Friday, February 12, 2016

The Wehrmachtsloch

Dneiper Dnepr River
"We drink water from dear Dnieper - we will drink from Prut, Neman and Bug! We will clear our land from fascists!" Poster artist, Victor Ivanov.

Everybody knows the story of World War II: there was a lot of fighting, a lot of people died, and the Germans lost. Well, ok, they know more than that. It is when you start digging down into the real details, though, that all sorts of little oddities pop up. One of those was the Wehrmachtsloch.

Dneiper Dnepr River
The Dnieper (also Dnepr) River was the largest natural obstacle in the Ukraine. Here it is shown during Operation Barbarossa in 1941.

Following the Battle of Kursk in July 1943, the Wehrmacht was forced back by relentless Soviet hammer blows all along the southern half of the Russian front. Aside from a few transient counter-attacks, this continued straight through to May 1945. Hitler needed to stop them any way that he could, so he hoped to construct a military wall along the Dneiper River, the most formidable natural obstacle left between the front and Germany.

Dneiper Dnepr River
The Germans hoped to stop the Soviets at the Dneiper, but that plan failed. In many places, the Soviet troops were across it before the Germans could even get there.

The plan didn't work very well, but not because it was an inherently bad idea. In fact, the northern part of the wall, called the "Panther Line," worked extremely well. However, due in part to Hitler's refusal to permit timely withdrawals, but more importantly due to the valor of individual Soviet soldiers, in the south Russian troops were across the Dneiper before the Germans even had time to man it. Kiev was lost in November 1943, and the battle continued rolling westward despite determined German counterattacks at places like Chernobyl.

Dneiper Dnepr River
Soviet troops liberating Poltava on the approaches to the Dneiper River, September 1943.

By January 1944, the only part of the Dneiper that the Germans still held in force was the Dneiper Bend at the extreme south of the river. Further north, the Soviets were closing in on the Polish border. Holding on to their remaining portion of the planned defensive line created a huge bulge to the east which sucked in German troops as the Soviets launched attack after attack to dislodge them. Hitler refused to give up the region, and he did have his reasons: it was a very productive area rich in natural resources.

Dneiper Dnepr River
General Erich von Manstein was in command of Army Group South until the end of March 1944, at which point Hitler dismissed him "because the days of grand operations are over."

Army Group South under the command of General Erich von Manstein tied in with Army Group North (General Ernst Busch) in the swampy region known as the Pripyat Marshes northwest of Kiev. Fourth Panzer Army, which had lost several divisions at Stalingrad and had just lost its veteran commander, Hermann Hoth, at Kiev (dismissed by Hitler), held the northern-most sector of Army Group South. Throughout the war, these army group junctions were weak spots in the line, which everybody knew but nobody really did much about. When under pressure, troops would retreat in the direction of their headquarters, which at the tie-in points lay in opposite directions. This would create a weak seam which the Soviet troops anticipated and repeatedly tried, with success, to exploit. The Soviets always knew where the German formations began and end from their network of spies, captured Wehrmacht troops and simply observing German markings.

Dneiper Dnepr River
Troops of the First Ukrainian Front on a T34-85 in Gleiwitz about a year later.

The Soviets brought pressure by First Ukrainian Front and 3d Guards Tank Army against LIX Army Corps, a weak unit with just one full division, the 291st Infantry Division. It was located on the extreme northern portion of Fourth Panzer Army, which held the northern part of the Army Group South sector. It was a common Soviet tactic, to mass overwhelming power against a weak link in the German line, and it worked once again. Once on the move, the German Corps followed the usual pattern and retreated south toward its supply line. It justified this move by pointing out that the marshes right behind it were natural obstacles that would hold up the Soviets anyway. It also had the mission of defending the cities of Shepetovka and Rovno just to the south, which it did successfully for a while.

Dneiper Dnepr River
Soviet troops crossing the Dnieper. The sign says "This way to Kiev!"

The German Second Army at the southern extreme of Army Group Center, meanwhile, was already defending within the marshes, so it was not an impossible place to maneuver. The German troops retreating south were just coming up with excuses, and this was not so uncommon; historians who blame all of the Wehrmacht's struggles on Hitler tend to gloss over such details. In any event, once the LIX Corps broke contact, the Second Army also pivoted away from the Soviet advance to give flank protection both to itself and to the rest of Army Group North. This created an open corridor to the West for the attacking Soviet troops. Basically, soldiers on both sides of the seam began looking out for themselves and their own interests. It was every man for himself.

Dneiper Dnepr River
Soviet troops entering Lutsk, Ukraine.

The result was a widening breach between the two Army Groups. Eventually, it reached a span of 110 miles, which is large even on a front that never was less than 2,000 miles long. Neither army group could spare troops to fill it, and there were no armies in reserve. Someone came up with the name "Wehrmachtsloch," or "military hole," for the gap, which gave the whole incident a kind of legitimacy. "Oh, the Wehrmachtsloch begins here," one could say when pointing to the map, as if it were another army group all its own or a mountain range or something and everything was normal. The marshes were rough terrain, but they weren't that impenetrable; the Soviets navigated them well enough. In addition, they were crawling with partisans only too willing to help the Soviets navigate the swamps.

Dneiper Dnepr River
General Nikolai Fyodorovich Vatutin was ambushed by Ukrainian nationalists (sound familiar?) in February 1944 and died six weeks later. 

