One thing that you realize after you have studied World War II long enough is that nobody had a monopoly on good or bad conduct. Both sides and all armies committed atrocities of one form or another, though of course of varying degrees of magnitude. German military personnel were fully capable of heroic actions, sometimes in unexpected ways. One such occasion was the Laconia affair.
The case of the RMS Laconia had huge ramifications for both individuals and the conduct of the war. The baleful consequences basically were the result of either a mistake, raw incompetence, or over-zealous conduct by certain individuals. The usual roles involving blame and culpability given by the history books were muddled in this case, and the Laconia affair is a fascinating study in morality. Now, any time you write an article about how certain German military personnel were morally in the right, and some Allied soldiers were clumsy fools, it is going to be controversial, but bear with me. If you want a deeper understanding of what goes on in the heat of combat, though, reviewing the Laconia affair is essential.
The RMS Laconia was a seven-deck, one-stack 20,000 GRT liner operating out of Liverpool (some pictures show two stacks, White Star liked to have dummy funnels for looks). Launched in 1921, the Laconia was authorized to carry mail, and thus entitled to the "RMS" designation. It was an old, dirty ship belching smoke that made it easy to spot from a distance. While not armored, the Laconia was fitted with eight six-inch guns and two three-inch guns after being requisitioned on 4 September 1939. She was a completely legitimate military target and impressed into service as a troopship. She also carried Axis POWs. Lookouts were posted all around with binoculars watching for trouble.
On the night of 12 September 1942, the Nazi armies were at the peak of their dominance. They had battled into Stalingrad and were on the outskirts of Cairo. If there ever was a time for the German military to be arrogant and uncaring of potential consequences of whatever they might do, this was it. The Laconia, under the command of of Captain Rudolph Sharp, was transporting Italian prisoners captured in North Africa and some Allied troops off the coast of West Africa back to England. On board, there were:
- 463 officers and crew,
- 80 civilians,
- 286 British Army soldiers,
- 103 Polish soldiers guarding the prisoners, and
- 1,793 Italian prisoners of war.
|Kapitänleutnant Werner Hartenstein of U-156, unsung hero of World War II.|
At 8:10 p.m. that night, Kapitänleutnant Werner Hartenstein in command of U-156 saw the Laconia in the twilight somewhere between Liberia and Ascension Island. He let loose a torpedo that hit the Laconia on the starboard side in hold number 2 in an area where the prisoners were being held. The ship had no chance of survival and immediately took on a pronounced list, settling by the stern.
|The Laconia at Southhampton in 1922.|
Everybody immediately began scrambling for survival. While many of the Italian prisoners who formed the bulk of the humanity on board the Laconia were killed outright by the torpedo or quickly drowned in the rushing water, others managed to make their way topside. Since the hold remained locked, they had to struggle up through ventilation shafts and so forth. When they got to the deck, things weren't much better, because it was complete chaos. Many of the lifeboats had been destroyed, and those that remained had difficulty launching due to the ship's increasing list.
|Interior of the Laconia.|
Relations between United Kingdom seafarers and Italians had never been particularly good. To be blunt, the British tended to look down on Italians. Decades earlier, during the Titanic disaster, some of the British who testified afterwards took few pains to conceal their lack of respect for the migrants in Third Class, using "Italian" as a sort of synonym for "worthless coward." The same sort of attitude may have persisted on the Laconia, an attitude heightened by the fact that the Italians were prisoners and thus their lives were considered worth less than those of passengers and crews.
Captain Sharp had followed accepted protocol and ordered that women and children be placed in the lifeboats first. The ship was going down rapidly, though, and there wasn't time to be orderly. With everyone scrambling for the lifeboats, the Polish guards heroically managed to maintain some semblance of order. Unfortunately, they did this in large part by shooting and bayonetting POWs who rushed the lifeboats. Only one life raft was launched containing prisoners - the overwhelming majority of people on board. The rest held crew and passengers, who ultimately constituted the bulk of the survivors.
The experienced Captain Sharp, in the very best seafaring tradition, stayed on board to the last along with the mass of prisoners. Sharp did not survive. The ship sank almost exactly one hour after it had been torpedoed, which was less than half the time available to the Titanic passengers (a coincidence between the Titanic and the Laconia is that both had been White Star liners). Things did not get any better for the Italians in the water, as witnesses recalled that they were shot or had their hands cut off with axes if they tried to approach the lifeboats. It was a dramatic illustration of hatred surviving in the midst of an utter catastrophe. It was "every man for himself," but the Italians were treated like animals.
