The Dover Castle

CourtObsolete Court (Germany)
Docket NumberCase No. 231
Germany, Reichsgericht.
Case No. 231
The Dover Castle.

Warfare at Sea — Hospital Ships — Hague Convention No. X.

Law of War — War Crimes — Defence of Superior Orders — Torpedoing of Hospital Ships — Hague Convention No. X.

The Facts.—This was a prosecution resulting from Articles 228–230 of the Treaty of Versailles.1 The accused was charged with having torpedoed, as a commander of a German submarine, on 26 May, 1917, the English hospital ship Dover Castle, without warning, and with having sunk her with exceptional brutality. When torpedoed she had sick and wounded on board. Not one of these was drowned when the vessel was sunk, but six members of the crew were killed by the firing

of the torpedo. The accused pleaded that in sinking the ship he merely carried out an order of the German Admiralty, which, in the belief that the enemy utilised their hospital ships for military purposes in violation of the Tenth Hague Convention, issued a number of orders instructing the submarines to attack hospital ships as vessels of war. The orders were communicated to the accused before his departure from the base

Held: That the accused must be acquitted. “It is a military principle that the subordinate is bound to obey the orders of his superiors. This duty of obedience is of considerable importance from the point of view of criminal law. Its consequence is that, when the execution of a service order involves an offence against the criminal law, the superior giving the order is alone responsible.

“This is in accordance with the terms of the German Law, § 47, para. 1 of the Military Penal Code. It also accords with the legal principles of all other civilised states (see, for example, as regards England, the Manual of Military Law (1914), chapter XIV, Art. 443, quoted in Verdross' ‘Die völkerrechtswidrige Kriegshandlung und der Strafanspruch der Staaten.’‘Breaches of International Law in the Conduct of War and...

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