A postcard of the Cunard liner Laconia before she was converted first to an armed merchant ship (1939) and then into a troop ship (1941). She was torpedoed on 12 Sept 1942, carrying 2,732 people.
The Cunard liner Laconia, remembered now for one of the more notorious incidents of World War II, began her career in 1922.
Sister ship of Scythia and Samaria, this ship, Cunard’s second Laconia, was built in England by Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson. She was launched in April 1921. Her maiden voyage on 25 May 1922 was from Southampton to New York, but she was then placed on the Liverpool-Boston-New York route with Samaria. From June to November 1923, Laconia served the Hamburg-New York route and once the 1930’s arrived she was frequently used for cruising.
Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson, one of the best known shipbuilders in the world, was responsible for some of the greatest ships of the early 20th century – most famously RMS Mauritania which held the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic, and RMS Carpathia which rescued survivors from RMS Titanic.
The Laconia incident was a series of events surrounding the sinking of the British troopship in the Atlantic Ocean during World War II and an attack on the subsequent rescue attempts. On 12 September 1942, RMS Laconia carrying some 2,732 crew, passengers, soldiers and Italian prisoners of war, was torpedoed and sunk by the German U-boat submarine U-156 off the coast of West Africa. Cunard’s first Laconia also was sunk by a German U-boat, in 1915 during World War I.
The U-boat commander, Korvettenkapitän Werner Hartenstein, immediately commenced rescue operations. U-156 broadcast their humanitarian intent on open radio channels to all Allied forces in the area, and were joined by the crews of several other U-boats in the vicinity.
U-156 with survivors of Laconia on her main deck.
After surfacing and picking up survivors, who were laden on the foredeck, U-156 headed on the surface towards a rendezvous with Vichy French ships under Red Cross banners, with the intention of offloading the survivors. On its journey the U-boat was spotted by a United States Army Air Forces B-24 Liberator bomber. The pilots reported the U-boat’s location, intentions and the presence of survivors, but were explicitly ordered by their higher command to attack the ship. The B-24 killed dozens of Laconia’s survivors with bombs and strafing attacks, forcing U-156 to cast their remaining survivors into the sea and crash dive to avoid being destroyed. The pilots of the B-24 mistakenly reported that they had sunk U-156, and were awarded medals for their bravery.
Rescue operations were continued by other vessels. Another U-boat, U-506, was also attacked by U.S. aircraft and forced to dive. A total of 1,113 survivors were eventually rescued; 1,619 died, mostly Italian prisoners.
The event seriously chilled the general attitude of Germany’s naval personnel towards rescuing stranded Allied seamen. The commanders of the Kriegsmarine (German navy) were shortly issued the “Laconia Order” by Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, which specifically forbade any such attempt, thus helping to usher in unrestricted submarine warfare for the rest of the war. Neither the US pilots nor their commander were punished or investigated, and the matter was quietly forgotten by the US military.
During the Nuremberg Trials after the war, a prosecutor attempted to cite the Laconia Order as proof of war crimes by Dönitz and his submariners. The ploy backfired badly, causing embarrassment to the US when the full story of the incident emerged. The incident has been the subject of a bestselling book, numerous articles and a two part 2011 television film on the BBC.
At the time of the incident Laconia, under the command of Captain Rudolph Sharp, was carrying 463 officers and crew, 80 civilians, 286 British Army soldiers, 1,793 Italian prisoners, and 103 Polish soldiers acting as guards of the prisoners.
Sharp had previously commanded RMS Lancastrian, which had been sunk by German bombs on 17 June 1940 off the French port of St. Nazaire while taking part in Operation Ariel, the evacuation of British nationals and troops from France, two weeks after the Dunkirk evacuation.
At 22:00 on 12 September 1942, U-156 was patrolling off the coast of West Africa midway between Liberia and Ascension Island. The submarine’s commanding officer, Korvettenkapitän Hartenstein, spotted the large British ship sailing alone and attacked it. Ships armed with guns (which most merchantmen and troop transports were) fell outside the protection from attack without warning, therefore Laconia was regarded as a legitimate target.
