HMHS Rewa

British hospital ship sunk by a German U-Boat in January 1917.
by Matthew Anderson


Year Built

1906

Year Sank

1918

Depth

200 ft (61 m)

Difficulty Level

Advanced


HMHS Rewa

Wreck Location

The Rewa lies at the bottom of the Bristol Channel mostly on an even keel. Most of her hull has been destroyed by the ravages of time and war. Rewa was sadly a target of constant depth charging by British and Canadian destroyers in World War II. Sonar, then called ASDIC, was unreliable in the fact that it could not distinguish a German U-Boat from a shipwreck. Thus, many wrecks including the Rewa and Lusitania became victims of depth charge attacks thanks to mistaken identities. As such, the entire hull of the Rewa has collapsed. Jumbled debris lies tattered, broken and mixed in large flat piles. Her six boilers and a single steam engine remain intact as does her bow, which has since rolled over onto the seabed, lying on its starboard side. Rewa has been called a difficult wreck to dive because of the location she's in; the conditions often including high currents and large amounts of silt clouding the water. The wreck itself is challenging as the deterioration of the Rewa makes it hard for divers to know exactly what part of the wreck they're exploring.

~ GPS Shipwreck Location ~
Latitude:   50° 54' 59.9868" N      Longitude:   -4° 48' 59.9882" W

Description

Rewa

The Rewa was built in 1906 by William Denny and Brothers in Dumbarton, Scotland for the British-India Steam Navigation Company. She was 456 feet long and powered by a steam turbine engine powering three propellers. The turbine in turn was fed by six high pressure coal fired boilers. Rewa was named after a city in India. Her sister ship was the Rohilla. She had accomodations for 100 first class passengers and 65 second class passengers. Rewa made her maiden voyage from London to Calcutta, India on June 20, 1906. She was used for a period as a troopship for what was then the British colony of India. Rewa ran aground at the Suez Canal in November 1906 but was refloated. In 1910, Rewa was refit with a Marconi wireless system. In 1914, the British-India Line was taken over by the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, known better as the P&O Lines. The same year, World War I broke out in Europe.

Rewa was drafted by the Royal Navy and converted into a hospital ship. HMHS Rewa served in the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. The British sustained heavy losses and massive casualites from the failed battle against the Ottoman Empire at the Dardenelles. Rewa transported thousands of wounded from Gallipoli to Malta; Alexandria, Egypt and Plymouth, England.

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, 1918, Rewa was carrying wounded from Malta to England. As per regulations, all of her lights and Red Cross markings were highly visible. She was carrying 279 wounded soldiers, some of which may have been German ironically enough. This made no difference to Kapitänleutnant Wilhelm Werner aboard U-55. At 11:15 PM, U-55 fired a single torpedo at the Rewa. The weapon exploded at her midships killing 3 crewmembers within her boiler room. The ship immediately flooded and the lights went out. As the Rewa sank, order was kept and all remaining alive aboard were swiftly and successfully evacuated to the lifeboats. Besides the torpedo fatalities, everyone else aboard the Rewa survived. The Rewa sharply rose her stern high in the air and sank 2 hours and 45 minutes after the torpedo impact. The next day, the lifeboats and survivors were rescued.

U-55 would go on to sink the Carpathia later that year. Carpathia had previously rescued the survivors of the Titanic on April 15, 1912. After the war, U-55 was seized by Japan in 1918 and redesignated O3. After retirement in 1921, she was partially dismantled and temporarily recommissioned in 1923. The sinking of the Rewa and the sinking of the Glenart Castle soon afterwards generated massive outrage against the Germans. At armistice in 1918, the acts of sinking British hospital ships was considered a war crime by the Allies.

The wreck of the Rewa was discovered in the early 21st Century by a British hydrographic survey mapping the Bristol Channel off Lundy Island. In 2006, a spent British artillery shell was found on the wreck supposedly in a box with several others. Further investigation of the wreck failed to find the box of artillery shells further deepening the mystery of why the shell was found on the Rewa. It's currently thought the shell was a souvenier being brought back by a crewmember or patient from a battlefield and went down with the ship after she was torpedoed.

Footnotes

The Rewa 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 Glenart Castle, lost in the Bristol Channel only a month later.




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