World War 2 History: The Sinking of the Laconia and Its Effect on the War
The RMS Laconia Incident
In September of 1942, a German U-Boat torpedoed RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Laconia, carrying mainly Italian prisoners of war, off the coast of West Africa. The U-Boat surfaced and started picking up survivors and its captain requested help from nearby ships, including other U-Boats. During the operation, an American bomber attacked the rescue effort with bombs and depth charges, forcing the U-Boats to abandon the rescued crew and passengers and dive to safety.
The Laconia Is Torpedoed
RMS Laconia, an armed ocean liner, was carrying 1,800 Italian POWs to Britain from the Middle East around Africa. Also on board were 160 Polish soldiers, 268 British soldiers and 80 civilians (including women), in addition to the crew. On the evening of September 12, 1942, U-Boat U-156 spotted what they thought was an armed troopship rather than a passenger ship (the distinction is fuzzy because the Laconia was armed) and fired two torpedoes into her, killing several hundred instantly. As she started to sink, U-156 surfaced to capture the senior officers. When Captain Werner Hartenstein, realized there were more than 2,000 survivors in the water or in lifeboats and many were Italian POWs, he began rescue operations.
Help Requested-- Any Help
Because there were so many, Hartenstein requested help from Submarine Command in Germany. Admiral Dönitz ordered two nearby U-Boats to the scene. A little later, Caption Hartenstein had the following message broadcast in the clear and in English for additional help from anyone in the area:
"If any ship will assist the ship-wrecked Laconia crew, I will not attack providing I am not being attacked by ship or air forces. I picked up 193 men. 4, 53 South, 11, 26 West. ― German submarine."
U-156 remained on the surface for two days while those survivors she could not accommodate sat in or clung to lifeboats or rafts. On September 15, three other submarines, two German and one Italian, joined in the rescue effort. All four vessels, with hundreds of survivors on their decks and the rest in lifeboats in tow, headed toward Africa. Each sub had also draped large Red Cross flags across their gun decks.
In the meantime, the British, though skeptical of its authenticity, had passed on the request for help to the secret American airbase on Ascension Island. Senior American officer Captain Robert Richardson III decided he couldn't take the chance of the Germans discovering the secret airbase (even though the rescue was occurring hundreds of miles to the north and heading toward Liberia). When a B-24 spotted the U-Boats on September 16, Richardson ordered them sunk. The bomber dropped bombs and depth charges-- one fell among the lifeboats-- and the U-Boats cast them adrift, ordered the survivors on their decks into the water and dove to safety.
Later that day, French vessels arrived and some 1,500 passengers were picked up; around 1,000 of the Laconia's passengers and crew did not survive.
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Unrestricted Naval Warfare Declared
The Laconia incident resulted in German Admiral Dönitz issuing the “Laconia Order”, ushering in total unrestricted naval warfare for the entire German Navy (not just submarines). Prior to this, it was customary for surface vessels of most navies to pick up survivors.
When accused of war crimes during the Nuremberg trials for ordering unrestricted submarine warfare, Admiral Dönitz's defense pointed out that both the British and Americans had practiced the same. U.S. Admiral Chester Nimitz admitted this was true in the Pacific from the day they entered the war. Based on this common guilt, Dönitz's sentence did not include reference to “unrestricted submarine warfare”.
Some thought Captain Richardson should also be charged with a war crime, but, in the hazy, legalese of warfare, since use of Red Cross flags by armed U-Boats was also a violation of the rules, such charges were considered to be a waste of time.
Captain Hartenstein and the crew of U-156 were killed in action by depth charges from a U.S. Catalina aircraft on March 8, 1943.
Have They Stopped Naming Ships Laconia/Lakonia?
The Cunard ocean liner RMS Laconia, built in 1921 and sunk by a U-Boat in 1942 in World War Two described above was not the first Cunard ship of that name to be torpedoed. In World War One, its predecessor, the original RMS Laconia built in 1911, was torpedoed on February 25, 1917 by the German U-Boat U-50.
Twelve people died in the first RMS Laconia attack, two of them Americans. One of the survivors was Chicago Tribune reporter Floyd Gibbons, whose sensational reports of the sinking made him famous (though even he admitted the Laconia was also transporting war materiel). His dispatches were read in both houses of Congress and the outrage contributed to the declaration of war by the U.S. against Germany five weeks later.
In 1963, a cruise ship named Lakonia (Greek spelling) caught fire near the Canary Islands and 128 people died.
Hopefully, the name Laconia has been retired from future ocean-going vessels.