The U-86

The German submarine that sank the USS Covington

The German U-boat that sank the USS Covington on July 1-2, 1918 was a Mittel U type boat built by the Germaniawerft Shipyards in Kiel, Germany. She was ordered on 23 June, 1915 and Laid down on 5 November, 1916 and was launched 7 November, 1916 and Commissioned 30 November 1916. Her Commanders were: 30 Nov, 1916-22 Jun, 1917 Friedrich Crüsemann; 23 Jun, 1917-25 Jan, 1918 Alfred Götze; 26 Jan, 1918-11 Nov, 1918 Helmut Patzig.

During her career she had 12 war patrols from 21 Feb, 1917 - 11 Nov, 1918 and was in the IV Flotilla. Her successes 33 ships sunk for a total of 125,580 tons (warships excluded). U-86 became infamous on 27 June, 1918, when it sank the Hospital ship Llandovery Castle in violation of international law and standing orders of the Imperial German Navy. The captain, Oblt.z.S. Helmut Patzig, then allegedly ordered his crew to machine gun survivors in the water and ram the lifeboats. Because of this, Patzig and his watch officers were tried for war crimes in a German court after the war and sentenced to four years imprisonment.

Firing at a hospital ship was against international law and standing orders of the Imperial German Navy. The captain of U-86, Helmut Brummer-Patzig, sought to destroy the evidence of torpedoing the ship. When the crew, including nurses, took to the lifeboats, U-86 surfaced, ran down all but one of the lifeboats and machine-gunned many of the survivors. There were only 24 people in one surviving lifeboat that survived the sinking. The survivors were rescued shortly afterwards by the destroyer HMS Lysander and they testified as to what had happened. Only 6 of the 97 hospital personnel survived. Among those lost were fourteen nursing sisters from Canada, including the Matron Margaret Marjory (Pearl) Fraser, formerly of Nova Scotia (daughter of Duncan Cameron Fraser who served as Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, 1906-1910 ).

Sergeant Arthur Knight was on board lifeboat No. 5 with the nurses. He reported:

"Our boat was quickly loaded and lowered to the surface of the water. Then the crew of eight men and myself faced the difficulty of getting free from the ropes holding us to the ship's side. I broke two axes trying to cut ourselves away, but was unsuccessful. With the forward motion and choppy sea the boat all the time was pounding against the ship's side. To save the boat we tried to keep ourselves away by using the oars, and soon every one of the latter were broken. Finally the ropes became loose at the top and we commenced to drift away. We were carried towards the stern of the ship, when suddenly the Poop deck seemed to break away and sink. The suction drew us quickly into the vacuum, the boat tipped over sideways, and every occupant went under. Unflinchingly and calmly, as steady and collected as if on parade, without a complaint or a single sign of emotion, our fourteen devoted nursing sisters faced the terrible ordeal of certain death--only a matter of minutes--as our lifeboat neared that mad whirlpool of waters where all human power was helpless. I estimate we were together in the boat about eight minutes. In that whole time I did not hear a complaint or murmur from one of the sisters. There was not a cry for help or any outward evidence of fear. In the entire time I overheard only one remark when the matron, Nursing Matron Margaret Marjory Fraser, turned to me as we drifted helplessly towards the stern of the ship and asked: "Sergeant, do you think there is any hope for us?"

"I replied, 'No,' seeing myself our helplessness without oars and the sinking condition of the stern of the ship. A few seconds later we were drawn into the whirlpool of the submerged afterdeck, and the last I saw of the nursing sisters was as they were thrown over the side of the boat. All were wearing lifebelts, and of the fourteen two were in their nightdress, the others in uniform. It was doubtful if any of them came to the surface again, although I myself sank and came up three times, finally clinging to a piece of wreckage and being eventually picked up by the captain's boat."

Afterward, HMS Morea steamed through the wreckage. Captain Kenneth Cummins recalled the horror of coming across the nurses' floating corpses;

"We were in the Bristol Channel, quite well out to sea, and suddenly we began going through corpses. The Germans had sunk a British hospital ship, the Llandovery Castle, and we were sailing through floating bodies. We were not allowed to stop - we just had to go straight through. It was quite horrific, and my reaction was to vomit over the edge. It was something we could never have imagined... particularly the nurses: seeing these bodies of women and nurses, floating in the ocean, having been there some time. Huge aprons and skirts in billows, which looked almost like sails because they dried in the hot sun."

After the war, the captain of U-86, Lieutenant Helmut Patzig, and two of his lieutenants, Ludwig Dithmar and John Boldt, were arraigned for trial in Germany on war crimes. On 21 July 1921 Dithmar and Boldt were tried and convicted in the case became famous as one of the "Leipzig trials". Patzig was able to avoid prosecution as he fled the country and avoided extradition; and though Dithmar and Boldt were convicted and sentenced to four years in prison, they both escaped. At the Court of Appeal, both lieutenants were acquitted on the grounds that the captain was solely responsible.

On 1 July, 1918 in the North Atlantic U-86 torpeoded the US troopship USS Covington which sank the next day on July 2. The fate of the U-86 ended on 20 November, 1918 when she surrendered. She sank while being towed off the English East coast on the way to be broken up in 1921. 

A view of U-86 underway at sea. Officers can be seen on the bridge and crewmen at attention on the after-deck.

The German U-boat U-86 that sank the USS Covington on 1 July, 1918. Contributed by Russ Davis


The photo on the left is of U-86 at Devonport, England tied along side British Submarine K-14 on 8 March 1919. She was being commissioned into the Royal Navy for experimental work. U-86 surrendered to the Royal Navy about November 22, 1918 at Harwich.

This page is owned by Joe Hartwell ©2004-2018

If you have research comments or additional information on this page E-mail them to: Joe Hartwell

This page was created on 5 January, 2004 and last modified on: September 20, 2018

[ Return back to the Site Map] [ Return to the Main Ship's Histories Page ] [ Return back to the Covington Page ]