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[1][2]U-156 and U-506 with ship-wrecked Laconia crew

The Laconia incident was an abortive naval rescue attempt in the Atlantic Ocean during World War II. On 12 September 1942, RMS Laconia, carrying some 80 civilians, 268 British Army soldiers, about 1,800 Italian prisoners of war, and 160 Polish soldiers (on guard), was struck and sunk by a torpedo from Kriegsmarine submarine U-156 off the coast of west Africa. The U-boat commander, Korvettenkapitän Werner Hartenstein and his crew immediately commenced rescue operations and were joined by the crews of other U-boats in the area. Heading to a rendezvous with Vichy French ships under Red Cross banners, the U-boats were attacked by a U.S. Army B-24 Liberator bomber.

This event affected the operations of the German fleet, whose commanders were ordered (the "Laconia Order") by Admiral Karl Dönitz to stop trying to rescue civilian survivors, ushering in the subsequent unrestricted submarine warfare for the German Navy (Admiral Nimitz testified at Admiral Dönitz's trial that the US had practiced unrestricted warfare from day one). The controversy over the incident concerns the assistance and protection that military forces must afford non-combatants at sea during wartime. One international bestseller and numerous articles on the subject have been published, and a 2011 television film produced, about the incident.


[hide] *1 Summary of incident

Summary of incidentEdit

In late 1942, a German U-boat sank the British troopship Laconia carrying 1,800 Italian POWs off the coast of West Africa. Then realising who the passengers were, the U-boat started rescue operations while flying the Red Cross flag. A U.S. Army Air Corps bomber flying out of a secret South Atlantic airbase on Ascension Island attacked the U-boat. The U-boat abandoned the rescue effort and left the survivors to drift to Africa. Over half the survivors died. This incident led to German Admiral Dönitz to issue the Triton Null signal on 17 September 1942, which came to be known as the "Laconia Order"; the signal forbade submarine commanders from rescuing survivors from torpedoed ships.

Key factsEdit

  • On 12 September 1942, Werner Hartenstein commanding the German Navy U-156 sighted and sank the British Cunard White Star passenger liner Laconia, serving as a troopship. The unescorted, but armed, ship was carrying 1,800 Italian POWs guarded by 103 Free Poles, 268 British military personnel from the Desert War in Egypt, and a number of civilians.
  • Hartenstein, discovering that Laconia was carrying Italian POWs from North Africa, decided on his own initiative to launch rescue operations, to broadcast in clear a "cease fire" message, and to inform and seek approval of his decision from Berlin. He did so either out of concern "that the accidental killing and stranding of so many Italian soldiers could cause a serious political rupture in the Axis high command,"[citation needed] and/or from deeply felt humanitarian considerations.
  • The German senior level (naval and national) leadership requested the Vichy French to send warships from Dakar and/or the Ivory Coast to pick up the survivors. The Vichy French in response to Berlin's request sent the 7,500 long tons (7,600 t) cruiser Gloire from Dakar, and two sloops, the fast 650 long tons (660 t) Annamite and the slower 2,000 long tons (2,000 t) Dumont d'Urville PG 77 (2), from Conakry, French Guinea, and Cotonou, Dahomey, respectively.
  • German leadership rejected Hartenstein's cease fire proposal, partly because[1] Admiral Raeder did not think it wise to enter into a "deal" with the Allies, nothing was to interfere with Eisbär's surprise attack on Cape Town to strike at the supplies destined for the British and Soviets, and Hitler had directed that no word of Laconia's sinking or the proposed Axis rescue be transmitted to the Allies, though subordinates ignored Hitler's orders and communicated messages to the Allies about the proposed rescue attempt.
  • The British in Freetown intercepted this message, but believing it might be a ruse de guerre, refused to credit it, yet still passed it on to the U.S. The Allies, specifically the U.S., had gone to much effort to establish an airfield on Ascension as a link in their only air route between the United States and Desert War in Egypt. This was a secret airfield and its loss would have shut off the critically needed supply of medium bombers to British forces in Egypt and to the Soviet forces in Russia. Captain Richardson's squadron of P-39s and five B-25 Mitchell bombers was assigned to protect the airfield.
  • Richardson ordered the bombing of the submarine, based on his assessment of the overall military situation and the importance of his protecting Ascension Island as critical link in the U.S. aerial resupply of the war effort.[citation needed] As a result of the aerial attack, Hartenstein and, subsequently, the Vichy French abandoned the rescue operations, leading to the death of over half of Laconia's passengers and crew.