The Soviets, as usual, were quick on the uptake. Belorussian Front (which became 1st Belorussian Front on 15 February) joined in the attack and pushed the Army Group Center formation, Second Army, further north to a line along the Ipa River - weak German forces invariably sought the nearest river to establish a defensive line, and the Soviets were fully aware of that, too. The only thing that saved the German line from breaking completely from the wedge driven into it was the fact that the January weather was mild and the marshes had not frozen solid, which would have permitted large-scale tank movements. Still, General Vatutin in command of Belorussian Front sent two large forces into the gap, First Tank and Fortieth Armies.

Dneiper Dnepr River
The second battle of Kharkov in May 1942 illustrated the classic example of German forces holding tight the corner posts and then later sealing off the enemy eruption (along the red-dashed line). The tactic did not work with the Wehrmachtsloch.

The stage now was set for a major event. Either the Soviet forces would destroy the entire German line from both sides, or themselves run into trouble by over-reaching. It was a large gap in the German lines, but a favored Wehrmacht strategy throughout the war was to hold on to the "corner posts" on either side of a breakthrough and then use all means possible to close the gap and trap the invading force. That tactic had worked brilliantly at Kharkov in May 1942, when the Germans captured hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers by sealing off a breakthrough (another example was in the north in 1942, when the Germans similarly destroyed Second Shock Army and captured General Vlasov). As the war dragged on the tactic worked less and less, but it was Hitler's pet tactical technique. The German Generals didn't believe in repeating the same tired strategy over and over, because it wasn't fooling the Soviets - but Hitler continued ordering it.

Dneiper Dnepr River
General Hube in command of 1st Panzer Army was surrounded due to the formation of the Wehrmachtsloch, but fought his way out.

Fortunately for the Germans, General Manstein still had some operational latitude. He adroitly protected the rear of the German formations that were facing east but now being attacked from behind by moving some troops off from quieter sections of the front. Hitler, though, started interfering. When Manstein began moving troops off the front further south to meet the threat, Hitler forbade any retreat there and prevented several formations from acting. A few units were brought in from the West, but they took time getting into place. It was a huge street brawl with everyone fighting for their lives.

Dneiper Dnepr River
The arrows on the map on this paper shows the Soviet strategic mistake: they headed in different directions through the Wehrmachtsloch and did not focus their strength to finish off the nearby German troops. This gave the Germans time to recover.

The entire southern portion of the German line became unhinged, a giant agglomeration of globs of strength fighting independently for survival. The Soviets, though, had their own issues; throughout the war, they showed a consistent inability to fully exploit breakthroughs in the German line, and this time was no different. Their troops headed off in all directions into the limitless expanse of the woods and forests and lost momentum. Stability only was restored after a general withdrawal deep into Poland. The Wehrmachtsloch would remain in place for months, during which the Soviets would encircle two German Corps near Cherkassy and the First Panzer Army under General Hube. Elements of the former and the entirety of the latter would escape, and the Soviets were unable due to the weather, terrain and relative balance of forces to fully capitalize on the situation. However, the rigid thinking that had caused the issue in the first place remained a problem for the Germans for the remainder of the war.

Dneiper Dnepr River
V. Shatalin. Fight for the Dnieper River.


Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Hitler's June 1942 Meeting with Mannerheim

High Water Mark for the Axis

Adolf Hitler Carl Mannerheim
Hitler, followed by Wilhelm Keitel, "walk the plank" to Mannerheim's command train.

The summer of 1942 generally is regarded as the high point of the war for the Axis. While it already was beginning to suffer defeats, Germany and its allies occupied more territory that summer and into the fall than they did at any other time. Things were going relatively well enough for Germany for Adolf Hitler to make a few trips from his command headquarters "Werewolf" at Rastenburg.

Adolf Hitler Carl Mannerheim
Axis territory and sympathetic territories in black as of June 1942. Neutral countries are in gray. Blue and red are the Allies and sympathizers.

One of these unusual road trips was a rather perfunctory visit to the front at Poltava in the occupied Soviet Union on 3 July 1942. The other, though, was a bit more notorious to historians: a one-day Hitler visit to Finland to wish C-in-C Marshal of Finland Baron C. G. E. Mannerheim a happy 75th birthday on 4 June 1942.

Adolf Hitler Carl Mannerheim
Hans Bauer, Hitler's pilot. He later wrote a memoir about his experiences with Hitler. Bauer was an excellent pilot who always flew Hitler.

Hitler had good reasons to be both confident and secretly worried in early June 1942. Germany now was at war with the two greatest economic powers on earth, the Soviet Union and the United States. Some of his allies were fighting well, most notably Japan in the Pacific, which had spread death and destruction to the British, Dutch and Americans forces there. Finland was also doing well, though he had some bones to pick with them which we'll get to below. Hitler's armies under General von Bock had just won a massive victory at Kharkov, where they had cut off and destroyed Soviet armies that had unwisely tried to continue the Soviet winter victories into the late spring. The prisoner haul was among the largest of the entire war while it was still competitive. The German forces were being oriented for a massive effort in the south that summer which Hitler believed would solve Germany's eternal oil supply issues. However, the Soviets had shown a worrisome tendency to fight back, as at Moscow the previous winter.

Adolf Hitler Carl Mannerheim
Hitler's plane. The left wheel brakes caught on fire during landing, a fire which had to be put out with fire extinguishers.

