The Laconia Incident


The Atlantic Ocean can be an unforgiving place at the best of times.  During the Second World War, combatants on both sides were at peril both from the ocean and the enemy.  On 12 September 1942, the British ship RMS Laconia, which was armed with deck guns, depth charges, and asdic equipment , making her a legitimate military target, was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat 156. U-156 was on patrol in the South Atlantic, off the bulge of West Africa, midway between Liberia and the Ascension Island. Commanded by KL Werner Hartenstein, she was one of the many Type IXCs stationed along the west coast of Africa.

Yet that was not the end of the story.  What unfolded was a remarkable tale of heroism and events both remarkable and ultimately truly unfortunate for many of those involved.  The U-boat surfaced, its commander hoping to capture the senior crew of the ship.  The horrified crew instead saw over 2000 people in the water.

The Germans had not known that they had just destroyed a PoW ship. The survivors of the sinking were six hundred miles from the coast of Africa.  There were over sixty British civilians and over 400 British and Polish troops.  Their cargo had been a strange one – 1800 Italian prisoners of war.  The first irony of the situation then, was that the German U-boat had imperilled many of its own allies.


The survivors faced a certain and protracted watery death.

Then, the U-Boat commander Werner Hartenstein (left), made an extraordinary decision that went beyond all protocol.werner-hartenstein-u-boat-ace-laconia-incident

He ordered the U-boat to surface he ordered his submariners to save as many of the marooned survivors as possible.

This act of humanity would save the lives of many hundreds of people.  Yet the tragedy of the Laconia was not over yet.

Hartenstein requested instructions from his headquarters and Admiral Karl Dönitz assigned three other submarines to assist. Donitz would explain many years later, “to give them an order contrary to the laws of humanity would have destroyed it (the crews morale) utterly”. The Vichy-French Government also dispatched three ships toward the area. Hartenstein then broadcast a general, uncoded call for assistance in plain English and the British redirected two merchant ships to the area. His message was plain and simple.  Broadcast on the 25 meter band in clear English it said “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.”  He continued to rescue more survivors after the message was sent, including 5 women. U-156 remained on the surface for two days with her decks packed with survivors until joined by the other submarines. Together, they began heading for the African coast.

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Over the course of forty eight hours the crew of the U-156 saved over 400 people. Yet the sheer numbers created a new problem.  200 could be crammed aboard and atop of the submarine – yet the remainder had to be towed behind in a series of lifeboats strung together.

The French Vichy government dispatched two warships from Senegal. The U-boat was then joined by two others German submarines (U-506 and U-507) and an Italian one, the Cappellini.  With the four submarines, their gun decks draped in Red Cross flags headed towards the rendezvous point.  The survivors on the top decks of the submarines were bewildered but no doubt happy to be alive.

This story on its own would be remarkable enough.  Yet fate had a cruel twist in store.


The U-Boat and its strange cargo were spotted by an American B-24 bomber on the morning of 16 September.  The aircraft was transiting eastward from a very secret base on Ascension Island on toward Africa. U-156’s deck was still crowded with survivors, she was towing as many as four lifeboats loaded with people, and she had a large Red Cross flag draped over the gun deck. The B-24 circled low over the U-Boat for 30 minutes assessing the situation and then flew off to the west. The B-24 pilot radioed a report of what he had seen and asked for instructions. The reply of base Commander, Captain Robert C Richardson,was clear and direct: “Sink the sub.”

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The following day, the Vichy-French ships arrived in the area and began collecting survivors. In all, 1,113 of Laconia’s original compliment of 2,732 survived the sinking. Nearly all of the dead (88%) were Italian prisoners of war.

The attack on a submarine that was engaged in a mission of mercy while flying the flag of the Red Cross angered the Germans generally and Karl Dönitz in particular. In response to this attack, he issued a sweeping order to the entire U-Boat fleet that became known as the Laconia Order. The central portion of this order said: “All attempts to save survivors of sunken ships, also the picking up of floating men and putting them on board lifeboats, the setting upright of overturned lifeboats, and the handing over of food and water are to be discontinued. These rescues contradict the primitive demands of warfare to destroy enemy ships and their crews.” This order changed the very definition of submarine warfare. Up to this point, German U-Boats operated more or less under the prevailing maritime doctrine known as the Cruiser Rules, which called for ships to engage in the kinds of actions Hartenstein had done in this case. The Laconia Order unleashed the new and brutal doctrine of Unrestricted Submarine Warfare that remained in place for the rest of the war with dire consequences for many merchant seamen.

During the post-war Nuremberg Trial of Karl Dönitz for various War Crimes, the Laconia Order was displayed prominently in the case against him, a decision that squarely backfired on the prosecution. The German side of the Laconia Incident came out for the first time and US Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz provided unapologetic written testimony on behalf of Dönitz saying the US Navy in the Pacific had engaged in very similar unrestricted submarine warfare since the very first day the US entered the war.

There were no War Crimes charges brought against the American officer who ordered the B-24 pilot to attack U-156, Captain Robert C. Richardson III; there was no discipline at all or even much of an inquiry from the Americans.

The Sinking of the Laconia has been made in to a BBC film.

Published in: on December 26, 2016 at 8:28 pm  Leave a Comment  

Shoot, Loot, and Scoot


By Mike Walsh

The Soviet system built its reputation on all for one and one for all. This seems to be a euphemism for what’s yours is mine and what’s mine is mine.

By December 1941 the Soviets realised that the near defeated Bolshevik State was certain to be rescued by the U.S and Britain. If a working alliance with Britain and the U.S could turn defeat into victory the pillaging of Democratic Germany could commence.

The allied plunder of the defeated Reich was breath-taking in its unprecedented enormity. Never in the history of conquest and pillage has there been anything to equal the spoils of defeated Germany’s assets.

