The SS Letitia was an 8,991-ton, steel, twin-screw ocean liner with four engines, built in 1912 for the Anchor Donaldson Line. She began sailing as a passenger ship, serving the North Atlantic from Glasgow to Québec and Montréal. With the outbreak of the First World War, she was commandeered by the British Admiralty and designated a hospital ship. She was placed under the command of the Royal Canadian Naval Medical Services and she earned the prefix HMHS, for His Majesty's Hospital Ship.
Letitia's main job was to carry wounded soldiers from Europe to Canada, so she was retrofitted to provide the latest in medical care and comfort for her patients. She had a full complement of medical and nursing staff with access to all of the equipment available in a state-of-the-art hospital. Over her three years of service, HMHS Letitia sailed with distinction, making five voyages and transporting over 2,600 wounded soldiers to Halifax.
Hospital ships were distinctively painted and had special lighting to differentiate these 'non-combatant' vessels from other shipping. Yet even these non-combatants became targets of enemy submarines. It was into dangerous waters that HMHS Letitia set sail from Liverpool in July of 1917, carrying a full crew of 137 as well as 74 hospital staff and 546 wounded Canadian soldiers.
The dangerous crossing was made safely until the morning of August 1st, when fog appeared off the Nova Scotia coast. With visibility reduced to near zero, Captain William McNeil continued on his course, posting crew members to listen for the various whistles, buoy bells and foghorn blasts that warn ships of the dangerous shoals that threaten the approach to Halifax harbour.
Using the navigational method of 'dead reckoning' to estimate his position, the accomplished captain soon heard the whistle from the approaching pilot boat. The pilot came aboard to guide the Letitia through the fog, between the unseen buoys and into the harbour.
As the pilot continued the course, no one realized that he had incorrectly estimated their position. A few minutes later, the captain saw a dark, looming object and ordered the ship full astern, but it was too late -- the Letitia was grounded hard on Portuguese Cove Shoal. The captain tried to reverse, but the holds were perforated and the ship was in danger of breaking up, sliding off the shoal and slipping into the harbour with all of the wounded. He immediately called for assistance to help with the evacuation of passengers, all of whom were disembarked without incident onto nearby ships that had rushed in to help. The captain and crew stayed on board until the next morning, when the ship began to list and the captain ordered her abandoned, after which she broke up and slid into the water.
Amazingly, given the potential for disaster when a hospital ship is wrecked, there was only one fatality: a crew member who drowned while swimming to shore. At the subsequent inquiry, Captain McNeil testified that he had fully trusted that the pilot knew where the buoys were, particularly because the pilots were in charge of moving the buoys to protect the harbour during wartime. The pilot was found guilty of a gross error of judgment and demoted.
The Letitia's service record was honoured in 1925, when the Letitia II was launched; she went on to serve as a hospital ship in the Second World War. Today the wreck of the Letitia is a popular recreational dive site, resting on the floor of the approach to Halifax harbour just south of Portuguese Cove.
"Letitia." Marine Heritage Database. Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.
http://museum.gov.ns.ca/mma/wrecks/wrecks/shipwrecks.asp?ID=2818 (accessed September 30, 2005).
Library and Archives Canada. RG 42. Series B-1. Volume 595. File "Letitia."
Library and Archives Canada. RG 42. Series B-1. Volume 269. File 39305.
Library and Archives Canada. RG 150. Series 1. Volume 274. File "Hospital Ship."
Royal Canadian Naval Medical Service. The World War I Document Archive.
www.gwpda.org/naval/rcnmed00.htm (accessed September 30, 2005).