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Fewer than 30 survived torpedo attack on hospital boat; Almost 100 years ago to the day, a British hospital ship departed a South Wales dock carrying around 180 injured troops and medical personnel, including men from Bridgend, the Rhondda and Newport. Tragically, just 29 survived after the steamship was torpedoed by an enemy German U-Boat, as Tony Peters and Roy Dowell report.

ANYONE in Cardiff, Barry and Newport watching the Bristol Channel on the evening of February 25, 1918, would have seen quite a remarkable sight in the form of a ship brightly illuminated with red and green lights along its length heading for the open sea.

With the constant threat from German submarines, shipping in this area usually had to proceed with the utmost caution, and certainly did not advertise its presence.

However, one vessel which had just left Newport en route to Brest, France, was no ordinary ship.

The brightly painted white hull, the large red cross painted amidships and the green band running the length of the ship signified that she was His Majesty's Hospital Ship Glenart Castle. Equipped to cater for up to 450 wounded service personnel, the Glenart Castle, in addition to her crew of 120, carried more than 60 nurses and medical staff to tend to the wounded.

The bright lights were, therefore, quite deliberate and aimed to ensure that all shipping and submarines recognised her status and provided free passage as agreed for hospital ships under the Hague Convention of 1907.

Yet, in a matter of hours, the Glenart Castle sank with enormous loss of life off Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel.

At least 11 members of the crew had signed on at Newport including four South Wales firemen - two of whom were called Tom Casey and Alfred Bale.

As the survivors were brought ashore at Swansea and Pembroke Dock, there was outrage at what appeared to be an attack on an unarmed hospital ship.

It was Casey who provided the first account of events on that dark and stormy night in the Bristol Channel. Incidentally, Casey was the brother of the well-known Cardiff RFC forward Jim Casey.

On landing at Swansea, he confirmed that all went well until early on Tuesday morning, when the vessel was about 20 miles west of Lundy.

According to the Western Mail of February 28, 1918, he said: "I was then like most of other men now landed with me, on our watch, below and snug in our bunks.

"It was pitch dark, and there was a formidable sea running, and I could not hear that anybody on deck had seen anything of the enemy.

"All at once we heard the vessel struck a terrific blow.

"What had happened we did not know, but we imagined a lot.

"The torpedo had evidently landed on its mark all right, for in a few seconds there was a second tremendous explosion, which seemed to blow out the side of the vessel.

"When I got on deck with only my pyjamas on, I could see that most of the boats on the starboard side had been smashed and the deck ripped open by the explosion, whilst the biggest part of the stern of the vessel was awash, and it was evident that she was sinking rapidly.

"Captain Burt was cool and resourceful and there was no disorder on board, but the explosion had put out all the lights.

"Our boat I know was the third launched.

"We pulled away promptly from the vessel which went down in about seven minutes from the time she was struck.

"We had a hard pull and bad time in the boat because most of us were entirely without clothing except what we had been sleeping in and I pity any others who were not so lucky as us to be picked up.

"We had seven in the boat and we were thankful I can tell you to see that Frenchman hove in to sight. We were taken on board and treated very well."

That "Frenchman" was the schooner Feon, that rescued 22 men from the Glenart Castle's lifeboats and landed them at Swansea.

A further nine survivors were picked up the following by an American torpedo boat, USS Parker, and taken to Pembroke Dock.

Most had been in the water for up to 12 hours, and several members of the American crew had gone into the sea to help pull the survivors to safety. However, despite their efforts, two of the nine died soon after being rescued.

Although the area was swept and searched for days afterwards, no further survivors were found.

The speed with which the boat had sunk had claimed many lives while those not able to find a lifeboat had perished in the rough and freezing waters.

The loss of life on that night was appalling. Figures published by the Admiralty on March 1 recorded only 29 survivors.

In total, 153 had died including 58 of the 62 medical staff and nurses on board - many from South Wales.

All of the ship's officers perished including the Captain, Bernard Burt.

Only two of the 11 men who signed up at Newport were listed amongst the survivors - Casey and Bale.

As well as those, at least two more men from South Wales died that night - Private Llewellyn Daniel from Tylorstown and Private Reuben Underhill from Tondu, both serving with the Royal Army Medical Corps.

Formerly employed at the Coytrahen Colliery, Tondu, Rueben had been home in Bridgend only the week before and was on his first sea trip.

In the following weeks, speculation arose in the local papers as to how this had come about.

Falmouth MP, Sir Edward Nicholl, claimed that a network of spies in the English and Welsh ports bordering the Bristol Channel was feeding information to the enemy, and demanded the Government take action.

Newspapers also ran a story that bodies of crew from the Glenart Castle had been found with machine gun wounds. This led to speculation that the German submarine had surfaced and attempted to silence any witnesses to its attack on a hospital ship. This and other claims were subsequently found to be baseless, but there was no doubting the fury caused by the sinking of a hospital ship.

The tragic events of February 26 were not the first time the Glenart Castle had come into contact with the German Navy.

Built at Belfast in 1900 by Harland and Wolff, the ship had initially been named the Galician.

Until the outbreak of war, the Galician had been owned by the Union Castle Line and operated as a passenger liner between Southampton and South Africa.

In the first month of the war, while returning from South Africa, she had been stopped by an armed German merchant cruiser, the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse.

Fortunately, the presence of two British cruisers in the area forced the German ship to beat a hasty retreat otherwise the Galician would have been at best captured and possibly sunk. A month later, the Galician was converted to a hospital ship and renamed Glenart Castle.

In the following years, she shuttled between France and Britain carrying more than 400 wounded men on each voyage.

The Glenart Castle had a further stroke of good fortune when in 1917 she struck a mine laid by a German submarine in the English Channel.

However, although badly damaged, she managed to stay afloat long enough to be towed back to Portsmouth.

Her luck finally ran out on the morning of February 26, 1918, as she left the Bristol Channel for the Celtic Sea.

It was later discovered that she had been torpedoed by German U-Boat UC56.

The captain of the UC56, Wilhelm Kiesewetter, was arrested at the end of the war and held briefly in Britain.

He maintained that he had shadowed the Glenart Castle for an hour and a half and was convinced that she was a merchant ship and, therefore, a legitimate target.

This evidence was roundly contradicted by those who had witnessed the Glenart Castle's departure from Newport and progress through the Bristol Channel.

All were adamant that she was brightly lit and clearly marked as a hospital ship.

The truth is difficult to establish but the fact that a further hospital ship, HMHS Guildford Castle, was attacked by a German submarine in the Bristol Channel only a month later in March 1918 suggested at that point, the German Navy was operating a policy of unrestricted warfare against all British shipping. In 2002, a memorial to those who died on Glenart Castle was erected at Hartland Point, Devon.

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Almost 100 years ago to the day, His Majesty's Hospital Ship Glenart Castle was torpedoed by an enemy German U-Boat
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 22, 2018
Words:1394
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