German attackEdit

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 a large British ocean liner sailing alone and attacked it.

At 22:22, the liner, sailing under the name Laconia, transmitted the following message on the 600-meter band:

SSS SSS 0434 South / 1125 West Laconia torpedoed

signifying "under attack by submarine".

As Laconia began to sink, Hartenstein surfaced. He hoped to capture the ship's senior officers. To his surprise, Hartenstein saw over two thousand people struggling in the water.

Survivor Jim McLoughlin states in One Common Enemy 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. Merchantmen armed with guns (which most were) fell outside the protection from attack without warning and the requirement to place survivors "in a place of safety" (for which lifeboats did not qualify); therefore, it made no difference if she was a troop ship[citation needed].

Rescue operationsEdit

Hartenstein immediately began rescue operations. Laconia sank at 23:23. 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:

Versenkt von Hartenstein Brite "Laconia". Marinequadrat FF 7721 310 Grad. Leider mit 1500 italienischen Kriegsgefangenen. Bisher 90 gefischt. 157 cbm. 19 Aale, Passat 3, erbitte Befehle. Sunk by Hartenstein British "Laconia". Grid FF 7721 310 degrees. Unfortunately with 1500 Italian POWs. So far 90 fished. 157 cubic meters (of oil). 19 eels [torpedoes], trade wind 3, request orders.

Head of submarine operations, Admiral Dönitz, immediately ordered two other U-boats to divert to the scene. Soon U-156 was 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 plain language) 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. 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 commanded by Kptlt. Erich Würdemann and a few hours later by both U-507 under Korvettenkapitän Harro Schacht and the Italian submarine Cappellini. The four boats, with lifeboats in tow and hundreds of survivors standing on their decks, headed for the African coastline and a rendezvous with Vichy French surface warships which had set out from Senegal and Dahomey.[2]

American bombingEdit

The next morning, 16 September, at 11:25, the four submarines, with Red Cross flags draped across their gun decks, were spotted by an American B-24 Liberator bomber from Ascension Island. Hartenstein signalled to the pilot requesting assistance. Lieutenant James D. Harden of the U.S. Army Air Force 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, claimed that he assumed that:

  • The rules of war, at the time, did not permit a combat ship to fly Red Cross flags.
  • He feared that the German submarines would attack the two Allied freighters diverted by the British to the site;
  • The German submarine was only rescuing the Italian POWs.
  • In his tactical assessment, the submarine would 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; and ordered the B-24 to "sink the sub".[3]

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 while others straddled the submarine itself. Hartenstein cast adrift those lifeboats still afloat and ordered the survivors on his deck into the water. The submarines dived and escaped. Hundreds of Laconia survivors perished, but French vessels managed to rescue about a thousand later that day. In all, some 1,500 passengers survived.

Under the Hague Conventions, hospital ships are protected from attack, but their identity must be communicated to belligerents (III, 1-3), they must be painted white with a Red Cross emblem (III, 5), and must not be used for other purposes (III, 4). Since a submarine remained a military vessel even if hors de combat, the Red Cross emblem did not confer automatic protection, although in many cases it would have been allowed as a practical matter. The order given by Richardson has been called a possible war crime, but the use of a Red Cross flag by an armed military vessel would also be a violation. There is no provision in either convention for temporary designation of a hospital or rescue ship. Historically, under the conventions of war at sea, however, ships engaged in rescue operations are held immune from attack.