The Germans informed the Finns only the day before, 3 June 1942, that Hitler would be visiting. This was not because Hitler wanted to be intentionally rude, for Finland was considered by the Germans to be a top ally, armed with the only soldiers comparable to Wehrmacht troops. Rather, it followed Hitler's personal preoccupation with security, as he valued unpredictability above all else in order to prevent attacks. It also may simply have been a last-second decision, though that is less likely.

Adolf Hitler Carl Mannerheim

Mannerheim was not expecting a visit, and the spontaneous and personal nature of it caused him to hold it in an inconspicuous spot in southeastern Finland from where he ran the war, near Mikkeli. The conference was not, as some now say, held in Helsinki. The location was on the railway line leading to a new large Kaukopää pulp plant at Ruokolahti (nowadays Imatra). The train was parked next to some woods, but located in an industrial area. A small airport was a few kilometers away.

Adolf Hitler Carl Mannerheim
The gift to Mannerheim.

Many ascribe venal motives by Hitler to this visit. With Case Blau, the attack on the south of the Russian front, close to starting, he could have used a distraction in the north. The Germans had been trying to coordinate an attack with the Finns on Leningrad since the previous summer, but Mannerheim had promised in 1918 that Finland would never threaten that city.

Hitler Mannerheim
Hitler off for a stroll through the woods to get to Mannerheim's train. It is very rare to find a picture duded up like that without a whole retinue of his Generals. Mannerheim does not seem anxious to walk next to him.

The Germans also had hopes for a Finnish offensive to cut the Soviet rail lines to the northern port of Murmansk, which was not far from the Finnish front. However, despite some ineffectual gestures in that direction, the Finns refused to launch any attacks at all until the Germans took Leningrad. Since Hitler was building up forces for an attack in the south toward Rostov, Stalingrad and the Caucasus, not the north, an attack on Leningrad was not on the table, though Mannerheim couldn't know that. Thus, a little personal diplomacy couldn't hurt.

Adolf Hitler Carl Mannerheim
Mannerheim greeting Hitler near the command train. It is said that this car was used in the 1951 film "The Desert Fox" starring James Mason.

However, as noted above, Hitler had an unusual case of wanderlust that summer. He probably just wanted to show support for his Finnish ally, and, being between battles on the Russian front, saw it as a good opportunity to build relations. There was no reason for Hitler to foresee any problems in the north that year, since he no doubt felt that Case Blau would put the Soviet Union under such immense strain that it could not launch offensives of its own.

Adolf Hitler Carl Mannerheim
The room in which Hitler and Mannerheim had their recorded discussion. The microphone was not "hidden," as is sometimes claimed, but is in full view just to the right of Hitler. You can see the cable snaking out the window.

Hitler typically slept until 10 a.m., if not later. However, when travelling, he liked to leave early in the morning. On the later 3 July 1942 trip, for instance, he departed Rastenberg at 4:00 a.m. The quick trip to Paris in July 1940 had seen a similar early departure. Whether this pattern was due to security concerns or simply a desire to get errands out of the way before the big noon military conference is unclear. It is worth pointing out, though, that Hitler rarely stayed anywhere longer than a few hours, and in fact invariably was back at headquarters by about noon. That is, when everything was under his own control and diplomatic relations were not involved.

Adolf Hitler Carl Mannerheim

On this visit, Hitler was visiting an ally, not a military subordinate, so he could not come and go whenever he pleased. He left Rastenberg at 8:35 a.m. and flew out over the Baltic, a somewhat indirect route. The Soviet Air Force was not a big worry, but flying over the water averted the danger of German anti-aircraft crews mistakenly shooting at Hitler's big Focke Wulf 200 Condor (a very real danger that downed many a Luftwaffe plane). Flying out to sea also reduced the number of commands that had to be alerted to his passage and told not to fire at the Condor. The fewer people that knew about Hitler's itinerary, the safer he was, and he knew it. This is something the modern-day US Secret Service is extremely careful about, too.

Adolf Hitler Carl Mannerheim
The car in which Hitler and Ryti rode to Mannerheim's train (here with the top down) has become a collector's item. It is a rare 1941 5-ton Mercedes-Benz 770K Grosser W150 Offener Tourenwagen. Its upholstery has secret compartments for Luger pistols. Hidden below the serpentine body panels are ¾-inch steel plates that, together with the 1½-inch-thick window glass, armor it sufficiently to survive a grenade blast or a landmine explosion. Hitler never really owned the car, but he had ordered it built to his own specifications (and his specifications invariably added a lot of weight, as with panzers). Hitler rode in it only during his visit to Mannerheim. It had been another gift to Mannerheim the previous December.

Hitler's plane was escorted in by eight Finnish Brewster fighters of Flying Squadron 24 which met him over the Gulf of Finland, though six lost contact with the Condor before touchdown. Finnish anti-aircraft crews were told not to shoot at anything that morning, and some manning a heavy 76 mm Bofors AA battery protecting industry and the important railway/road bridge over the River Vuoksi probably could have shot the Condor down.

Adolf Hitler Carl Mannerheim

SS-Oberführer Hans Baur, Hitler's personal pilot, flew low along the southern coast of Lake Saimaa. Baur turned inland when he spotted two distinctive smokestacks of the Kaukopää plant. Hitler touched down in Finland in the early afternoon, around 12:30 p.m. Legend has it that Baur almost hit the smokestacks, but he was an excellent pilot and that is unlikely. What is known is that the airfield was too short for the Condor, and Baur had to stand on the brakes in order to stop. The left brakes locked and caught fire, a not-uncommon problem with the Condor. Hitler swiftly got off the plane without incident while two Finnish soldiers hurriedly got fire extinguishers and put out the fire. The reception at the airfield, thus, was accompanied by the smell of burning rubber and smoke. Hitler, though, acted as if nothing was wrong at all.

