The sinking of the Laconia “The Tragedy that changed the Battle of the Atlantic”

Our exhibition deals with the tragedy of ship losses during both world wars – along with the hardships suffered by merchant seamen in the process. In both of these wars, this suffering was caused by the new tactic of unrestricted submarine warfare – which enabled civilian vessels of all types to become subject to unprovoked attack and sinking, as enemy targets in total war.

This author has given a presentation concerning the sinking of one vessel during the Second World War – a tragedy that would result in a high loss of life and epitomizes the suffering of all involved in the Battle of the Atlantic. Furthermore this sinking, and the events that followed, would help to cause unrestricted U-Boat warfare to become even more brutal than before.

The ship was the RMS Laconia – a British Cunard Liner brought into war service – and she was sunk on the 12th September 1942 by the German U-boat U-156. The story of her sinking, the fate of the survivors and the immediate consequences is one of many cases that reveal just how much the traditional rules of war – including many clauses of the Geneva Convention – were cast aside during the Second World War, with terrible consequences for civilian lives.

RMS Laconia

The 20,000 ton Liverpool-registered Laconia had been launched in 1921 for the Cunard Line, as replacement for a passenger liner of the same name that had been torpedoed and sunk during the First World War. Like most passenger liners upon the outbreak of the war in 1939, she was requisitioned by the Admiralty to be drafted into service. Initially registered as an Armed Merchant Cruiser, she was soon fitted with two 4.7-inch naval anti-surface guns, as well as an array of 3-inch, 1.5-inch and quick-firing Bofors anti-aircraft guns.

Her role from 1939-1941 was as an auxiliary escort vessel, protecting convoys from German U-boats, aircraft and surface raiders during the initial stages of the Battle of the Atlantic. In June-August of 1941, the decision was made to convert her into a troopship, due to the ever present need to reinforce British forces on various fronts, especially North Africa. The refit work required for this was completed at Birkenhead in early 1942 – from that point on Laconia made troop-runs to the Middle East, especially Egypt.

On 11th August 1942, after depositing troops and equipment at Port Taufiq in the Suez Canal (now Suez Port), Laconia was ordered to take on her primary cargo for what would be her final voyage: roughly 1,800 Italian prisoners of war, captured on the North African front, as well as civilian passengers, British military service personnel and Polish soldiers assigned as guards to the Italian POWs.

Laconia was commanded by Captain Rudolph Sharp, a seasoned Merchant Navy officer who had been present during the evacuation of St. Nazarene in 1940 (two weeks after the evacuation of Dunkirk), in command of the requisitioned passenger liner RMS Lancastria. This vessel had been sunk off the French coast by Luftwaffe aircraft during this action, with the loss of over 1,700 lives – many of them civilian refugees.

Sharp had been fortunate to survive, and as a result of this experience protested at the overloading of his ship with such large numbers of POWs, straining the limits of the lifeboats and rafts aboard. His protests were ignored and the Laconia thus departed on the 12th August, stopping first at Mombasa in Kenya on the 22nd, then Durban in South Africa on the 28th, then finally Cape Town on September 1st. On each of these stops she took on additional British military personnel and off-loaded the wounded soldiers she initially carried.

After departing Cape Town on September 1st, she resumed her journey around the Cape of Good Hope, heading north in the direction of the British Isles. The Italian prisoners remained aboard, to be off-loaded in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in West Africa. Here they would be sent to proper POW camps.

By the time of her final moments, the Laconia was still carrying close to 1,800 POWs, in addition to 463 officers and crew, 286 British military personnel (mostly the gun crews), 103 Polish guards and 80 British civilians (including women and children, as well as the wife of the Governor of Malta). The Italian prisoners were kept in the lower decks of the ship, in increasingly deteriorating conditions as the journey continued.

The Laconia was alone and unescorted when she was attacked on the 12th September, midway between Ascension Island and the Liberian coast by the Type IXC U-boat U-156, commanded by Korvettenkapitan Werner Hartenstein, who had served in the U-boat campaign from the beginning of the war.

This U-boat was part of a wolf-pack of five currently en route to patrol routes of Cape Town, on a mass attack mission intended to choke vital Allied supply lines heading around the Cape of Good Hope. The importance of this missions was paramount to the Axis – but events took a different course.

