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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Esperanza Del Mar, operated by the Spanish Department of Labor.
HMHS Britannic repainted white with large red crosses and a horizontal green stripe

A hospital ship is a ship designated for primary function as a medical treatment facility or hospital; most are operated by the military forces or navies of various countries around the world, as they are intended to be used in or near war zones.[1] Firing on a hospital ship is a war crime.


Hague Convention

Hospital ships were covered under the Hague Convention X of 1907.[2] Article four of the Hague Convention X outlined the restrictions are for a hospital ship:

  • Ship must be clearly marked and lighted as a hospital ship
  • The ship should give medical assistance to wounded personnel of all nationalities
  • The ship must not be used for any military purpose
  • Ships must not interfere or hamper enemy combatant vessels
  • Belligerents as designated by the Hague Convention can search any hospital ship to investigate violations of the above restrictions

If any of the above restrictions were violated the ship was determined to be an enemy combatant and could be lawfully sunk. However, to deliberately fire on or to sink a Hospital ship complying with regulations would be a war crime.


On 8 December 1798, unfit for service as a warship, HMS Victory was ordered to be converted to a hospital ship to hold wounded French and Spanish prisoners of war. Another early example of a hospital ship was USS Red Rover in the 1860s, which aided the wounded soldiers of both sides during the American Civil War. It was the sighting by the Japanese of the Russian hospital ship Orel, correctly illuminated in accordance with regulations, that led to the Battle of Tsushima during the Russo-Japanese War. Orel was retained as a prize of war by the Japanese after the battle. During World War I and World War II, some passenger liners were converted for use as hospital ships. RMS Aquitania and HMHS Britannic were two examples of ships serving in this capacity.

The last British Royal Yacht, the post World War II HMY Britannia, was ostensibly constructed in a way as to be easily convertible to a hospital ship, but this is now thought to be largely a ruse to ensure Parliamentary funding, and she never served in this role - reputedly her lifts were too small to take standard-sized stretchers. USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort are hospital ships now operated by the United States Navy, and are the largest naval ambulances extant. Both ships are converted oil tankers.

The Brazilian Navy currently also operates several hospital ships on the Amazon and its tributaries. The Brazilians have an innovative and well-developed program of small, shallow-draft hospital ships that can provide medical care to the people in the interior of the vast Amazon region.

U.S. Navy Hospital Ships

The Navy's two hospital ships are owned and operated by Military Sealift Command. Named USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy, they provide emergency, on-site care for U.S. combatant forces deployed in war or other operations. The hospital ships' secondary mission is to provide full hospital services to support U.S. disaster relief and humanitarian operations worldwide.

Both ships contain 12 fully equipped operating rooms, a 1,000-bed hospital facility, digital radiological services, a medical laboratory, a pharmacy, an optometry lab, an intensive care ward, dental services, a CAT-scan, a morgue, and two oxygen producing plants. Each ship is equipped with a helicopter deck capable of landing large military helicopters. The ships also have side ports to take on patients at sea.

The ships are converted San Clemente-class super tankers. Mercy was delivered in 1986 and Comfort in 1987. Normally, the ships are kept in a reduced operating status in Baltimore, Md., and San Diego, Calif., by a small crew of civil service mariners and active duty Navy medical and support personnel. Each ship can be fully activated and crewed within five days.

Legal status

Modern hospital ships display large Red Crosses or Red Crescents to signify their Geneva convention protection under the laws of war. However, a British air attack in 1945 sank the German hospital ship SS Deutschland with substantial loss of life; in the chaos of the war's closing days, she apparently had not been sufficiently marked as a hospital ship. Even marked vessels are not completely safe. Markings did not stop the sinking of the Australian Hospital Ship Centaur on 14 May 1943 off the coast of Queensland by a Japanese submarine, the German Hospital Ship Tübingen on 18 November 1944 at Pula by the Royal Air Force heavy fighters, or that of the Japanese Hospital Ship Buenosuairesu-maru on 26 November 1943 by air bombing.[3]

Some hospital ships, such as the SS Hope, belong to civilian agencies, and as such are not part of any navy.

The British Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship RFA Argus would be a hospital ship were it not for its armaments. When performing its medical role it is designated a 'primary casualty receiving ship'.

Armed vessels are disqualified from protection as a hospital ship under international law.[4]

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