The Soviet Trophy Commission of The State Defence Committee was established in 1941 by Decree № 3123cc. The department, specifically created to plunder defeated Germany’s human and other assets was later known as the Trophy Committee.


The looting of defeated Germany by the USSR was not limited to official Trophy Brigades. The brigandage included ordinary troops and functionaries given free licence to take whatever they could lay their hands on.

At least 2.5 million German artworks and 10 million books and manuscripts disappeared into the Soviet Union. Much of the artwork and treasures were of international importance. Such artworks included the Gutenberg Bibles and many Impressionist paintings; a substantial number of these irreplaceable artworks had been privately owned.

Soviet Union’s Trophy Brigades, supported by the Bolsheviks henchmen in Washington, Wall Street and Westminster, were described by Magazine as ‘hit lists’.

According to Reparations Commissioner, Edwin W. Pauley, by May 1945, the United States had earmarked 144 plants for removal to Bolshevik controlled Russia. Two hundred key German plants were placed under direct Soviet control. The enslaved German work force of 1,300,000 was forced to work on starvation wages, the profits going to the USSR.

By 1952 the Soviet Union’s haul of priceless artworks was established at 900,000 works of art, paintings, statues, figurines, artefacts and national treasures. Pillaged artworks include sculptures by Nicola Pisano, reliefs by Donatello, Gothic Madonna’s, paintings by Botticelli and van Dyck, and diverse Baroque works created from stone and wood.

Poland took possession of collections that the beleaguered Reich had evacuated to remote places. Unknown to the then struggling Germans the ‘safe territory’ had already been surrendered to Stalin’s Red Army. The illegal documents were signed by England’s wartime premier Winston Churchill and U.S President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Poles refer to this loot as Berlinka. The lost hoards had mainly been the property of Berlin museums and galleries.

A notable collection in Polish possession, now housed at the Kraków Aviation Museum, is the private collection of 25 historic aircraft once owned by Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring.  Ironically, the collection includes two Polish aircraft surrendered to the Germans following the Reich’s pre-emptive invasion of Poland in September 1939.


Entire libraries and archives with files from all over Europe were looted and their files taken to Russia by the rampaging Soviet Trophy Brigades. The Russian State Military Archive (Rossiiskii Gosudarstvenni Voennyi Arkhiv-RGVA) still contains a large number of files of ‘foreign origin’.

Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie Gallery lost a great many major paintings. Among the plunder were seven Peter Paul Rubens artworks, three Caravaggio paintings and three paintings by Van Dyck. The whereabouts of the looted art is unknown. These are thought to be secreted away in depositories situated in Moscow and St. Petersburg.


Cypresses in Starry Night (F 1540, JH 1732) by Vincent van Gogh (1889).[1] The only known pen and ink study of Starry Night and one of the most famous pieces in the “Baldin Collection”.

Unlike their Western allies neither the Soviets nor the Russians today are embarrassed by their pillage of the defeated Reich. The oft quoted Napoleonic penchant for art acquisition seems to justify Soviet example and avarice. Russian art experts shrug and point to the plundered treasures held in various Western museums and art galleries. This seems to be a case of blame Hitler’s Germany for the sins of Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, and the British Empire.

Germany was not the only defeated country to see its national artworks, gold bullion and national assets ‘trans-located’ to Bolshevik Occupied Russia. Victims of Soviet and allied rapacity included Bulgaria, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary, Italy, Romania and Finland. The illegal transfer of national treasures from defeated Europe to the USSR, Britain and the United States continued into the 1950s and 1960s.

The Russians concede possession of approximately 1.3 million German books, 250,000 museum objects and more than 266,000 archival files. In particular, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg now has about 800 paintings, 200 sculptures, and papyruses looted from the Austrian Library in Vienna. The Hermitage also has Japanese and Chinese works of art taken from the East Asian Museum in Berlin.


In 1995 The Hermitage exhibited the French art of the 19th century from the German collections of Friedrich Carl Siemens (1877–1952), Eduard von der Heydt, Alice Meyer (widow of Eduard Lorenz Lorenz-Meyer), Otto Gerstenberg, Otto Krebs, Bernhard Koehler and Monica Sachse (widow of Paul Sachse).

In 1996 the Pushkin Museum exhibited the Red Army stolen treasures of the Priamos. In 2007 were displayed German owned artefacts relating to the Merowinger (Merovingian dynasty). From the Museum für Vor-und Frühgeschichte, Berlin and Museum for Prehistory and Early History, were taken the 7th Century sword scabbard of Schwertscheide von Gutenstein.

Included in the Soviet plunder are extensive collections taken from the Kunsthalle in Bremen. The pillage includes the Baldin Collection). Also taken were the properties of the estates of Ferdinand Lassalle and Walther Rathenau, collections owned by the Bestände der Gothaer library; the renowned library in Wernigerode as well as the armoury at Rüstkammer der Wartburg.

In 2008 it was announced that 87 paintings ransacked from the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museums of Aachen, were exhibited in the museum of city Simferopol in Crimea. Until 2005 these artworks had simply been listed as missing. Interestingly, Aachen had been occupied by the American armed forces.

A brief change of heart occurred when, at a 1998 conference, Russian President Boris Yeltsin promised the return of art ransacked from defeated Germany. His worthy gesture horrified the State Duma of the Russian Federation (parliament). On April 15, 1998, a decree was passed that declared that ‘the cultural valuables trans-located to the USSR after World War II were to be declared national patrimony of the Russian Federation.’ It seemed to be a case of finders keepers, losers weepers.

Published in: on December 26, 2016 at 6:48 pm  Leave a Comment  


Published in: on December 26, 2016 at 5:00 am  Leave a Comment