Covering Tracks

"The Germans saw an explosion when the ship was hit and insisted that there must have been munitions on board."

After the sinking of LLANDOVERY CASTLE, at least three lifeboats with passengers remained afloat. One of the lifeboats contained the captain of the sunken ship, R.A. Sylvester. As the captain’s boat attempted to pick up survivors swimming in the open ocean or floating on bits of debris, someone on U-86 ordered the captain’s lifeboat to come alongside the German submarine. When the lifeboat did not immediately comply with this request, a warning shot was fired.

A submariner on the U-boat ordered Captain Sylvester on board and accused him of carrying American airmen on LLANDOVERY CASTLE. If true, this would have been a breach of the rules of war. Sylvester denied this charge and told the Germans that he had only been carrying Canadian medical personnel. Another survivor from the lifeboat, a doctor named Major T. Lyon, was also brought on board and questioned. He denied being an American airman and refuted the charge that LLANDOVERY CASTLE had been carrying munitions. Both Sylvester and Lyon returned to the lifeboat, but the U-boat did not leave. After circling for a time, two more officers of LLANDOVERY CASTLE were ordered aboard U-86.

"Rescue ships found no other survivors"

The Germans saw an explosion when the ship was hit and insisted that there must have been munitions on board. The interrogated officers from LLANDOVERY CASTLE disagreed, stating that any explosion was the result of the ship’s boilers exploding due to the torpedo. These officers also returned to the lifeboat, but still the U-boat did not leave.

A short time later, as the captain’s lifeboat drifted on the ocean swells in the darkness, its occupants heard shots fired from the 8.8 cm stern gun mounted on the U-boat. Two shells passed overhead. Another 12 or so shots were fired at other targets: the other surviving lifeboats. 36 hours after the sinking, the 24 occupants of the captain’s lifeboat were rescued by the English Destroyer, Lysander. Despite relatively calm seas and good conditions, rescue ships found no other survivors.

In everyday life, people generally consider it illegal and immoral to kill another human being. However, the killing of human beings is one of the primary goals of warfare. Ordinary rules and laws do not necessarily apply in times of conflict, but nonetheless, there are internationally agreed upon rules of war. These rules, laid out in documents like the Geneva and Hague Conventions, set out expectations of conduct during violent conflict, and are intended to prevent the worst horrors of war. U-86 violated these rules, both in the sinking of LLANDOVERY CASTLE, and in the shooting of survivors in lifeboats.

First-Lieutenant Patzig did not record the sinking of LLANDOVERY CASTLE in the U-boat’s logbook. In addition, the U-boat’s route that day was registered as having been nowhere near where the sinking of LLANDOVERY CASTLE occurred. Finally, on June 28th, 1918, the day after the German U-boat sank the hospital ship, and a member of the crew shot at survivors, Patzig instructed his crew to promise never to speak of the events of the prior day.

Questions:

  1. Do you believe rules of war are necessary?
  2. Why do you think the U-boat demanded to talk to the Captain and three officers of LLANDOVERY CASTLE?
  3. Why do you think First-Lieutenant Patzig instructed his crew never to speak of the sinking of LLANDOVERY CASTLE and the events that followed?

Below is our Forgotten Fallen video, set to start playing at the point where we discuss the ship's sinking and subsequent actions by the U-Boat captain.

For those who prefer a text version, please see a transcript of the segment below:

Dr. MORIN-PELLETIER
LLANDOVERY CASTLE sunk in less than ten minutes. What makes this tragedy even more controversial is the fact that the U-Boat captain was accused of trying to hide the event by firing at the lifeboats and their survivors.

MORIN-PELLETIER (CONT’D)

There were probably three to five remaining lifeboats and in the end only one and passengers were rescued.

The incident became renowned internationally as one of the war's worst atrocities. The twenty-four people in the captain’s lifeboat survived and were rescued days afterwards.