Book Review: Murder At Sea

Wicked and revolting in its day, the First World War 110 years later is recalled through haunting vignettes: the Trench of Bayonets buried alive at Verdun, the Russian princesses thrown down a mine shaft in Siberia, the soldiers of the Newfoundland Regiment who marched smartly to their doom at the Battle of the Somme.

One haunting vignette is the sinking of the Llandovery Castle, a Canadian hospital ship. “The blood boils at the very thought,” the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote at the time. Author Nate Hendley’s Atrocity On The Atlantic is a full accounting.

Hendley neither delves into psychoanalysis nor uses unnecessary adjectives. He is a crime writer. He gives the Llandovery Castle a crime writer’s treatment. It works. The sinking was simple murder, a gangland slaying at sea.

On a summer evening, Thursday, June 27, 1918 at 9:30 pm the Llandovery Castle was off the Irish coast on its sixth run from Halifax to Liverpool. It “was as brightly lit as a Christmas tree” with the Red Cross flag at full mast, writes Hendley. The journey was so pleasant, medical staff were quietly playing cards when a German torpedo blew the engine room to smithereens.

What happened next provoked “global revulsion,” writes Hendley. “Despite some years of brutal fighting some atrocities still had the power to shock.”

Five lifeboats hit the water. One eyewitness recalled the submarine that sunk the Llandovery Castle surfaced and “came at us at a high rate of speed apparently to run us down.” The German crew began shelling survivors as they thrashed in the water. Of 258 aboard, 234 were killed including 14 nurses. Lifeboats were “blown to bits by a submarine deck gun,” writes Hendley.

The Llandovery Castle became a synonym for atrocity. Germans were “possessed by devils,” said Prime Minister Robert Borden. New Brunswicker Andrew Bonar Law, a future British prime minister, called the murders the work of a “wild beast.” There was no parley with the enemy, said Bonar Law: “It is no use arguing or attempting to reason with it. We must destroy it.”

Atrocity On The Atlantic captures the terror in a tightly researched narrative. The Llandovery Castle fell victim to a “strange, savage weapon,” the U-boat on night patrol, writes Hendley. The story is unsettling and requires no embellishment for the sake of effect.

U-boat commander Helmut Patzig was listed among 850 German war criminals but escaped postwar prosecution by fleeing to South America. “No one was punished for torpedoing the Llandovery Castle and trying to murder those who survived the initial attack,” writes Hendley. Commander Patzig died in West Germany in 1984.

Atrocity On The Atlantic is a compelling account of a crime too long forgotten. Perhaps, writes Hendley, “humans are only capable of processing so much shock and grief.”

By Holly Doan

Atrocity On The Atlantic, by Nate Hendley; Dundurn Press; 240 pages;  ISBN 9781-45975-1347; $24.99

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