HMHS Glenart Castle

British hospital ship sunk by a German U-Boat in the Bristol Channel. 162 perished in what is to this day considered an atrocious war crime.
by Matthew Anderson


Year Built

1900

Year Sank

1918

Depth

230 ft (70 m)

Difficulty Level

Advanced


HMHS Glenart Castle

Wreck Location

The Glenart Castle lies north of Newquay, England in the Bristol Channel. She is on an even keel. The bow and stern of the Glenart Castle are in fantastic shape and remain almost the way they were when she sank in 1918. The middle of the ship has long since collapsed due to deterioration, strong currents off the English coastline and very possibly depth charging during World War II. Back in the 1940s, sonar was brand new and couldn't tell the difference between a German submarine or a shipwreck. Due to this, World War I shipwrecks were consistantly and unintentionally depth charged. The wreck lies at almost 230 feet below the surface meaning divers should have advanced experience before visiting the wreck as it lies below the normal recreational dive depth. Depending on the conditions, the wreck can be very clear and visible with the sun's rays still illuminating the wreck and its surroundings.

~ GPS Shipwreck Location ~
Latitude:   51° 6' 59.9983" N      Longitude:   -5° 2' 59.9993" W

Description

The British passenger liner Galician was built in 1900 by Harland and Wolff in Belfast, Ireland for the Union-Castle Line. She was placed on the run between England and South Africa. Unlike many other large ocean liner operators, the Union-Castle Line ran its service to South Africa rather than across the Atlantic to the United States. Galician was 440 feet long and could carry 226 passengers. The same year, World War I broke out. While enroute to England from Cape Town, South Africa, Galician was stopped and captured by the German armed merchant cruiser Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse. As she was an unarmed passenger ship with a large number of innocent women and children, the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse let the Galician go.

On September 30, 1914, Galician was drafted into hospital ship service by the Royal Navy and renamed the HMHS Glenart Castle. She could carry 453 wounded soldiers back to safety. In 1917, Glenart Castle struck a mine in the English Channel. Despite the damage and incident, Glenart Castle was able to be repaired and soon re-entered hospital ship service.

In February 1917, Germany announced mostly out of desperation that they would be attacking and sinking any ship they felt was a worthy target despite its role. This proved to be a fatal mistake on Germany's part as this was in truth the final straw for the United States. Already pushed to the edge with the Zimmerman Note, the Lusitania sinking and Armenian sinking, the pledge to wage complete unrestricted submarine warfare was the action that finally made the United States declare war on Germany and join the Allies for the final two years of World War I. Unfortunately, this declaration had also meant unarmed and innocent Red Cross protected hospital ships were now U-Boat targets.

Hospital ships were targeted and sunk throughout 1917. Germany claimed the losses were due to military soldiers and weapons being illegally shipped on the vessels, contrary to the Cruiser Rules of the 1907 Hague Conventions. The British worked with a third party and neutral nations to establish a momentum of understanding with the Germans stating no such activity was taking place. Despite setting up a system to ensure the British claim, German U-Boats immediately went back to sinking hospital ships. On January 4, 1917, the HMHS Rewa was torpedoed and sunk by U-55 in the Bristol Channel, killing three crewmembers. Luckily all wounded, nurses, matrons, Army medical staff and the remaining crew escaped safely. Fate was not to be kind a month later.

On February 26, 1918, the Glenart Castle departed Newport, Wales headed for Brest, France to pick up wounded soldiers from the trenches and ferry them to England for full hospital treatment. All of Glenart Castle's lights were on and her red cross colors prominently displayed as per the Red Cross hospital ship guidelines outlined in the Hague Conventions. Keeping the Glenart Castle viciously within its sights, UC-56 trained its periscope and torpedoes at the hospital ship.

At 4:00 AM, the order was given by Kapitänleutnant Wilhelm Kiesewetter to fire a single torpedo. The torpedo impacted the Glenart Castle's midships. Several lifeboats were destroyed by the torpedo impact. Immediately, the aging steamer began sinking by the stern. Chaos erupted on deck as the ship went down. Seven lifeboats were launched but not everyone was able to evacuate the ship into said lifeboats. Eight minutes after the torpedo strike, Glenart Castle sank taking with her a large amount of nurses, matrons, medical staff and crewmembers including the captain. By the next morning, all in the water had died of exposure and only one lifeboat of survivors was ever recovered. Only 32 people were rescued. 162 persons lost their lives in the worst ever maritime disaster in the Bristol Channel.

The sinkings of the Rewa and Glenart Castle sparked national outrage in Great Britain and was the source of fierce anti-German war propaganda posters. The British press heavily covered the losses and did not hold back when attacking the Germans for the attrocities committed. After the Treaty of Versailles, all hospital ship sinkings were regarded by Britain, France and the United States as unjustifiable war crimes. Kiesewetter was arrested following armistice and locked in the Tower of London for his role in the war crime, but the British were forced to let him go. Kiesewetter to his dying day denied any responsibilty for sinking an unarmed hospital ship and had even gone as far as to list Glenart Castle as a regular merchant ship in his logs.

Footnotes

The Glenart Castle was prominently featured in the episode "Red Cross Outrage" of the British television show Deep Wreck Mysteries. The show talked about German U-Boats controversially sinking British hospital ships towards the end of the war and also featured the wreck of the British hospital ship Rewa, lost in the Bristol Channel only 




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