The water quickly filled with sharks, and they were hungry. Captain Hartenstein, who could have sailed off without a care, surfaced in the darkness and was astonished to see the water full of struggling people. Hartenstein apparently had mistaken the liner for a warship due to its armament, and at the time stated, "If it wasn't armed, I would not have attacked." The Laconia was a naval auxiliary staffed with Royal Naval personnel. It was subject to the same rules of warfare that would have applied to a battleship or aircraft carrier. In other words, Hartenstein had acted entirely properly.
Hartenstein took pity on the people struggling in the water and being attacked by sharks. It was after dark, and his U-boat was the only possible salvation for literally thousands of people who otherwise were about to die. He radioed Paris (Befehlshaber der U-Boote) a remarkable message:
Sunk by Hartenstein British "Laconia". Grid FF 7721 310 degrees. Unfortunately with 1500 Italian prisoners of war. So far 90 fished. 157 cubic metres [of oil]. 19 eels [torpedoes], trade wind 3, request orders.Perhaps even more remarkably, Admiral Dönitz sprang into action to help. Dönitz, inventor of the wolf pack and not yet in charge of the entire Kriegsmarine, was not particularly known as having a soft heart. He ordered seven nearby U-boats to break off operations around Cape Town and proceed to the Laconia location in order to assist with rescue operations.
|Captain Hartenstein on the U-156.|
This order got Dönitz into immediate trouble with his superiors. Hitler and Admiral Raeder were furious and ordered Hartenstein and the others to cease all rescue efforts and proceed with a planned attack on Cape Town. Raeder, to his credit, did order two other nearby U-boats, U-506 and U-507, along with the Italian submarine Cappellini to take off Hartenstein's survivors and rescue anyone else they could find. Raeder also instructed the Vichy French in Dakar and Côte d'Ivoire to send some warships to take off any survivors. The French thus dispatched the cruiser Gloire, the sloop Annamite, the sloop Dumont-d'Urville, and some other ships. It was all very civilized in the heat of war. The French ships would need time to get to the site, but rescue efforts were in progress.
|Hartenstein and the crew of U-156.|
Hartenstein then took his rescue efforts to the next level via an astonishing act. In one of the truly unique gestures of the war, he broadcast en claire and in English the following message:
Uncoded message (sent on Sept 13, 0600 hours on 25 meters-frequency) : 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".In the entire annals of the Kriegsmarine, that is one of its most honorable messages. In actuality, Hartenstein had some 400 people either on board or in tow in lifeboats, and he was continuing to pick up more than he could handle.
|Shuttle service between U156 (foreground) and U507 (background) on the 15th September 1942. They are ferrying supplies in this shot. Picture taken by Oblt. z. S. Leopold Schuhmacher.|
Hartenstein's message was received by the Allies in nearby Freetown, but they literally did not believe it. Assuming that it was just a trick, they informed the Americans (two days later) of the sinking and did not mention anything about humanitarian rescue efforts beyond themselves sending a British rescue ship. That same day, 15 September 1942, Hartenstein was joined by U-506, U-507 and the Cappellini. He had remained on the surface for the entire time. Hundreds of survivors crowded aboard all four submarines, standing on deck or in trailing lifeboats. The little fleet headed for their rendezvous with the Vichy French warships, complete with Red Cross flags displayed for view by pilots.
At this point, the fog of war closed in, along with some callous stupidity. The Americans did not know what had truly transpired, and only knew that a U-boat had sunk a British liner and an Allied vessel was on the scene. Nothing was known about any U-boats rescuing passengers or sailing on the surface crowded with half-dead people.
The Americans operated from a secret base on Ascension Island. They sent out a USAAF B-24 Liberator bomber to investigate and look for targets. It found the U-156, which had become separated from the other subs. When the bomber appeared over the submarine convoy travelling openly on the surface, Hartenstein assumed that it was part of the rescue effort. He attempted to contact it as the plane circled overhead, using Morse Code and in English. He even had a British officer radio the plane:
"RAF officer speaking from German submarine, Laconia survivors on board, soldiers, civilians, women, children."The plane turned and headed off. Hartenstein assumed that it was aware of the situation.
