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U-Boat Sank Hospital Ship Rewa

By James Donahue

The battle at sea during World War I was somewhat of a gentleman’s war. German U-boat commanders were known to surface in front of cargo vessels and give crew members time to escape in lifeboats before sinking the ship.

That is why the U-boat sinking of the British hospital ship Rewa, filled with 279 injured troops returning from Malta, off the English coast, raised a political storm.

Fortunately, the ship took two hours to sink which gave time for the ship’s crew and all of the wounded soldiers to board lifeboats and escape. Four men in the engine room, however, were killed in the torpedo blast.

Yet the sinking of the Rewa raised so much of a stink that the German high command denied that a U-boat sank it. Wilhelm Werner, the commander of U-55, the boat that sank the Rewa, was actually hunted by the Allied command with an intent of charging him for war crimes, but Werner was never caught.

In fairness to Commander Werner, however, it was later learned that the German naval command had secretly ordered all U-boat captains to sink any Allied ships, including hospital ships, at that stage of the war. It was a desperate act because after the United States entered the war, Germany was clearly losing it.

The Rewa was built in 1906 for the British-India Steam Navigation Company. It measured 456 feet and was designed to carry both passengers and freight. The ship’s service for commercial carriers was short-lived, however. In 1908, two years after it went into service, the Rewa and her sister ship, the Rohilla, were requisitioned by the British Navy for use as permanent troopships.

When the war broke out the Rewa was refitted for service as a hospital ship.

The wreck now lies in 200 feet of water off Hartland Point.