At 22:22 the Laconia transmitted the following message on the 600-metre band:
SSS SSS 0434 South / 1125 West Laconia torpedoed
“SSS” was the code signifying “under attack by submarine”. Despite further messages being sent, there is no record that any were received by any station or vessel.
Although there were sufficient lifeboats for the entire ship’s complement, including the POWs, heavy listing prevented half from being launched until the vessel had settled. The Italian POWs were left locked in the cargo holds as the ship sank, but most escaped by breaking down hatches or climbing up the ventilation shafts. Several were shot when a group of POWs rushed a lifeboat station, and a large number were bayoneted to death in attempts to prevent them boarding the few lifeboats available. Although the Polish guards were armed with rifles with fixed bayonets, they were not loaded and the guards carried no ammunition. Witnesses indicate that few of the POWs were shot (presumably by British troops), instead most of the casualties were bayoneted. By the time the last lifeboats were launched most survivors had already entered the water, so some lifeboats had few passengers. Only one life raft left the ship with POWs on board; the rest jumped into the ocean. Survivors later recounted how Italians in the water were either shot or had their hands severed by axes if they tried to climb into a lifeboat. The blood soon attracted sharks.
Sharks darted among us. Grabbing an arm, biting a leg. Other larger beasts swallowed entire bodies. — Corporal Dino Monte POW
As Laconia began to sink, U-156 surfaced in order to capture the ship’s surviving senior officers. To their surprise, the Germans saw over two thousand people struggling in the water.
Realizing that the passengers were primarily POWs and civilians, Hartenstein immediately began rescue operations while flying the Red Cross flag. Laconia sank at 23:23, over an hour after the attack. At 01:25, 13 September, Hartenstein sent a coded radio message to Befehlshaber der U-Boote (Commander-in-Chief for Submarines) alerting them to the situation. It read:
Sunk by Hartenstein British “Laconia“. Grid FF 7721 310 degrees. Unfortunately with 1500 Italian prisoners of war. So far 90 fished. 157 cubic meters [of oil]. 19 eels [torpedoes], trade wind 3, request orders.
The head of submarine operations, Admiral Dönitz, immediately ordered seven U-boats from the Eisbär group, which had been gathering to take part in a planned surprise attack on Cape Town to divert to the scene to pick up survivors. Dönitz then informed Berlin of the situation and actions he had taken. Hitler was furious and ordered that the rescue be abandoned. Admiral Raeder ordered Dönitz to disengage the Eisbär boats, which included Hartenstein’s U-156, and send them to Cape Town as per the original plan. Raeder then ordered U-506, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Erich Würdemann, U-507, under Korvettenkapitän Harro Schacht and the Italian submarine Capellini to intercept Hartenstein to take on his survivors and then to proceed to the Laconia site and rescue any Italians they could find. Raeder also requested the Vichy French to send warships from Dakar and/or Côte d’Ivoire to collect the Italian survivors from the three submarines. The Vichy French, in response, sent the 7,600 ton cruiser Gloire from Dakar, and two sloops, the fast 660 ton Annamite and the slower 2,000 ton Dumont-d’Urville, from Conakry, French Guinea, and Cotonou, Dahomey, respectively. Dönitz disengaged the Eisbär boats and informed Hartenstein of Raeder’s orders, but he substituted Kapitänleutnant Helmut Witte’s U-159 for U-156 in the Eisbär group and sent the order: “All boats, including Hartenstein, only take as many men into the boat as will allow it to be fully ready for action when submerged.”
U-156 was soon crammed above and below decks with nearly 200 survivors, including five women, and had another 200 in tow aboard four lifeboats. At 06:00 on 13 September, Hartenstein broadcast a message on the 25-meter band in English (and not in code) to all shipping in the area, giving his position, requesting assistance with the rescue effort, and promising not to attack. It read:
If any ship will assist the ship-wrecked Laconia crew, I will not attack providing I am not being attacked by ship or air forces. I picked up 193 men. 4, 53 South, 11, 26 West. ― German submarine.
The British in Freetown intercepted this message but, believing it might be a ruse of war, refused to credit it. Two days later, on 15 September, a message was passed to the Americans that Laconia had been torpedoed and the British merchant ship Empire Haven was en route to pick up survivors. The “poorly worded message” implied that Laconia had only been sunk that day and made no mention that the Germans were involved in a rescue attempt under a cease-fire or that neutral French ships were also en route.
