Monday 6 April 2015

The S.S. Drina - first ship to be converted for use as a Hospital Ship during WW1

HMHS "Drina" - the first Hospital Ship of The First World War

One of the first to be refitted as a hospital ship was the steamship S.S. “Drina”, built in 1913 by Harland and Wolff and run by the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, Belfast sailing to Brazil and Argentina. Her sister ships of the line were the Steam Ships "Deseado", "Demarara" and "Darro".

"Drina" was the first hospital ship to be requisitioned by the Admiralty. The contractors for the conversion were H. & C. Grayson Limited of Liverpool, who became insolvent in 1921.  She was handed over to the Royal Navy for use as a Hospital Ship on 15th August 1914 and sailed the following day.  According to Lynn Isaac, some ‘Immobile patients were taken there to be unloaded quietly at the Pembroke Dock in Liverpool".

Prince Albert (who later became King George VI) was serving in the Royal Navy when war broke out, having trained at naval college then served aboard the Dreadnought Battleship HMS Collingwood. At that time he was not the heir to the throne.  He was mentioned in despatches at the Battle of Jutland - 31st May to 1st June 1916. 

Prince Albert was taken ill and treated aboard HMHS Drina. According to Andrew Wingrove, Prince Albert had been suffering from a stomach ailment from around the 15th May and had seen the ship's doctor. On 12th July 1916, he was transferred to the HMHS Drina for observation by Staff Surgeon Willan. He was given a diagnosis of “weakening of the muscular wall of the stomach and a catarrah condition.” A prescription of a careful diet and nightly medications was recommended. He was in fact suffering from a stomach ulcer and was operated on for that in November 1917. 

"Drina" had a refrigerated cargo hold for the transport of South American beef and coffee but had been fitted with 1,000 tones of sand as ballast when converted to a hospital ship.   There are conflicting reports as to the demise of "Drina", as she appears to have been taken out of service as a hospital ship for a journey to South America. One of the most interesting accounts is written by a diver who has dived down to the wreck - see link below - definitely worth reading.

In February 1916, the Hospital ship staff, many of whom were from Sutton in Ashfield, plus stores which had been loaded at the start of her service as a Hospital Ship, were apparently taken off. 

In 1917 S.S. "Drina" was returning to Britain from a voyage to Buenos Aires via Lisbon and Falmouth, carrying a cargo of timber, carbon and currency of some sort, plus meat and coffee. The ship had called in at Falmouth and was seaming up the Welsh coast when she was torpedoed and sunk by a German U Boat (possibly UC 65, commanded by Otto Stienbrink) near Milford Haven on 1st March 1917 - St. David's Day.   It seems there were many survivors, including the captain of the ship, C.V. Fletcher and Daniel Trimbel, the ship's butcher who was from Birkenhead.   
With many thanks to Lynn Isaac, who has dived to the wreck of the S.S. "Drina" and whose account is fascinating:

and Andrew Wingrove, who is writing a book about WW1 hospital ships and has a Facebook Page dedicated to the Hospital Ships of the Grand Fleet 1914 - 1918 -

Both Lynn and Andrew kindly supplied me with a great deal of information as well as photographs.

Photo:  S.S. Drina in the River Mersey before conversion.