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World War 2 History: The Sinking of the Laconia and Its Effect on the War

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I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

RMS Laconia

WWII: Cunard Line postcard of the RMS Laconia (1921-1942), circa 1921

WWII: Cunard Line postcard of the RMS Laconia (1921-1942), circa 1921

The RMS Laconia Incident

In September of 1942, a German U-Boat torpedoed RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Laconia, carrying mainly Italian prisoners of war, off the coast of West Africa. The U-Boat surfaced and started picking up survivors and its captain requested help from nearby ships, including other U-Boats. During the operation, an American bomber attacked the rescue effort with bombs and depth charges, forcing the U-Boats to abandon the rescued crew and passengers and dive to safety.

Laconia Was Armed

World War 2: 6 inch Mark VII gun on the Laconia.

World War 2: 6 inch Mark VII gun on the Laconia.

The Laconia Is Torpedoed

RMS Laconia, an armed ocean liner, was carrying 1,800 Italian POWs to Britain from the Middle East around Africa. Also on board were 160 Polish soldiers, 268 British soldiers and 80 civilians (including women), in addition to the crew. On the evening of September 12, 1942, U-Boat U-156 spotted what they thought was an armed troopship rather than a passenger ship (the distinction is fuzzy because the Laconia was armed) and fired two torpedoes into her, killing several hundred instantly. As she started to sink, U-156 surfaced to capture the senior officers. When Captain Werner Hartenstein, realized there were more than 2,000 survivors in the water or in lifeboats and many were Italian POWs, he began rescue operations.

Survivors on U-Boats' Decks

WW2: Shuttle service for shipwrecked persons from the Laconia between U156 (foreground) and U507 (background). 15 September 1942.

WW2: Shuttle service for shipwrecked persons from the Laconia between U156 (foreground) and U507 (background). 15 September 1942.

Help Requested-- Any Help

Because there were so many, Hartenstein requested help from Submarine Command in Germany. Admiral Dönitz ordered two nearby U-Boats to the scene. A little later, Caption Hartenstein had the following message broadcast in the clear and in English for additional help from anyone in the area:

"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."

U-156 remained on the surface for two days while those survivors she could not accommodate sat in or clung to lifeboats or rafts. On September 15, three other submarines, two German and one Italian, joined in the rescue effort. All four vessels, with hundreds of survivors on their decks and the rest in lifeboats in tow, headed toward Africa. Each sub had also draped large Red Cross flags across their gun decks.

Rescue Attacked

In the meantime, the British, though skeptical of its authenticity, had passed on the request for help to the secret American airbase on Ascension Island. Senior American officer Captain Robert Richardson III decided he couldn't take the chance of the Germans discovering the secret airbase (even though the rescue was occurring hundreds of miles to the north and heading toward Liberia). When a B-24 spotted the U-Boats on September 16, Richardson ordered them sunk. The bomber dropped bombs and depth charges-- one fell among the lifeboats-- and the U-Boats cast them adrift, ordered the survivors on their decks into the water and dove to safety.

Later that day, French vessels arrived and some 1,500 passengers were picked up; around 1,000 of the Laconia's passengers and crew did not survive.

Unrestricted Naval Warfare Declared

The Laconia incident resulted in German Admiral Dönitz issuing the “Laconia Order”, ushering in total unrestricted naval warfare for the entire German Navy (not just submarines). Prior to this, it was customary for surface vessels of most navies to pick up survivors.

When accused of war crimes during the Nuremberg trials for ordering unrestricted submarine warfare, Admiral Dönitz's defense pointed out that both the British and Americans had practiced the same. U.S. Admiral Chester Nimitz admitted this was true in the Pacific from the day they entered the war. Based on this common guilt, Dönitz's sentence did not include reference to “unrestricted submarine warfare”.

Some thought Captain Richardson should also be charged with a war crime, but, in the hazy, legalese of warfare, since use of Red Cross flags by armed U-Boats was also a violation of the rules, such charges were considered to be a waste of time.

Captain Hartenstein and the crew of U-156 were killed in action by depth charges from a U.S. Catalina aircraft on March 8, 1943.

Have They Stopped Naming Ships Laconia/Lakonia?

The Cunard ocean liner RMS Laconia, built in 1921 and sunk by a U-Boat in 1942 in World War Two described above was not the first Cunard ship of that name to be torpedoed. In World War One, its predecessor, the original RMS Laconia built in 1911, was torpedoed on February 25, 1917 by the German U-Boat U-50.

