The Laconia Incident

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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