The crew of U-156 had first spotted the Laconia further to the south, and tracked her throughout the day. As she was registered as an armed troopship, the liner was a legitimate target of war – Hartenstein had no way of knowing what her cargo was. It was thus at nightfall that launched U-156 launched her attack.

Werner Hartenstein, commander of U-156

Hartenstein fired two torpedoes from the surface – both hit their target. Hundreds were killed instantly by the twin explosions – most of the victims in this instance were Italian POWs. The ship took on a heavy list to starboard, preventing half of the lifeboats on the port side from being launched – thus ensuring that though there were enough boats to take everyone on board (as was the legal requirement), a large number of survivors would not find a lifeboat.

Many of the Italians were left trapped in the lower decks by sealed hatches and gates, which the Polish and British guards had left locked as the ship rapidly sank. Others were reportedly shot or bayoneted as they tried to escape, or prevented from boarding the crowded lifeboats with fire-axes after the ship sank. Those that survived escaped by breaking open the gates, or climbing up the ship’s ventilation shafts.

As a result of all of these circumstances, the loss of life from the sinking itself was severe, especially for the Italians. Captain Rudolph Sharp went down with his ship, together with 97 crew, 133 passengers and soldiers, 33 Polish guards and 1,394 POWs. The Laconia officially sank at 11:23pm, on the 12 September 1942, within fifteen minutes of being hit.

In the wake of the sinking, hundreds of survivors were left struggling in the water, while others found refuge aboard the lifeboats and rafts that the Laconia‘s crew had been able to launch. Most of the survivors in the water were Italian POWs, as well as British survivors.

Thus when U-156 surveyed the area – searching under a directive to retrieve the captain or chief engineer for questioning – in the wake of the sinking, Hartenstein and his crew were shocked to hear Italian cries of “Aiuto, aiuto!” (Help, help!) alongside British voices. Hartenstein was also quick to note the presence of civilians, including women and children. Now aware that imprisoned Axis soldiers had been aboard the ship he had sunk, he instantly made the decision to rescue the survivors.

U-156 crowded with Laconia survivors

Provisions were made to take on the Italians, as well as the surviving crew, civilians, British and Polish service personnel aboard the U-156. The Type IXC U-boats had an average crew of sixty, and even then conditions were often cramped. Thus the U-boat was ill-equipped to take on hundreds of survivors and her crew faced a daunting challenge – many had to be assembled above deck, as shown in the above photo – while others remained in the lifeboats and rafts, now tethered to Hartenstein’s boat.

Realising the sheer volume of survivors, Hartenstein sent a message in the early hours of the 13th September, just after midnight. It was addressed to the Commander-in-Chief of the U-boat forces, Vice-Admiral Karl Doenitz. The message informed Doenitz of the situation and requested assistance along with further orders. Hartenstein also underlined that there were hundreds of friendly POWs awaiting rescue.

Likely influenced by this latter fact, Doenitz permitted Hartenstein to continue his rescue operation – and diverted two other U-boats from the wolf-pack bound to Cape Town, U-506 and U-507, to aid in retrieving survivors. He was also able to contact an Italian submarine on patrol in the Atlantic, the Capellini, to provide further assistance.

Doenitz also made sure to inform Berlin of the situation – but Hitler was furious that operations off Cape Town had been waylaid and ordered the rescue cancelled. The commander-in-chief of the German Navy, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, initially concurred with the Fuhrer – but eventually conceded on the condition that only the submarines already diverted should assist – all other U-boats in the area, including the rest of U-156‘s wolf-pack, should press on to Cape Town.

Raeder sent a request to the Vichy French (German allied-French) Navy to assist with its surface vessels, which would be better equipped to take the survivors to safety. The cruiser Gloire, as well as the sloops Annamite and Dumont d’Urville were dispatched from ports in French colonial Africa. Hitler grudgingly conceded to this and operations continued.