Adolf Hitler Carl Mannerheim

For some reason, Mannerheim himself was not at the airport to greet Hitler - probably out of protocol, since he was the honoree. Instead, State President of Finland Risto Ryti was there, which since Hitler was the German head of State was proper protocol, along with an honor guard. It was a rather motley affair, as the "honor guard" was just a quickly assembled group of local reservists equipped with outdated equipment. They had no idea that Hitler was arriving.

Adolf Hitler Carl Mannerheim

Hitler's plane was but one of a fleet of German planes that arrived at the airport that morning, including several Junkers Ju 52/3m planes, and four Heinkel He 111s of various vintage carrying LW Chief Quartermaster Generalleutnant Hans-Georg von Seidel, Commander of Luftflotte 5 (covering northern Finland and Norway), Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen Stumpff, Commander of AOK Lappland Generaloberst Eduard Dietl (one of Hitler's favorite Generals due to heroic actions in the Norwegian campaign), and Feldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel.

Adolf Hitler Carl Mannerheim

Hitler and Ryti then drove over to Mannerheim's command train a few kilometers away. Hitler presented Mannerheim with a gift: three new Steyr 1500 A Kommandeurwagen cross-country passenger cars. Many pictures of the affair were taken, and they generally show Mannerheim stiff and almost annoyed by Hitler's presence. The Finns had put two long, shaky wooden planks from a small hill to the train, forcing Hitler and Keitel to cross them. A famous photograph taken at that moment shows Mannerheim giving Hitler a bit of a contemptuous look as Hitler navigated this odd bridge in his heavy boots. To his credit, Hitler crossed it calmly and with Aplomb, but Keitel was a bit shaky.

Adolf Hitler Carl Mannerheim

After that, Hitler gave a brief (for him) 20-minute speech, and they had lunch. Then, Hitler, Mannerheim and a few others retired to Mannerheim's private rail car for a private discussion. It as it this point that the meeting became famous, because an engineer of the Finnish broadcasting company YLE, Thor Damen, taped part of the meeting. A microphone was put in plane view above the table where Hitler and Mannerheim sat. After 11 minutes, a spoilsport SS guard noticed the cable which ran out the rail car's window and traced it back to Damen. He pointed at it and made a cutting motion with his hand across his neck. Damen immedately stopped the tape. There is little question that the event was not supposed to be taped, and Damen was lucky to escape both without incident and with the tape.

Adolf Hitler Carl Mannerheim

The 11-minute tape (actually an lp record) since has become the fabled "only tape of Hitler speaking conversationally." It has been examined by experts and determined to be genuine. Regardless of the fanciful claim that it is the only recording of Hitler outside of his speeches and thus "invaluable," it is of interest historically because of what Hitler says, not the fact that there is a tape of him speaking.

Adolf Hitler Carl Mannerheim

Hitler, as was his wont in meeting with other national leaders such as Franco of Spain and Mussolini of Italy, launched into his usual monologue after some brief back and forth with Mannerheim. Any transcript of the event obviously has to be translated for English speakers, and the translated transcripts are of varying quality. Hitler made the following key points in the preserved portion of the discussion:
  • Hitler admits that he was completely surprised by the Soviet Union's military strength, particularly its 34k-35k tank park (he uses the two numbers interchangeably), but he says he would have invaded anyway;
  • Hitler did not see the war has having two fronts, and admits that such a war "would have been impossible";
  • He admits that the German military was a "fair weather" army not fit for cold weather;
  • Admits that Italy's military had gravely disappointed him and weakened his forces for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the USSR;
  • States that he feared that the USSR would seize the Romanian oil fields in the fall of 1940, in which case "Germany would have been lost" and "helpless";
  • Reveals that the oil useage of the Luftwaffe and the panzers was "really huge" and a "level of consumption that surpasses the imagination";
  • States that Molotov's demands for peace made during his November 1940 visit were "simply naked extortion" and that Molotov considered Finland a threat to the USSR.
Some historians like to claim that Hitler was "charming" during this conversation, while at the same time he was lying to Mannerheim. They point to Hitler's comments involving Finland, where he implied that Germany had been looking out for Finland's interests even while Germany was allied to the USSR and willing to sacrifice Finland under the terms of the Ribbentrop/Molotov Pact of August 1939.

Romania oil fields Ploiești
Hitler claimed during his meeting with Mannerheim that these oil fields at Ploiești were the reason that he attacked the Soviet Union.

If one reads a bit deeper, though, it is possible to discern a strain of paranoia in Hitler about the security of Germany's oil supplies located in German ally Romania. This fear was unwarranted because there is no indication that Stalin had any designs on the Romanian oil fields. However, this sense of unease apparently impelled Hitler to make the fatal mistake of attacking the Soviet Union. World War II began as simple territorial conquest, but ultimately turned into a fight to the death for raw materials, particularly oil.

