about the First World War. I came across a reference to the Leipzig War Crimes Trials—the forgotten attempt to bring German war criminals to justice in the early 1920s. To my surprise, one of the pivotal cases involved a Canadian hospital ship called the Llandovery Castle. Surprise turned to astonishment when I discovered the Llandovery Castle ruling set an epochal precedent that was regularly cited in Nazi-era war crime prosecutions.
None of the history books I had devoured since childhood ever mentioned the Llandovery Castle or the Leipzig Trials.
How could such an important story disappear from memory, I wondered?
In addition to being a history buff, I’m a journalist and author. I decided to write a book to renew interest in the Llandovery Castle tragedy.
Here’s a summary: On the evening of June 27, 1918, a Canadian hospital ship called the Llandovery Castle was torpedoed without warning by German U-boat 86 off the coast of Ireland.
Most of the British crew and Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC) personnel on board survived the initial blast. The surfaced sub approached survivors huddled in lifeboats and demanded to speak with them. Llandovery Castle captain Edward Sylvester was ordered onto the deck of the U-boat.
“You were carrying eight American flight officers,” stated an English-speaking submariner.
No, said Captain Sylvester. The Llandovery Castle was heading to Britain to pick up wounded Canadian soldiers for a voyage home to recuperate. As per the Hague Conventions—prewar treaties that tried to regulate warfare—the Llandovery Castle was painted white, brightly lit, and featured prominent red crosses. It didn’t have any armed men, munitions, or armaments, on board, all of which would be treaty violations.
After questioning more survivors, U-boat commander Helmut Patzig conceded that the Llandovery Castle wasn’t carrying American air men. This meant, he was in violation of Hague rules, which forbade the sinking of hospital ships. To conceal his war crime, Patzig had the submarine deck gun shell the lifeboats. He hoped to kill all the survivors, but a single lifeboat containing 24 men escaped to bear witness.
The attack shocked the world: “Hospital Ship Willfully Sunk” read the front page to the San Francisco Examiner. The Philadelphia Inquirer called Patzig an “inhuman monster.”
U-86 crewmen would later testify that they knew the Llandovery Castle was a hospital ship, but were convinced it was transporting U.S. pilots, making it a legitimate target in their eyes.
How they came to this conclusion remained an open question.
Did German spies pass on false information about American pilots hitching rides on hospital ships, as some newspapers speculated? A piece published in the Evening Star of Halifax prior to the sinking offered an alternative explanation. When the U.S. was still neutral, American volunteers sometimes traveled to Europe on passenger ships to work as pilots for Allied nations, wrote the Star. German authorities, who thought this practice was still in place, apparently conflated “passenger ships” with “hospital ships” and a wartime myth was born.
Following the war’s end, the Treaty of Versailles called for trials of German war criminals by Allied tribunals. Fearing revolution would break out if it acceded to this demand, the shaky postwar government in Berlin offered a compromise. Germany would host its own war crime trials at the Supreme Court in Leipzig. The Allies could provide a list of suspects and evidence.
Britain, France, and Belgium reluctantly agreed (the U.S. played little part in the proceedings, having returned to isolationism after the war). One of the handful of cases heard in Leipzig involved the Llandovery Castle.
Since Patzig couldn’t be tracked down, German police arrested two of his lieutenants, John Boldt and Ludwig Dithmar. Both men had been ordered to stay on top of the U-boat after Patzig told other crew members to go below decks.
After torpedoing the Llandovery Castle, U-86 surfaced and ran down all but one of the lifeboats and machine-gunned many of the survivors. A single lifeboat containing 24 men escaped to bear witness.
Boldt and Dithmar were accused of participating in the shelling of the lifeboats. When their trial opened July 12, 1921, the lieutenants insisted they were duty-bound to heed Patzig’s word.
“I obeyed my commander. His orders were law. I am not guilty,” testified Boldt.
The German Supreme Court did not agree.
“The firing on the boats was 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,” stated the justices in their ruling.
While Patzig instigated the shelling, “[his] order does not free the accused from guilt … a subordinate obeying [an] order is liable to punishment if it was known to him that the order of the superior involved the infringement of civil or military law … it was perfectly clear to the accused that killing defenseless people in lifeboats could be nothing else but a breach of the law,” added the court.
Boldt and Dithmar were both convicted and sentenced to four years in prison (they quickly escaped from jail, however, with the help of supporters).
A 1918 Canadian propaganda poster used the sinking of Llandovery Castle as a focal point for selling Victory Bonds.
Despite the lenient sentences, two significant principles were established by the Leipzig court: war crimes should be judged by international standards and “following orders” was not a legitimate defense. These precedents helped shape the Constitution of the International Military Tribunal (IMT), created to prosecute the top Nazi leadership in Nuremberg after World War Two.
“The fact that the defendant acted pursuant to [an] order of his Government or of a superior shall not free him from responsibility but may be considered in mitigation of punishment if the Tribunal determines that justice so requires,” read Article 8 of the IMT constitution.
The “following orders” defense was also disavowed at the Einsatzgruppen Trial of accused SS death squad members, held before an American military tribunal in 1947.
Soldiers are not obliged to obey “palpably criminal” orders, a dictum that had been “concisely set forth in the decision of the Supreme Court at Leipzig in the Llandovery Castle case,” stated American Brigadier General Telford Taylor.
Taylor acted as chief legal counsel for the prosecution at the Einsatzgruppen Trial and the Hostages Trial (which focused on Nazi brutality in occupied regions and was also heard by an American military tribunal). He served a similar role at the IMT proceedings. In all cases, the superior orders defense was rejected by the courts and most defendants were sentenced to death or prison.
For all this, the Llandovery Castle was soon forgotten, due in part to tragedy overload, and timing.
Seven months before the Llandovery Castle was attacked, two ships, one carrying war supplies, collided in Halifax Harbour, causing a huge blast that killed or maimed thousands of residents. People can only process so much grief, so the Halifax Explosion became the wartime tragedy that Canadians remember, not the Llandovery Castle.
The Llandovery Castle has long been overshadowed by the Lusitania, a British passenger liner that was also torpedoed by a German U-boat. While the Llandovery Castle was attacked late in the war, the Lusitania was sunk in May, 1915, giving the Allies years to use the tragedy for propaganda purposes. Over 120 American passengers died, and the sinking help prod the U.S. to eventually join the war effort. The Lusitania was immortalized in speeches, posters, films, documentaries, books, and articles, while the Llandovery Castle faded from memory.
The court ruling on the Llandovery Castle case continues to impact international law and military conduct, however. The International Criminal Court (ICC), established in the late 1990s to prosecute war criminals around the world, specifically rejects the superior orders defense.
“The fact that a crime within the jurisdiction of the Court has been committed by a person pursuant to an order of a Government or of a superior, whether military or civilian, shall not relieve that person of criminal responsibility,” states Article 33 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the treaty that authorized the ICC’s work.
Like the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, the ICC constitution was preceded by a court ruling about a wartime attack on a Canadian hospital ship, a fact I hope to highlight in my book.
Nate Hendley is a Toronto-based journalist and author. His website at www.natehendley.ca offers more details about his books and background. Nate’s latest book, Atrocity on the Atlantic, tells the story of the Llandovery Castle. It will be published by Dundurn Press in February 2024. Atrocity on the Atlantic can be pre-ordered at:
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