German subs picking up survivors of the Laconia.
U-156 remained on the surface at the scene for the next two and a half days. At 11:30 on 15 September, she was joined by U-506, and a few hours later by both U-507, and the Italian submarine Capellini. The four submarines, with lifeboats in tow and hundreds of survivors standing on their decks, headed for the African coastline and a rendezvous with the Vichy French surface warships that had set out from Senegal and Dahomey.
During the night the submarines became separated. On 16 September at 11:25am, U-156 was spotted by an American B-24 Liberator bomber flying from a secret airbase on Ascension Island. The submarine was travelling with a Red Cross flag draped across her gun deck. Hartenstein signalled to the pilot in both Morse code and English requesting assistance. A British officer also messaged the aircraft:
RAF officer speaking from German submarine, Laconia survivors on board, soldiers, civilians, women, children.
A USAAF B-24 Liberator bombs U-156 while the German sub, flying the Red Cross flag, was carrying survivors of the Laconia.
Lieutenant James D. Harden of the United States Army Air Forces did not respond to the messages, and turned away and notified his base of the situation. The senior officer on duty that day, Captain Robert C. Richardson III, who claimed that he did not know that this was a Red Cross-sanctioned German rescue operation, ordered the B-24 to “sink the sub”. He later claimed that:
• He believed that the rules of war, at the time, did not permit a combat ship to fly Red Cross flags.
• He feared that the German submarine would attack the two Allied freighters diverted by the British to the site.
• He assumed that the German submarine was rescuing only the Italian POWs.
• In his tactical assessment, he believed that the submarine might discover and shell the secret Ascension airfield and fuel tanks, thus cutting off a critical Allied resupply air route to British forces in Egypt and Soviet forces in Russia.
Harden flew back to the scene of the rescue effort, and at 12:32 attacked with bombs and depth charges. One landed among the lifeboats in tow behind U-156, killing dozens of survivors, while others straddled the submarine itself causing minor damage. Hartenstein cast adrift those lifeboats still afloat and ordered the survivors on his deck into the water. The submarine submerged slowly to give those still on the deck a chance to get into the water and escape. According to Harden’s report, he made four runs at the submarine. On the first three the depth charges and bombs failed to release, on the fourth he dropped two bombs:
The sub rolled over and was last seen bottom up. Crew had abandoned ship and taken to surrounding lifeboats. — Lieutenant James D. Harden
The crew of the Liberator were later awarded medals for the alleged sinking of U-156, when they had in fact only sunk two lifeboats.
Ignoring Commander Hartenstein’s request that they stay in the area to be rescued by the Vichy French, two lifeboats decided to head for Africa. One, which began the journey with 68 people on board, reached the African coast 27 days later with only 16 survivors. The other was rescued by a British trawler after 40 days at sea. Only four of its 52 occupants were still alive.
The order given by Richardson has been called a prima facie war crime. Under the conventions of war at sea ships, including submarines, engaged in rescue operations are held immune from attack.
Unaware of the attack, U-507, U-506 and the Italian submarine Cappellini continued to pick up survivors. The following morning Commander Revedin of Cappellini found that he was rescuing survivors who had been set adrift by U-156. At 11:30am Revedin received the following message:
Bordeaux to Cappellini: Reporting attack already undergone by other submarines. Be ready to submerge for action against the enemy. Put shipwrecked on rafts except women, children, and Italians, and make for minor grid-square 56 of grid-square 0971 where you will land remainder shipwrecked on to French ships. Keep British prisoners. Keep strictest watch enemy planes and submarines. End of message.
U-507 and U-506 received confirmation from headquarters of the attack on U-156 and were asked for the number of survivors rescued. Commander Schacht of U-507 replied that he had 491, of which fifteen were women and sixteen were children. Commander Wurdemann of U-506 confirmed 151, including nine women and children. The next message from headquarters ordered them to cast adrift all the British and Polish survivors, mark their positions and instruct them to remain exactly where they were and proceed with all haste to the rescue rendezvous. The respective commanders chose not to cast any survivors adrift.
