From true crime to war crime: Toronto author revisits a little-known chapter of Canadian history

It was an attack once described as “the very worst thing that Germany has yet done at sea.” In Atrocity on the Atlantic: Attack on a Hospital Ship During the Great War, Toronto-based author and freelance journalist Nate Hendley sheds new light on a forgotten, yet pivotal, chapter in our history.

“This incident shocked the world,” he said.

The last time we heard from Hendley, he was promoting his 2021 book The Beatle Bandit: A Serial Bank Robber’s Deadly Heist, A Cross Country Manhunt, and the Insanity Plea That Shook a Nation. The author of more than a dozen books, Hendley is now turning from true crime to war crime.

Atrocity on the Atlantic focuses on the sinking of a Canadian hospital ship by a German submarine in the final months of World War One.

“There is sort of, I don’t know if you would call true crime, but as you said, war crime elements. There’s a major court case, there’s prosecutions, there’s precedents. So, it’s not too far afield from what I’ve been doing previously, but I just decided to branch out a little bit.”

John Ackermann speaks to Nate Hendley, author of Atrocity on the Atlantic

On June 26, 1918, a German U-boat sunk HMHS Llandovery Castle, an unarmed hospital ship operated by the Canadian military, and then fired upon those fleeing in lifeboats. Only 24 of the 258 people on board survived. The attack sparked outrage around the world.

“There were headlines from all over, from Australia, the United States, all sorts of cries for vengeance,” said Hendley. “And the whole element of these [14] nurses being brutally killed, and the lifeboats being shelled by the submarine commander [who] tried to cover up his war crime by killing the survivors…this to people, it just shocked them.”

The Germans were convinced the ship was carrying American pilots, but when they realized their error, they went after survivors in lifeboats too. Two subordinates were found guilty at the subsequent Leipzig war crimes trial, setting two important legal precedents.

“International law is the standard you have to go by,” said Hendley, referring to the 1904 Hague convention that hospital ships were not to be fired upon.

“And, number two, just because you’re following orders, that does not absolve you of guilt. And these principles became incredibly important after World War Two. Both these principles guided war crimes trials of Nazi defendants.”

“Just following orders” – which would come to be known as the Nuremberg defense – is a legal argument that suggests the accused not be found guilty of their actions because they were simply following the orders of a superior officer or official. The attack on the Llandovery Castle was cited as precedent at Nuremberg.

While the attack on the Llandovery Castle shocked the world, just as quickly, it was forgotten.

“There’s something that I call tragedy overload, that humans can only process so much misery,” he said.

“So, in that regard, the Halifax explosion [in 1917] became the wartime tragedy that Canadians remember. And there is an element of heroism that, you know, the city was rebuilt. So that became the tragedy.”

However, there have been efforts in recent years to change that, starting with the centenary of the sinking in 2018. Hendley talks about how an opera was written about the tragedy, centering on the 14 nurses who perished.

“It basically started when Stephanie Martin, who is a composer, was in a church, doing rehearsals for a different sort of musical thing, noticed a plaque on the wall [dedicated] to Agnes McKenzie, who died on the Llandovery Castle when it was torpedoed. She was like, ‘What? I’ve never heard of this.'”

“She looked into it and thought, what a great way to commemorate the 100th anniversary,” he said.

Hendley hopes efforts like this bring back attention to what has, up to now, been a forgotten tragedy.

“234 people lost their lives on the ship — British crew, Canadian medical staff — and their deaths led to these incredibly important court rulings that have saved lives since then.”

As with The Beatle Bandit, Hendley once again delivers a page-turner of a tale, making readers aware of a little-known chapter in our history. It’s equal parts compelling and informative.

Atrocity on the Atlantic: Attack on a Hospital Ship During the Great War is published by Dundurn Press.

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