Adolf Hitler Carl Mannerheim
This famous shot shows Hitler navigating the planks to Mannerheim's command train. Mannerheim is seen with a mischievous look in the backgound, as Hitler is forced to walk the plank, followed by General Keitel. This was an extremely off set-up which must have been planned to test Hitler and put him under stress with everyone watching. Hitler liked to pose as a soldier, and here was a rare chance to act like one. He no doubt knew exactly what was going on and appears amused. Mannerheim was the dominant figure in this relationship, a mere glance at the pictures shows that. "Show us all how much of a military man you really are, Adolf!"

However, Hitler actually gave a quite coherent and believable summary of events to date. One easily can read into his tone a sense of regret and almost trepidation. His comments about the unexpected strength of the USSR ring true, as do his disappointment with the Italians and fears about the Romanian oil. Two years later, he would prove that the Romanian oil was his top priority when he oriented the entire German defense in the east around the oil fields there, a decision that has puzzled many historians ever since but which makes perfect sense from what he told Mannerheim in 1942.

Adolf Hitler Carl Mannerheim

The SS allowed the Finns to keep the recording in order not to create a diplomatic incident, but only under the promise that it would never be made public. Wax seals were affixed to the album sleeve to show that they had kept this promise. When those seals were broken is unclear, but how the SS could ever have known in any event is a mystery. Thus, the entire "agreement" to keep the recording private was a bit of a fiction so that everybody could save face. The recording was given to the head of the state censor's office Kustaa Vilkuna - a censor presumably being inherently reliable at suppressing things. Many in the film and broadcasting fields would agree wholeheartedly - and only returned to YLE in 1957. There is a legend that the recording was later discovered in YLE's files by a technician only by accident, but in fact the recording was well-known. It was released to the public a few years after being returned to the recording company. It might have become obscure again after that - but it was never truly "lost."

Adolf Hitler Carl Mannerheim
Hitler looking at the menu for lunch with Mannerheim and President Ryti. He appears to have a drink handy - while Hitler is sometimes said to be a teetotaller, in fact he did enjoy spirits on occasion, and this picture in particular makes him appear a bit buzzed.

There is another legend surrounding the Hitler/Mannerheim meeting. Supposedly Mannerheim wanted to test Hitler's strength in the manner of a modern-day lawyer. It was customary to break out a cigar over cognac after a meal in those days, and that is what Mannerheim did, at least according to the legend. Hitler was adamant about people not smoking in his presence, but on this occasion said nothing. Mannerheim, the legend goes, took this as a sign of weakness by Hitler. In truth, this would been in keeping with the earlier "walking the plank" episode and some grimaces made by Mannerheim, but Mannerheim himself was known to dislike smokers, so the story is probably apocryphal.

Adolf Hitler Carl Mannerheim

Hitler's entire defensive tone during the taped discussion, his ignoring the fire on his plane in order to create a good impression, and the repeated unanswered German pleas to get Finland to attack the USSR would already have told Mannerheim all he needed to know about Hitler's relative strength in the relationship. If Mannerheim indeed lit up a cigar, it was because he already knew that Hitler was fighting for his life and needed him at least as much as Mannerheim needed Germany. Besides, Finland was not even technically an ally of Germany, but rather a "co-belligerent." In order for Finland to prosecute its own, separate war with the Soviet Union, it required massive and continuous German help, and this was amply proven in 1944. Thus, those seeing some kind of German weakness in the relationship are over-thinking things, but they are correct to the extent that Hitler and Germany did not dominate Finland.

Finland Soviet Union map 1940
At the time of the meeting, Mannerheim had recovered the red shaded areas which had been lost in 1940 and advanced only a relatively small amount past them. Mannerheim had what he wanted and had no desire to push any further forward and thereby incur Stalin's wrath, which is what Hitler wanted. Mannerheim's strategy ultimately paid off in September 1944 when the USSR agreed to an armistice with Finland which averted a complete invasion of Finland - though "Finlandization" became a pejorative term for a large neighbor's total domination of a technically independent smaller nation.

There was a cynical game going on beneath the surface: Hitler could have taken Leningrad and joined up with the Finns further north on the Svir River if he had really wanted to, but that would only have taken the Finnish troops out of the war. The only advantage to Germany of having Finland in the war at all was that the Finns took pressure off of other parts of the front by drawing off Soviet troops. For this reason, Hitler did not clear the Soviets from in front of the Finnish lines when he had the chance (a few corps transferred north from Case Blau would have been sufficient). Hitler was more interested in getting the oil in the south.

Adolf Hitler Carl Mannerheim
Two men with completely different agendas, though on the surface they appeared to be the same. It is easy to read some measure of Mannerheim's diffidence in his attitude captured in the photographs that day, which contrasts sharply with Hitler's grand, over-confident swagger. Mannerheim was the only other major commander in the world who completely understood Soviet military capabilities, and you can tell that he isn't buying the whole sunny attitude being projected by Hitler.

Mannerheim, for his part, had no great interest in helping the Germans to total victory, which would only replace Stalin with Hitler as the existential threat to his country's existence. He accepted German strength as a fact of life, not a wish fulfilled. Mannerheim was hedging his bets by not threatening the Soviets during their moment of weakness, which easily could turn out to be transient (as it did). By only promising to move forward once the Germans proved that they had strength to spare and were going to win completely, he insured against further entangling himself in an eventual German defeat. Thus, neither Hitler nor Mannerheim had any incentive to make bold moves in the north, and the front descended into a basically garrison status for three years save for occasional Soviet offensives.

Finland was always the David versus the Soviet Goliath, and it never forgot that. Its war was not in support of Germany, but rather against the USSR - quite a different thing altogether.