Five B-25s from Ascension’s permanent squadron and Hardin’s B-24 continued to search for submarines from dawn till dusk. On 17 September, one B-25 sighted Laconia‘s lifeboats and informed Empire Haven of their position. Hardin’s B-24 sighted U-506, which had 151 survivors on board including nine women and children, and attacked. On the first run the bombs failed to drop, U-506 crash dived and on the second run the B-24 dropped two 500 lb bombs and two 350 lb depth charges but they caused no damage.
On 17 September, the British at Freetown sent an ambiguous message to Ascension informing them that three French ships from Dakar were en route. Captain Richardson assumed the French intended to invade Ascension so the submarine hunting was cancelled in order to prepare for an invasion.
The French cruiser Gloire picked up 52 survivors, all British, while still 60 miles from the rendezvous point. Gloire then met with the sloop Annamite with both meeting U-507 and U-506 at the rendezvous point at a little after 2:00pm on 17 September. With the exception of two British officers kept aboard U-507, the survivors were all transferred to the rescue ships. Gloire sailed off on her own and within four hours rescued another 11 lifeboats. At 10:00pm Gloire found another lifeboat and proceeded to a planned rendezvous with Annamite. At 1:00am a lookout spotted a light on the horizon, which was investigated despite this meaning Gloire would not be able to make the rendezvous, and a further 84 survivors were rescued. A new rendezvous was arranged, the ships meeting at 9:30am with Annamite transferring her survivors to Gloire. A count was then taken: 373 Italians, 70 Poles and 597 British who included 48 women and children. Gloire arrived at Dakar on 21 September to resupply before sailing for Casablanca, arriving there on 25 September. On arrival, Colonel Baldwin, on behalf of all the British survivors, presented Captain Graziani with a letter that read as follows:
We the undersigned officers of His Majesty’s Navy, Army and Air Force and of the Merchant Navy, and also on behalf of the Polish detachment, the prisoners of war, the women and children, wish to express to you our deepest and sincerest gratitude for all you have done, at the cost of very great difficulties for your ship and her crew, in welcoming us, the survivors of His Majesty’s transport-ship, the Laconia.
The Italian submarine Cappellini had been unable to find the French warships so radioed for instructions and awaited a response. The French sloop Dumont-d’Urville was sent to rendezvous with Cappellini and by chance rescued a lifeboat from the British cargo ship Trevilley, which also had been torpedoed on 12 September. After searching for other Trevilley survivors without luck, Dumont-d’Urville met Cappellini on 20 September. With the exception of six Italians and two British officers, the remaining survivors were transferred to Dumont-d’Urville. Dumont-d’Urville later transferred the Italians to Annamite, which landed them at Dakar on 24 September. Of Laconia’s original complement of 2,732, only 1,113 survived. Of the 1,619 who died, 1,420 were Italian POWs.
From Casablanca, most of the survivors were taken to Mediouna to await transport to a prison camp in Germany. On 8 November, the Allied invasion of North Africa began liberating the survivors, who were taken aboard the ship Anton which landed them in the United States.
One of the survivors, Gladys Foster, wrote a detailed description of the sinking, the rescue and then subsequent two-month internment in Africa. Gladys was the wife of Chaplain to the Forces the Rev. Denis Beauchamp Lisle Foster, who was stationed in Malta. She was on board the ship with her 17-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Barbara Foster, travelling back to Britain. During the mayhem of the sinking the two were separated and it was not until days later that Gladys discovered her daughter had survived and was on another raft. She was urged to write her recollection not long after landing back in London.