Now that Axis forces had been cleared to assist, Hartenstein wanted to make sure the operation would continue without risk from the Allied forces. He sent an un-coded message on the wide-band, broadcast in English: “If any ship will assist the shipwrecked Laconia crew, I will not attack her provided I am not attacked by ship or air forces.” The message was intended for all Allied forces in range to hear. As an additional precaution, a Red Cross flag was flow from U-156‘s conning tower.

Hartenstein’s message was picked up by the British military in Freetown, but it was dismissed as a ruse, designed to lure in other ships to be attacked. Thus no British naval assets joined the rescue – and the commanders in Freetown did not pass on the message to the US Army Air Force base on Ascension Island, where a number of long-range B-24 Liberator and B-25 Mitchell bombers were based.

These aircraft were based on the island in secret, in order to track down and destroy any U-boats detected in range. Since they had already been informed of the sinking, the presence of enemy submarines but not of any rescue operation, they were quickly launched on anti-submarine sorties in the wake of Laconia‘s loss.

On the 15th September, three days after the sinking, U-506, U-507 and the Capellini arrived to take on survivors from U-156. Many Italians were taken on by the latter, while other survivors were offloaded onto the other two German U-boats. The submarines also picked up lifeboats that had not yet been retrieved and scouted the length and breadth area for other survivors, increasing the scope of the rescue operation.

The survivors, both civilian and military, all recounted to correct treatment from the U-boat crews, and many complimented Hartenstein and his crew on their actions. However, the submarines were not equipped to carry multiple survivors and Doenitz forbade any more being taken on if that made diving the U-boats impossible. Thus there was a strict limit to how much the submarines could carry – taking on survivors was only a temporary measure, the intention was to transfer them to the inbound French warships.

Then, on the morning of the 16th September, Hartenstein’s boat was spotted by a lone B-24D Liberator, part of the unit based on Ascension Island. Flown by an inexperienced crew on their first mission, the plane made an initial recon pass over the submarine – during which Hartenstein prominently displayed his red cross flag and signalled the plane, before it flew off again.

The pilot and crew, unsure of the meaning of the situation, radioed Ascension Island for further orders. At this point, their aircraft was close to its fuel limit, and could only remain airborne for thirty minutes more – just enough time to return to base, so the pressure was on for a decision to be made quickly. Unaware of the German rescue operation, the commander of the US airbase, Captain Robert C. Richardson, immediately gave the order to attack.

laconia attack
Artist’s depiction – the moment of the B-24 air attack

At this point, the U-156 was still crowded with survivors, and also had lifeboats tethered to its hull. The other Axis submarines involved in the rescue were also in the area, and similarly vulnerable. Thus, the scene was one of utter chaos at the moment of the US air attack, as shown in the depiction above.

The B-24 made several passes over the U-boat, dropping bombs and depth charges, as well as strafing. As this happened, Hartenstein ordered the lifeboats cut loose and the survivors on deck to put on life-jackets – he had no choice but to crash dive. Remaining would have exposed both his boat and the Laconia survivors to further attack. As the U-156 dived, the pilot radioed his commander on Ascension Island, reporting that the submarine had been sunk.

In fact two lifeboats had been destroyed, and dozens of survivors killed. U-156 escaped with minor damage – but before leaving Hartenstein told the survivors to wait for the arrival of the French. The other three submarines, unaware of the attack, continued with the operation – but U-506 was also attacked on the 17th September. Carrying 151 survivors, she was forced to crash-dive and escaped without damage. Following this, the other submarines dispersed to avoid further attack.

However, on the afternoon of the same day, the Vichy French ships arrvied, lead by the 7,500 ton cruiser Gloire. The submarines that still carried survivors regrouped and transferred the refugees to the Vichy ships, which also continued to search for additional survivors and lifeboats. Eventually, the survivors taken on by the French were eventually offloaded at Dakar and Casablanca, after their week-long ordeal.

While the three French warships were able to retrieve most of the survivors and lifeboats that still remained, two lifeboats from the U-156 disobeyed Hartenstein’s order to wait for the French, and made for the West African Coast instead. Supplies of food and water quickly ran low, and many of the survivors aboard these boats died from exposure, hunger, thirst or consumption of saltwater. One eventually reached the Liberian coast on the 8th October, with sixteen survivors out of an original sixty-eight. Another was retrieved by a British trawler, with only four still alive out of fifty-two, on the 21st October, after forty days at sea.