Finland greatly feared a separate peace with Stalin and would have done virtually anything at that time to avoid one. Thus, the alliance was secure, but Finland retained complete independence. Mannerheim knew that his country could always cut a separate deal with Stalin if it absolutely had to - which it ultimately did. All that was keeping Finland in the war was its martial pride, and sometimes pride has to go. Hitler greatly admired Mannerheim, who was a leader from the Great War and virtually a legend throughout Scandinavia (Mannerheim was of Swedish ancestry). Indeed, it was not a relationship of equals, but not in the way most people think; it was more like a nephew on the make coming to pay respects to a celebrity uncle who never had really liked the little snot-nosed brat.

Adolf Hitler Carl Mannerheim

Hitler had no more success with this visit than he had had during his visit with Franco at Hendaye on 23 October 1940. Mannerheim did not change his position about attacking the Soviets and provided no distractions to aid Case Blau. The day basically wasted and at great inconvenience, Hitler took off for Rastenberg at 18:10, with four Finnish Brewster fighters as escort. He made it home safely in time for the midnight conference. He never again visited Finland. Within days, he was apprised that while he was visiting with Mannerheim, the Japanese Navy had been in the midst of a catastrophic battle at Midway Island. Midway basically ended Axis dreams of conquest in the Pacific and enabled the entire United States military to focus more on Hitler and the Third Reich. Hitler now had bigger things to worry about than ginning up pointless offensives on static fronts.

Adolf Hitler Carl Mannerheim command train saloon car
Mannerheim's command train car where the meeting was held is preserved at Mikkeli. He used it for the last time in January 1946, when Hitler was long dead. It may be entered on Mannerheim's birthday, also the anniversary of the fabled meeting.

Only one of the three command cars given by Hitler to Mannerheim, designated SA28300, survives. It was converted into a fire engine during the 1950s, a time when there was little reverence for artifacts of World War II. That car is owned by the War Museum of Finland, but it is not on public display and probably has not been restored. The train in which Mannerheim met Hitler has become a tourist attraction outside a service station not far from where the meeting took place, but it is rarely open to the public. A memorial stone about the odd meeting lies at Saimaanhovintie in Imatra, though it has been moved about 400 meters from its original location to a small park. Mannerheim remains a Finnish legend; Hitler, not so much.


I make no guarantees of the accuracy of this transcript of the "secret meeting." The only people present in the room were Hitler, Mannerheim, President Ryti and General Keitel. This translation comports with other versions I have seen, but translations are an art and will vary slightly from source to source. The voices have to be identified from context and by making educated guesses, and not everyone agrees on who was speaking when. I will note that Hitler had not even finished his first of four points before the recording ended, and he was known to drone on literally for hours with his monologues. But this was important stuff, as the lives and/or careers of everyone in the room depended on the facts in question.

A few quick observations. Hitler engages in his usually puffery as a military man himself - "I know all about northern France, having served there in the Great War" kind of thing, and not just once - but Mannerheim was the real deal. It was sort of like Al Bundy in "Married With Children" harping on how he had scored four touchdowns in one game back in high school when speaking to a pro football player: like, wow, what a big deal you are. Bringing that up probably wasn't helpful in this context anyway because when Hitler was serving in that war, he had been a mere Corporal and Mannerheim was exactly what he was at the time of this recording: head of the army.

Hitler's posing extends to pompous attempts to build up his own reputation as a warlord. He says, "I firmly believed that we could defeat France in six weeks," which of course is what happened. He could not possibly have known that in advance, he would have had to be Nostradamus to know exactly how long it would take. Germany had spent four long years battling against the French in 1914-1918, and he was sure he could finish them off in six weeks? The speed of the victory sure stunned his own Generals at the time, let alone the rest of the world. Then, when mentioning the 35,000 Soviet tanks, but quickly clarifying that he had destroyed all but 1,000 - sheer nonsense - Hitler tries to turn the strength of his enemy into a reflection of his own glory. Hitler comes off as a little braggart with these unnecessary, self-glorifying asides.

Hitler also treats President Ryti badly, almost as if he isn't relevant. "As I told your President" - Ryti was sitting right there across from him! Hitler fancies himself the big military man, and he is talking only to another military man who alone can understand his great struggles, the great burden of command. Everyone else is just irrelevant, including the Finnish head of state.

Hitler mentioning the gigantic Soviet factory at length is kind of odd - why build up the monumental abilities of the enemy to your ally? - but it is when Hitler casually mentions that the workers lived like "animals" that you get a chill down your spine at how he was going to treat them. Well, if they were living as animals beforehand, you are perfectly justified treating them the same, eh, Adolf? There are all sorts of subtle attempts to justify his own actions, word of which no doubt was filtering across the Baltic.

Mannerheim adds nothing to the conversation at all, and is just an echo - "35 thousand! You don't say!" - which somewhat betrays his attitude that he knows that he is simply listening to a story that he doesn't really believe. He is being polite, an active listener, but just a listener. Listening to Hitler say why he did things two years previously wasn't all that relevant to how Mannerheim was going to handle the next Soviet attack on his own lines, which had to be on his mind. A careful read shows that Hitler's recitation is all about Hitler and what Hitler thought and why Hitler did things, "me me me," and one can imagine that Mannerheim was not quite as interested in how Hitler wanted to justify his old decisions. In other words, Hitler was the center of Hitler's universe, but not of Mannerheim's, which is something that Hitler was not capable of comprehending.