Twelve people died in the first RMS Laconia attack, two of them Americans. One of the survivors was Chicago Tribune reporter Floyd Gibbons, whose sensational reports of the sinking made him famous (though even he admitted the Laconia was also transporting war materiel). His dispatches were read in both houses of Congress and the outrage contributed to the declaration of war by the U.S. against Germany five weeks later.

In 1963, a cruise ship named Lakonia (Greek spelling) caught fire near the Canary Islands and 128 people died.

Hopefully, the name Laconia has been retired from future ocean-going vessels.

Another, Earlier Laconia

RMS Laconia (the original Laconia) (1911-1917) at New York. Torpedoed in World War One.

RMS Laconia (the original Laconia) (1911-1917) at New York. Torpedoed in World War One.

Another, Later Laconia

Aerial photo of TSMS Lakonia (1929-1963) burning. Caught fire and sank in 1963.

Aerial photo of TSMS Lakonia (1929-1963) burning. Caught fire and sank in 1963.

Sources

  1. Laconia Incident
  2. Laconia Order
  3. Unrestricted Submarine Warfare
  4. War Order No. 154
  5. The Sinking of the Laconia
  6. RMS Laconia (1921)
  7. Werner Hartenstein
  8. RMS Laconia (1911)
  9. 1918-The Sinking of the Cunard Laconia
  10. The Sinking of the Laconia
  11. TSMS Lakonia

Questions & Answers

Question: What was the origin of the name?

Answer: While the name 'Laconia' might refer to an area in Greece whose capital was Sparta, 'Laconia' is also an old name for a region in New Hampshire, US. The original RMS Laconia (sunk in the First World War) had a sister ship that was named RMS Franconia. 'Franconia' is an old region in Germany, but there is also a Franconia Notch . . . also in New Hampshire, US.

© 2012 David Hunt

Comments

Carolyn J. Norris on April 25, 2017:

I had never heard the story of the Laconia. Watching Jeremy Wade, of the River monster TV show. Grabbed my tablet to read about the incident...During the rescue oitseems that both sides showed great bravery and courage to save as many lives as possible on each side. Leave it to the "bosses" to screw things UP.

BTW, I was listening to the radio on the day that Pearl Harbor was attacked...so I am no kid, lol (

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on December 29, 2012:

Hi gerard. Not to make excuses, but the British doubted the calls were genuine. Combine that with the fog of war and everyone covering their own backsides, and you end up with one big clusterkiss of a disaster. The Americans and British may have had a "special relationship" but that doesn't mean all American loved the British and vice versa, so there was undoubtedly plenty of scurrying and finger-pointing behind the scenes.

gerard reilly on December 29, 2012:

does anyone know why the british consulate decided to ignore distress calls from the u-boat commander and instead passed it over to the u.s, secret air base ? - surely that action was a deriliction of duty , and why was it not followed up when the powers that be decided to blame for the incident ?

Jools Hogg from North-East UK on July 26, 2012:

I wonder if it was the 2 parter I saw, I think Alan Bleasdale directed it. I'm going to google it...sad that he died in that way nonetheless.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on July 26, 2012:

Thanks for reading and commenting, Jools99. I believe a mini-series (actually two episodes, I think) will be available for viewing in the U.S. soon. It has already aired in Europe. Capt. Hartenstein and his crew were depth-charged six months later and all perished.

Jools Hogg from North-East UK on July 26, 2012:

Interesting article. I think I saw a programme about Captain Hartenstein recently; what an amazing chain of events. It is sad that the US bombed the ship but I suppose during wartime, these awful things are going to happen. What happened to Hartenstein after the war I wonder?

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on July 15, 2012:

Thanks for reading and commenting, Gypsy. Remember, do not board any ship named "Laconia".

Gypsy Rose Lee from Daytona Beach, Florida on July 15, 2012:

Voted up and interesting. A part of history that is fascinating and which I did not know. Great hub as always. Passing this on.

goosegreen on July 12, 2012:

Thanks. I will definitely have a look.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on July 12, 2012:

goosegreen, thanks very much for commenting. As a matter of fact, I have already written a hub about the Gustloff called "World War 2 History: The Sinking of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff". Hope you enjoy that, too. As you probably know, the Gustloff was the worst maritime disaster in history. Thanks again for reading my hubs.

goosegreen on July 11, 2012:

Harald another great piece and a sinking I was not aware of. Have you ever thought about writing about the Willhelm Gustloff sinking?

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on July 10, 2012:

Thanks, gmarquardt. I admit I got confused at the very beginning of my research because there were two different RMS Laconia ocean liners, both torpedoed by U-Boats in both world wars and both affected their wars.

gmarquardt from Hill Country, Texas on July 10, 2012:

Great hub. Reading stories like this remind me that you can always learn new things.