Laconia Incident, 1942

Sketch of survivors belowdecks on Gloire, en route to Casablanca. Original sketch by Edward Bawden, now in the collection of the Imperial War Museums.

Location South Atlantic

During both World Wars, ocean liners were commonly pressed into service. Some served as troop transports, some were given weapons and called armed merchant cruisers. RMS Laconia, launched in 1921, was one of the latter. Picked up by the British Navy a day after England declared war on Germany, Laconia was refitted as a troopship, and given eight BL 6" Mark VII guns, with a pair of 3" guns for AA defense. In September, 1942, she was transporting Italian prisoners of war to internment in South Africa, when she was spotted by U-156. Aboard the Laconia were 463 officers and crew, eighty-seven civilians, 286 British and 103 Polish soldiers, and between 1,793 and 1,809 Italian POWs. Capable of 16 knots, Laconia was sailing on her own, and since she was armed, did not require a warning before she was sunk, according to international law. The first torpedo hit Laconia at 8:10 pm on 12 September, with another following shortly after. Laconia began capsizing to starboard, but thirty-two of her lifeboats had been destroyed by the torpedo hits. Many of the POWs were killed in the torpedo hits, and Laconia went down an hour after the first hit. When U-156 surfaced to try and pick up the senior officers, the crew was shocked to find the water full of people. Kapitänleutnant Werner Hartenstein, the commander of U-156, radioed Berlin for instructions, and began rescuing survivors. Several other U-boats were dispatched to the scene, and several Vichy French warships were also sent out. Hartenstein additionally sent out a plain-text message in English requesting aid from any ships in the area, and promising not to attack if he wasn't attacked first. Red Cross flags were displayed aboard the U-boats picking up survivors, and they attempted to rendezvous with the approaching French ships. On the 16th, U-156 was running on the surface, deck full of survivors, towing lifeboats, and still displaying Red Cross flags, when she was spotted by an American B-24 Liberator on ASW patrol. Hartenstein requested assistance from the bomber, which relayed the request to its base on Ascension Island. Orders came back to sink the sub, which the B-24 attempted to carry out. They managed to sink two lifeboats, and force U-156 to submerge, casting the survivors on deck into the water. The same B-24 attacked U-506 the next day, forcing another crash dive. Eventually the French ships arrived, and began taking on survivors from the submarines, as well as plucking others from the water. 1,619 people died in the sinking, 1,420 of them Italian POWs. Most of the survivors were taken to French North Africa, where the Allied portion of them were liberated in November. The attacks during the rescue prompted Admiral Dönitz to prohibit any further rescue attempts by U-boats for survivors, though U-boat crews sometimes disregarded this order. This order would later be brought to bear against Dönitz during the Nuremburg trials, but in part to it being a reaction to Allied attacks on U-boats rescuing survivors, and partly because the Allies practiced unrestricted submarine warfare as well, the charge was not applied when Dönitz received his sentencing.