Doris Hawkins (missionary nurse, SRN, SCM) survived the Laconia incident and spent 27 days adrift in Lifeboat no. 9, finally coming ashore on the coast of Liberia. She was returning to England after five years in Palestine, with a 14-month-old girl named Sally who was lost to the sea as they were transferred into the lifeboat. Doris Hawkins wrote a pamphlet entitled “Atlantic Torpedo” after her eventual return to England, published by Victor Gollancz in 1943. In it she writes of the moments when Sally was lost: “We found ourselves on top of the arms and legs of a panic-stricken mass of humanity. The lifeboat, filled to capacity with men, women and children, was leaking badly and rapidly filling with water; at the same time it was crashing against the ship’s side. Just as Sally was passed over to me, the boat filled completely and capsized, flinging us all into the water. I lost her. I did not hear her cry even then, and I am sure that God took her immediately to Himself without suffering. I never saw her again.” Doris Hawkins was one of 16 survivors (out of 69 in the lifeboat when it was cast adrift from the U-boat). She spent the remaining war years personally visiting the families of people who perished in the lifeboat, returning mementos entrusted to her by them in their dying moments. In Doris’s words, “It is impossible to imagine why I should have been chosen to survive when so many did not. I have been reluctant to write the story of our experiences, but in answer to many requests I have done so; and if it strengthens someone’s faith, if it is an inspiration to any, if it brings home to others, hitherto untouched, all that ‘those who go down to the sea in ships’ face for our sakes, hour by hour, day by day, year in and year out – it will not have been written in vain”.
Survivor Jim McLoughlin states in One Common Enemy that after the incident Hartenstein asked him if he was in the Royal Navy, which he was, and then asked why a passenger ship was armed, stating, “If it wasn’t armed, I would not have attacked.” McLoughlin believes this indicates Hartenstein had thought it was a troop transport rather than a passenger ship; by signalling to the Royal Navy, Laconia was acting as a de facto naval auxiliary.
The Laconia incident had far-reaching consequences. Until that point, it was common for U-boats to assist torpedoed survivors with food, water, simple medical care for the wounded, and a compass bearing to the nearest landmass. It was extremely rare for survivors to be brought on board as space on a U-boat was barely enough for its own crew. On 17 September 1942, in response to the incident, Admiral Dönitz issued an order named Triton Null, which later became known as the Laconia Order. In it Dönitz prohibited U-boat crews from attempting rescues; survivors were to be left in the sea. Even afterwards, U-boats still occasionally provided aid for survivors.
At the Nuremberg Trials held by the Allies in 1946, Dönitz was indicted for war crimes. The issuance of the “Laconia order” was the centerpiece of the prosecution case, a decision that backfired badly. Its introduction allowed the defence to recount at length the numerous instances in which German submariners acted with humanity where in similar situations the Allies behaved callously. Dönitz pointed out that the order itself was a direct result of this callousness and the attack on a rescue operation by US aircraft. The Americans had also practiced unrestricted submarine warfare, under their own equivalent to the “Laconia order”, which had been in force since they entered the war. Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, the wartime commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, provided unapologetic written testimony on Dönitz’s behalf at his trial that the U.S. Navy had waged unrestricted submarine warfare in the Pacific from the very first day the U.S. entered the war.
The prosecution has introduced much evidence surrounding two orders of Dönitz, War Order No. 154, issued in 1939, and the so-called Laconia Order of 1942. The defense argued that these orders and the evidence supporting them do not show such a policy and introduced much evidence to the contrary. The Tribunal was of the opinion that the evidence did not establish with the certainty required that Dönitz deliberately ordered the killing of shipwrecked survivors.
In view of all the facts proved and in particular of an order of the British Admiralty announced on 8 May 1940, according to which all vessels should be sunk on sight in the Skagerrak, and the answers to interrogatories by U.S. Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz stating unrestricted submarine warfare was carried on in the Pacific Ocean by the United States from the first day of the Pacific War, the sentence of Dönitz was not assessed on the ground of his breaches of the international law of submarine warfare.
The person who issued the order to attack during the rescue operation and the aircraft commander who carried it out were both prima facie guilty of a war crime. The conduct of the aircraft commander appears to be entirely inexcusable since he must have observed the rescue operation. During the time that they are engaged in such an operation, enemy submarines are no longer lawful objects of attack. The fact that the US Army Air Force took no action to investigate this incident, and that no trials took place under the then-effective domestic criminal code, the Articles of War, was a serious reflection on the entire chain of military command. How odd it is that the Germans, who murdered so many during World War II, acted with more integrity in the Laconia incident than did the U.S. military.
The Sinking of the Laconia: click on the image below or watch on YouTube. (3m36s)
Sources used for this post include U-Boat.net, the Wikipedia article* on the incident, MilitaryWikia and U-Boat Aces. * (We try to avoid using the often-compromised Wikipedia, but this article seems to be largely accurate.)