Lieutenant James D. Harden of the United States Army Air Forces was in command on the B-24. He radioed for instructions. He was ordered by his commander, Captain Robert C. Richardson III, to attack U-156. Richardson later gave varying accounts as to why he issued the order, which all boiled down to the fact that it was an enemy submarine and he did not know of any rescue efforts.
|A B-24 Liberator.|
Harden had his orders. He turned around and dropped his full arsenal of bombs and depth charges on the U-boat in four passes. He then returned to base and claimed that he had seen the U-boat roll over and sink. He stated in his official report:
The sub rolled over and was last seen bottom up. Crew had abandoned ship and taken to surrounding lifeboats.Score one for the USAAF! And also for the career of Lt. Harden, who was awarded a medal for his pains.
In fact, the U-156 was in fine shape. Under attack, it dived slowly to allow the passengers on deck and in the trailing lifeboats a chance to survive. Harden's bombs, though, were not to no purpose: they sank two lifeboats and killed numerous Laconia survivors. Hartenstein told the Laconia survivors before leaving to remain in the area and await the Vichy rescue ships, but instead two of them set out on their own for the distant African coast. Out of 120 people in those two boats, 20 survived. Many of the prisoners were not properly clothed for the very mild climate.
The other U-boats remained in the area with their complement of survivors. One of them, the Cappellini, found some of the survivors cast off by the U-156 the next day and notified headquarters of the B-24 incident. Once U-boat headquarters was apprised of events, it ordered the other submarines to cast most of the survivors adrift but for women and children. The U-boat commanders disobeyed that order.
|A B-25 Mitchell bomber.|
The Americans were still hell-for-leather and next sent out five B-25s to search for the enemy. Lt. Hardin, also along in his B-24, once again spotted one of the rescue U-boats, this time U-506, and attacked it. As in the earlier attempt, the U-boat dived and evaded the attack. Unlike after the earlier attack, though, Lt. Hardin was not awarded any medals for this encounter.
On this day, 17 September, the British in Freetown finally informed the Americans that some Vichy French ships were in the vicinity. Captain Richardson, misunderstanding the poorly phrased communication, broke off all further air search efforts in fear that the French ships were headed to Ascension to invade.
|U-156 taken from the Gloire by passenger "Roland."|
The Vichy French warships proceeded without further interference. The cruiser Gloire rescued 52 British while en route to the location, then rendezvoused with U-506, U-507 and a French sloop, the Annamite, taking on board the U-boats' survivors. The Gloire then scoured the area and rescued 11 more lifeboats, and then another, and then another, going well out of its way to save people despite having to cancel another planned rendezvous with the Annamite. The ships met up the following morning, and the Annamite transferred its survivors to the Gloire. The Cappellini, meanwhile, remained in the area and rescued a lifeboat from another U-boat victim, the Trevilley, which had been torpedoed the same day as the Laconia. Eventually, all of the survivors from the various U-boats were taken to Dakar, where they were processed. Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa, ultimately liberated the Allied prisoners from the Laconia.
All in all, the Germans and Vichy French rescued 1,113 people from the Laconia despite the American interference. This was less than half of the ship's complement of 2,732. The overwhelming majority of the Italian POWs, 1,420, perished and made up the bulk of the 1,619 who died in the sinking overall. There is little question that, but for Captain Hartenstein's kind-heartedness, virtually all of the survivors would have perished, many in the worst possible ways.
The Laconia affair led directly to the infamous Laconia order. However, we will get to that on another page because it merits that kind of attention. We will end this account with an apparently heartfelt tribute given to Captain Graziani of the Cappellini by the Laconia survivors that he picked up:
We the undersigned officers of His Majesty’s Navy, Army and Air Force and of the Merchant Navy, and also on behalf of the Polish detachment, the prisoners of war, the women and children, wish to express to you our deepest and sincerest gratitude for all you have done, at the cost of very great difficulties for your ship and her crew, in welcoming us, the survivors of His Majesty’s transport-ship, the Laconia.And thus stands one of the oddest and most human events of World War II. How many can say that they personally saved over 1,000 souls? Werner Hartenstein could. He was no Saint, but for a few days, he came as close as a U-boat commander ever could.
|Werner Hartenstein (February 27, 1908 – March 8, 1943). He and the entire crew of U-156 were killed in action by depth charges from a US Catalina east of Barbados.|