Gloire Survivors
Artist’s depiction – survivors of Laconia, mostly Italian POWs, aboard Vichy French warship Gloire

Ultimately, 1,113 of Laconia‘s passengers, crew and prisoners survived the sinking. 1,619 were dead by the closing of events – the majority Italian prisoners, but also British civilians, including women and children.

The consequences of what became known as the Laconia incident were immediate. Hitler, angry that valuable U-boats had been diverted from their assigned tasks and having objected to the rescue operation from the beginning, was further enraged by the turn of the events and demanded that any and all aid to Allied survivors at sea cease at once, in retaliation for the US air attacks. Doenitz concurred and upon hearing of the B-24 attack, sent Hartenstein a curt radio signal on the evening of the 16th September:

You are in no circumstances to risk the safety of your boat. All measures to ensure safety, including abandonment of rescue operations, to be ruthlessly taken. Do not rely on enemy showing slightest consideration.

Furthermore, Doenitz issued a new, wide-ranging directive to his U-boat commanders and crews, which was suitably dubbed ‘the Laconia order’:

  1. All efforts to save survivors of sunken ships, such as the fishing out of swimming men and putting them on board lifeboats, the righting of overturned lifeboats, or the handing over of food and water, must stop. Rescue contradicts the most basic demands of the war: the destruction of hostile ships and their crews.
  2. The orders concerning the bringing-in of captains and chief engineers stay in effect.
  3. Survivors are to be saved only if their statements are important for the boat.
  4. Stay firm. Remember that the enemy has no regard for women and children when bombing German cities.

As a result, most U-boats no longer made any effort to assist Allied survivors – the conflict in the Atlantic had just become significantly more ruthless. Doenitz was eager to preserve his U-boats at any cost, while ensuring maximum damage to Allied shipping. As far as he was concerned, future rescue operations would only expose his boats to discovery and attack. Most of his crews obeyed the order – any who disobeyed would be subject to punishment. The suffering of civilian merchant seamen was increased by this turn of events.

Captain Werner Hartenstein would not survive the war – U-156 was attacked off Barbados on 8th March 1943 by US aircraft and lost with all hands. Doenitz, on the other hand, would go on to become commander-in-chief of the German Navy, following Raeder’s sacking by Hitler in January 1943. Furthermore, following Hitler’s suicide on 30th April 1945, Doenitz was named President of the Reich. In this position, he lead Nazi Germany in its final month of existence from the city of Flensburg, before the German surrender on the 8th May 1945.

Along with other leading Nazis, Karl Doenitz was brought to trial at Nuremberg in 1945 – the Laconia order was brought up as the main charge of war crimes against him, along with the charge of waging unrestricted submarine warfare in contrary to the existing rules of war. Doenitz however, was quick to recount the events of the sinking of the Laconia and the US air attack in his defence – thus the first charge backfired.

In addition, he also received a defence from an unexpected source – US Admiral Chester Nimitz, America’s main naval commander during the war in the Pacific. Nimitz pointed out that both the US and British Navies had also waged a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare against the Japanese merchant fleet in that theatre; this, together with the conduct of the Allied forces during the Laconia incident, made charging Doenitz with war crimes problematic for the Allied powers without investigating their own actions.

In the end – after a much-debated verdict – Doenitz received a reduced sentence of ten years in Spandau prison in West Berlin, before retiring after his release in 1956 and finally passing away on 24 December 1980. The former Grand Admiral Erich Raeder was also tried at Nuremberg and sentenced to life imprisonment, together with Doenitz in Spandau – but was released in 1955 due to ill health. He died in November 1960.

The Laconia incident was kept quiet on the Allied side, during and after the war – it was judged that news of such an incident would ‘give comfort to the enemy’ and would be potentially demoralising to the war effort. Immediately after the war, for the reasons mentioned above, it was still not widely publicised. It was only in the 1960s that the historians Dr Maurer Maurer and Lawrence J. Paszek documented the sinking and the events surrounding it. Ultimately, the US military never investigated the conduct of Captain Robert Richardson or his aircrew.

James Whittaker


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