Not a word, not a single question, about how Mannerheim's forces were doing, if Hitler could help Finland, what the Finnish intelligence service thought about the very suspicious 35,000 Soviet tank park figure, anything at all along those lines. In fact, when Mannerheim appears ready to mention what his people had known, Hitler isn't interested at all and in fact cuts him off, causing Mannerheim to fall back in line as the pupil listening to the teacher. The monologue is all about Germany and what it knew and what it did, an odd tone when visiting a fellow head of state whose forces were vital to the war effort. Saying negative things about the Italian contribution also may have led Mannerheim to wonder what Hitler was telling others about Finnish contributions to the war.

The transcript starts with Hitler talking. Italics are used to emphasize the heightening of voices in the original voice recording. Things like "uh's" and repeated words have been removed to make the dialogue easier to read. The recording started in mid-sentence, nobody knows how much was said before the recording started or how much followed after it ended:

Hitler: ...a very serious danger, perhaps the most serious one - it's whole extent we can only now judge. We did not ourselves understand - just how strong this state [the USSR] was armed.

Mannerheim: No, we hadn't thought of this.

Hitler: No, I too, no.

Mannerheim: During the Winter War - during the Winter War we had not even thought of this. Of course...

Hitler: (Interrupting) Yes.

Mannerheim: But so, how they - in reality - and now there is no doubt all they had - what they had in their stocks!

Hitler: Absolutely, This is - they had the most immense armaments that, uh, people could imagine. Well - if somebody had told me that a country - with...(Hitler is interrupted by the sound of a door opening and closing.) If somebody had told me a nation could start with 35,000 tanks, then I'd have said: "You are crazy!"

Mannerheim: Thirty-five?

Hitler: Thirty-five thousand tanks.

Another Voice In Background, perhaps Keitel: Thirty-five thousand! Yes!

Hitler: We have destroyed - right now - more than 34,000 tanks. If someone had told me this, I'd have said: "You!" If you are one of my generals had stated that any nation has 35,000 tanks I'd have said: "You, my good sir, you see everything twice or ten times. You are crazy; you see ghosts." This I would have deemed possible. I told you earlier we found factories, one of them at Kramatorskaja, for example, Two years ago there were just a couple hundred [tanks]. We didn't know anything. Today, there is a tank plant, where - during the first shift a little more than 30,000, and 'round the clock a little more than 60,000, workers would have labored - a single tank plant! A gigantic factory! Masses of workers who certainly, lived like animals and...

Another Voice In Background, perhaps Ryti: (Interrupting) In the Donets area?

Hitler: In the Donets area. (Background noises from the rattling of cups and plates over the exchange.)

Mannerheim: Well, if you keep in mind they had almost 20 years, almost 25 years of - freedom to arm themselves...

Hitler: (Interrupting quietly) It was unbelievable.

Mannerheim: And everything - everything spent on armament.

Hitler: Only on armament.

Mannerheim: Only on armament!

Hitler: (Sighs) Only - well, it is - as I told your president [Ryti] before - I had no idea of it. If I had an idea - then I would have been even more difficult for me, but I would have taken the decision [to invade] anyhow, because - there was no other possibility. It was - certain, already in the winter of '39/ '40, that the war had to begin. I had only this nightmare - but there is even more! Because a war on two fronts - would have been impossible - that would have broken us. Today, we see more clearly - than we saw at that time - it would have broken us. And my whole - I originally wanted to - already in the fall of '39 I wanted to conduct the campaign in the west - on the continuously bad weather we experienced hindered us.

Our whole armament - you know, was - is a pure good weather armament. It is very capable, very good, but it is unfortunately just a good-weather armament. We have seen this in the war. Our weapons naturally were made for the west, and we all thought, and this was true 'till that time, uh, it was the opinion from the earliest times: you cannot wage war in winter. And we too, have, the German tanks, they weren't tested, for example, to prepare them for winter war. Instead we conducted trials to prove it was impossible to wage war in winter. That is a different starting point [than the Soviet's]. In the fall of 1939 we always faced the question. I desperately wanted to attack, and I firmly believed we could finish France in six weeks.

However, we faced the question of whether we could move at all - it was raining continuously. And I know the French area myself very well and I too could not ignore the opinions, of many of my generals that, we - probably - would not have had the élan, that our tank arm would not have been, effective, that our air force could not been effective from our airfields because of the rain.

I know northern France myself. You know, I served in the Great War for four years. And - so the delay happened. If I had in '39 eliminated France, then world history would have changed. But I had to wait 'till 1940, and unfortunately it wasn't possible before May. Only on the 10th of May was the first nice day - and on the 10th of May I immediately attacked. I gave the order to attack on the 10th on the 8th. And - then we had to, conduct this huge transfer of our divisions from the west to the east.

First the occupation of - then we had the task in Norway - at the same time we faced - I can frankly say it today - a grave misfortune, namely the - weakness of, Italy. Because of - first, the situation in North Africa, then, second, because of the situation in Albania and Greece - a very big misfortune. We had to help. This meant for us, with one small stoke, first - the splitting of our air force, splitting our tank force, while at the same time we were preparing, the, tank arm in the east. We had to hand over - with one stroke, two divisions, two whole divisions and a third was then added - and we had to replace continuous, very severe, losses there. It was - bloody fighting in the desert.

