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Missions of mercy

18 February 2008 by stepheng

watercolour painting of a bandaged face with only the eyes showing

‘Just another sailor’ by J Hanstock. Image courtesy of the Liverpool Daily Post & Echo

It came as a surprise when I learnt that hospital ships had their origins in the American Civil War. Serving a vital role in theatres of war, an early example was the Red Rover which aided soldiers from both the Union and Confederate armies.

Both world wars saw passenger liners being converted to hospital ships. Titanic’s sister ship Britannic was being used for this purpose when she was sunk by a mine off the Greek island of Kea on 21 November 1916. She was heading for Moudros in Greece to pick up injured military personnel. A total of 30 men died – 21 crew and nine members of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) – but 1,036 people were saved. Britannic was the largest British ship lost in the First World War and remains the largest sunken ocean liner in the world (she was slightly bigger than Titanic).

There is a sailor-made model of the hospital ship Atlantis, which served in the Second World War, in Merseyside Maritime Museum. Formerly a cruise liner with the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, the 15,000-ton Atlantis was converted into a hospital ship in 1939. She carried up to 615 patients and 130 medical staff, including many female nurses provided by the RAMC. Crewed by Royal Mail merchant seamen, during and after the war she was constantly at work on missions of mercy. Atlantis was twice bombed off Norway. She steamed some 280,000 miles and carried 35,000 wounded from a variety of war zones. She later repatriated prisoners of many nationalities and carried soldiers’ brides to Australia. Atlantis docked in Liverpool several times during the war.

The wartime model was made by medical orderlies on board ship. She is painted white with large red crosses on her funnel, decks and hull. 

A photo shows Atlantis arriving at the Prince’s Landing Stage, Liverpool, in October 1943. She was carrying 764 badly-injured allied servicemen repatriated after being released from German prison camps. A moving water colour is called Just Another Sailor, showing an anonymous  patient with his face swathed in bandages, revealing only his eyes. It was painted by his ship mate J Hanstock. It graphically shows the suffering of the Royal Navy rating, his face severely burned after the bombing of the British battleship Warspite at Salerno, Italy, in 1943.

Today the British Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship Argus performs a medical role but is designated a “primary casualty receiving ship”.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.

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