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, 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 wasn't 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. Elizabeth married Major Peter Charles Crichton Gobourn in 1953. She died in Cheltenham in January 2010 at age 82 and was survived by her three children and seven grandchildren.

Frank Holding (Merchant seaman) also survived the sinking and had his 90th birthday in 2011.

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".[4] 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".[4]


The Laconia incident had far-reaching consequences. Until then, as indicated in point #1 of the "Laconia Order", 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. Now Dönitz prohibited rescues; survivors were to be left in the sea. Even afterwards, U-boats would still occasionally provide aid for survivors.

At the Nuremberg Trialsheld by the victorious Allies in 1946, Dönitz was indicted for war crimes, including the issuance of the "Laconia order": 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 defence argues that these orders and the evidence supporting them do not show such a policy and introduced much evidence to the contrary. The Tribunal is of the opinion that the evidence does not establish with the certainty required that Dönitz deliberately ordered the killing of shipwrecked survivors. The orders were undoubtedly ambiguous and deserve the strongest censure. The evidence further shows that the rescue provisions were not carried out and that the defendant ordered that they should not be carried out. The argument of the defence is that the security of the submarine is, as the first rule of the sea, paramount to rescue and that the development of aircraft made rescue impossible. This may be so, but the Protocol is explicit. If the commander cannot rescue, then under its terms he cannot sink a merchant vessel and should allow it to pass harmless before his periscope. The orders, then, prove Dönitz is guilty of a violation of the Protocol. (Emphasis added) 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 at sight in the Skagerrak, and the answers to interrogatories by 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 is not assessed on the ground of his breaches of the international law of submarine warfare.[5]

TV dramaEdit

The two-part drama, under the name The Sinking of the Laconia, is a 2010 British-German co-production written by Alan Bleasdale, directed by Uwe Janson, and with Andrew Buchan, Brian Cox, Ken Duken (playing Hartenstein[6]), Lindsay Duncan, Thomas Kretschmann and Franka Potente playing the leading roles.[7] In the United Kingdom, BBC 2 broadcast it on 6–7 January 2011. In Germany and Austria, ARD and ORF respectively broadcast it on 2–3 November 2011 under the title Laconia.[8] In Canada, TVOntario broadcast it on 6, 13 and 15 November 2011.[citation needed] On April 14, 2012 OvationTV began airing the The Sinking of the Laconia in the United States.[9]

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ Excerpt from The Hunted, 1942-1945, (Random House, November 1998) that continues Clay Blair's history of German submarine warfare in the Second World War.
  2. ^ "Amphibian Patrol Squadrons (VP-AM) Histories: VP-AM-1 to VP-AM-5" (PDF). United States Navy. December 2003. Retrieved 2006-09-05. According to the official after-action report by the U.S. Navy, all four submarines were present. Survivor accounts in One Common Enemy and The U-Boat Peril say the Italians arrived later.
  3. ^ Origin of the Laconia Order by Dr Mauer Maurer and Lawrence Paszezk, Air University Review, March–April 1964 and The USAF Oral History Interview – Brig-Gen. Robert C. Richardson III (K239.0512-1560) 18–19 May; 14 June 1984, USAF Historical Research Center, Maxwell AFB AL
  4. ^ a b Atlantic Torpedo, pub Victor Gollancz Ltd, London, 1943
  5. ^ Judgement : Doenitz the Avalon Project at the Yale Law School
  6. ^ Kriedemann, Kevin, "Michael Schrietel shoots Laconia on 35 mm Kodak", The Callsheet, n.d ('2009). Retrieved 2011-09-12.
  7. ^ "The Sinking Of The Laconia Ep 1/2". "Network TV BBC Week 1: New this week" press release. January 2011. Retrieved 2011-10-10.
  8. ^ ""Laconia": ORF-Premiere für prominent besetztes zweiteiliges ORF/ARD-Kriegsdrama". Retrieved 2011-11-03.
  9. ^


Further readingEdit

External linksEdit

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