This all naturally was inevitable, you see. I had a conversation with Molotov [Soviet Minister] at that time, and it was absolutely certain that Molotov departed with the decision to begin a war, and I dismissed the decision to begin a war, and I dismissed him with the decision to - impossible, to forestall him. There was - this was the only - because the demands that man brought up were clearly aimed to rule, Europe in the end. (Practically whispering here.) Then I have him - not publicly...(fades out).

Already in the fall of 1940 we continuously faced the question, uh: shall we, consider a break up [in relations with the USSR]? At that time, I advised the Finnish government, to - negotiate and, to gain time and, to act dilatory in this matter - because I always feared - that Russia suddenly would attack Romania in the late fall - and occupy the petroleum wells, and we would have not been ready in the late fall of 1940. If Russia indeed had taken Romanian petroleum wells, than Germany would have been lost. It would have required - just 60 Russian divisions to handle that matter.

In Romania we had of course - at that time - no major units. The Romanian government had turned to us only recently - and what we did have there was laughable. They only had to occupy the petroleum wells. Of course, with our weapons I could not start a, war in September or October. That was out of the question. Naturally, the transfer to the east wasn't that far advanced yet. Of course, the units first had to reconsolidate in the west. First the armaments had to be taken care of because we too had - yes, we also had losses in our campaign in the west. It would have been impossible to attack - before the spring of 19, 41. And if the Russians at that time - in the fall of 1940 - had occupied Romania - taken the petroleum wells, then we would have been, helpless in 1941.

Another Voice In Background, perhaps Keitel: Without petroleum...

Hitler: (Interrupting) We had huge German production: however, the demands of the air force, our Panzer divisions - they are really huge. It is level of consumption that surpasses the imagination. And without the addition of four to five million tons of Romanian petroleum, we could not have fought the war - and would have had to let it be - and that was my big worry. Therefore I aspired to, bridge the period of negotiations 'till we would be strong enough to, counter those extortive demands [from Moscow] because - those demands were simply naked extortion's. They were extortion's. The Russians knew we were tied up in the west. They could really extort everything from us. Only when Molotov visited - then - I told him frankly that the demands, their numerous demands, weren't acceptable to us. With that the negotiations came to an abrupt end that same morning.

There were four topics. The one topic that, involved Finland was, the, freedom to protect themselves from the Finnish threat, he said. [I said] You do not want to tell me Finland threatens you! But he said: "In Finland it is - they who take action against the, friends, of the Soviet Union. They would [take action] against [our] society, against us - they would continuously, persecute us and, a great power cannot be threatened by a minor country."

I said: "Your, existence isn't threatened by Finland! That is, you don't mean to tell me..."

Mannerheim: (Interrupting) Laughable!

Hitler: "...that your existence is threatened by Finland?" Well [he said] there was a moral - threat being made against a great power, and what Finland was doing, that was a moral - a threat to their moral existence. Then I told him we would not accept a further war in the Baltic area as passive spectators. In reply he asked me how we viewed our position in, Romania. You know, we had given them a guarantee. [He wanted to know] if that guarantee was directed against Russia as well? And that time I told him: "I don't think it is directed at you, because I don't think you have the intention of attacking Romania. You have always stated that Bessarabia is yours, but that you have - never stated that you want to attack Romania!"

"Yes," he told me, but he wanted to know more precisely if this guarantee...

(A door opens, perhaps to warn Hitler about the recording, and the recording ends.)

Adolf Hitler Carl Mannerheim


Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Laconia Affair

Sometimes Doing the Right Thing is Dangerous

RMS Laconia
Werner Hartenstein, Commander of U-156.
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.
RMS Laconia
Second Cabin Covered Promenade on the twin ships Laconia and Franconia of the Cunard Line. Not the least of the attractions of the Second Cabin is the very adequate deck space provided. There is a lengthy covered-in promenade, while in addition there is also a large open space.
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.
RMS Laconia
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.
RMS Laconia
While the site of the Laconia affair looks like it is in the middle of nowhere, in fact, it was on the most traveled convoy routes of the war from Great Britain to the Middle East and India.
On the night of 12 September 1942, the German 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 Captain Rudolph Sharp, was transporting Italian prisoners captured in North Africa and some Allied troops off the coast of West Africa back to England. Aboard, 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.
The prisoners were being held in the hold, much of which was refrigerated space. Many of the civilians were army nurses en route to new postings back home, and there were children on board. Basically, the Laconia was a prison ship.
RMS Laconia
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.
RMS Laconia
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.
RMS Laconia
Interior of the Laconia.
Relations between the 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 afterward 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. That's just the way it was at the time.
RMS Laconia
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.
RMS Laconia
Media reports simply said the liner was sunk, as were so many others.
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.
RMS Laconia
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.
RMS Laconia
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, the 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.
RMS Laconia
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.
RMS Laconia
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 onboard or in tow in lifeboats, and he was continuing to pick up more than he could handle.
RMS Laconia
Shuttle service between U156 (foreground) and U507 (background) on the 15th of September 1942. They are ferrying supplies in this shot. Picture was 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 the 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.
RMS Laconia
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.
RMS Laconia
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 traveling 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.
RMS Laconia
Lieutenant James D. Harden of the United States Army Air Forces was in command of 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.
RMS Laconia
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.
RMS Laconia
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.
RMS Laconia
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.
RMS Laconia
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.
RMS Laconia
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.
RMS Laconia
U-156 in a photo 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.
RMS 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.
RMS Laconia
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 most peculiar and most humane 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.
RMS Laconia
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.