Contributor: David Stubblebine
ww2dbaseThe British RMS Laconia was a 600-foot long, 20,000-ton ocean liner of the Cunard Line launched in 1921 and capable of embarking 2,200 passengers. At the start of World War II, she was converted into a troopship and armed with deck guns, depth charges, and asdic equipment.
ww2dbaseThe German U-156 was a Type IXC submarine launched in 1941 and commanded from the beginning by the very capable and very successful Korvettenkapitän Werner Hartenstein. The U-156 was lost with all hands, including Hartenstein, midway through the war on 8 Mar 1943 but not before Hartenstein had sunk or damaged 21 ships totaling 116,000 tons. But that came later.
ww2dbaseIn the late summer of 1942, Laconia sailed to Cape Town, South Africa loaded with Italian prisoners of war. She left Cape Town bound for Freetown in West Africa carrying 463 officers and crew, 80 civilians (including the wife of the British Governor of Malta), 286 British Army soldiers, 1,793 Italian prisoners of war, and 103 Polish soldiers acting as guards. When Laconia was still 950 miles south of Freetown and 700 miles off the African coast, U-156 fired two torpedoes at her shortly after dark on 12-Sep-1942. Both torpedoes struck Laconia causing her to immediately go dead in the water and take on a heavy list. Hartenstein brought U-156 closer and saw several full lifeboats with hundreds more people in the water. He was surprised to hear the survivors shouting for assistance in Italian. Once Hartenstein learned what Laconia's compliment had been, he began straightaway conducting a large-scale rescue operation. Several survivors were taken inside the submarine, several more were put on the U-Boat's deck, and lifeboats were taken in tow.
ww2dbaseAbout an hour after being torpedoed, the Laconia sank.
ww2dbaseHartenstein requested instructions from his headquarters and Admiral Karl Dönitz assigned three other submarines to assist. The Vichy-French Government also dispatched three ships toward the area. Hartenstein then broadcast a general, uncoded call for assistance in plain English and the British redirected two merchant ships to the area. U-156 remained on the surface for two days with her decks packed with survivors until joined by the other submarines. Together, they began heading for the African coast.
ww2dbaseFour days after Laconia's sinking, the submarines were still making for West Africa but U-156 had become separated from the other submarines. In the middle of the day, Hartenstein was overflown by a B-24 Liberator long-range bomber from the 343rd Bombardment Squadron. The aircraft was transiting eastward from a very secret base on Ascension Island on toward Africa. U-156's deck was still crowded with survivors, she was towing as many as four lifeboats loaded with people, and she had a large Red Cross flag draped over the gun deck. The B-24 circled low over the U-Boat for 30 minutes assessing the situation and then flew off to the west. The B-24 pilot radioed a report of what he had seen and asked for instructions. The reply was clear and direct: "Sink the sub."
ww2dbaseThe B-24 returned and the pilot tried his best to do as he was ordered. He dropped bombs and depth charges that caused only minor damage to the submarine but destroyed two lifeboats and killed dozens of Laconia survivors (perhaps hundreds). Hartenstein had no choice but to cast the lifeboats adrift and put the survivors on his deck back into the sea so that he could dive and save his boat. As the B-24 was beginning its second pass, U-156 submerged. The B-24 pilot saw this and reported that the sub had been sunk. He was credited with a submarine "kill" and was later decorated for this action.
ww2dbaseThe following day, the Vichy-French ships arrived in the area and began collecting survivors. In all, 1,113 of Laconia's original compliment of 2,732 survived the sinking. Nearly all of the dead (88%) were Italian prisoners of war.
ww2dbaseThe attack on a submarine that was engaged in a mission of mercy while flying the flag of the Red Cross angered the Germans generally and Karl Dönitz in particular. In response to this attack, he issued a sweeping order to the entire U-Boat fleet that became known as the Laconia Order. The central portion of this order said: "All attempts to save survivors of sunken ships, also the picking up of floating men and putting them on board lifeboats, the setting upright of overturned lifeboats, and the handing over of food and water are to be discontinued. These rescues contradict the primitive demands of warfare to destroy enemy ships and their crews." This order changed the very definition of submarine warfare. Up to this point, German U-Boats operated more or less under the prevailing maritime doctrine known as the Cruiser Rules, which called for ships to engage in the kinds of actions Hartenstein had done in this case. The Laconia Order unleashed the new and brutal doctrine of Unrestricted Submarine Warfare that remained in place for the rest of the war with dire consequences for many merchant seamen.
ww2dbaseDuring the post-war Nuremberg Trial of Karl Dönitz for various War Crimes, the Laconia Order was displayed prominently in the case against him, a decision that squarely backfired on the prosecution. The German side of the Laconia Incident came out for the first time and US Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz provided unapologetic written testimony on behalf of Dönitz saying the US Navy in the Pacific had engaged in very similar unrestricted submarine warfare since the very first day the US entered the war.
ww2dbaseThere were no War Crimes charges brought against the American officer who ordered the B-24 pilot to attack U-156, Captain Robert C. Richardson III; there was no discipline at all or even much of an inquiry from the Americans. Captain Richardson's reasons for giving the order to attack were that he believed the rules of war at the time did not permit combat ships to fly Red Cross flags, he feared the German submarine would attack the two British freighters responding to the area, and he assumed the German submarine was only rescuing Italian prisoners of war. Further, he believed the submarine may have discovered and shelled the fuel tanks at the secret Ascension Island base, cutting off a critical Allied resupply route to Africa and Asia. Captain Richardson went on to become a career US Air Force officer, retiring in 1967 at the rank of Brigadier General.
ww2dbaseWerner Hartenstein, along with U-156 and all hands, were lost on their next cruise. They were victims of another aerial depth charge attack on 8-Mar-1943 while 350 miles east of Barbados, this time from a PBY Catalina patrol aircraft from US Navy Patrol Squadron VP-53 flying from Chaguaramas, Trinidad.
Gaylord TM Kelshall: The U-Boat War in the Caribbean, 1988
Last Major Update: Nov 2014
Laconia Incident Interactive Map
Laconia Incident Timeline
|12 Sep 1942||At 2207 hours, U-156 sank British troopship Laconia 290 miles northeast of Ascension Island; U-156 surfaced and rescued 200 of the 2,741 aboard, most of whom were Italian prisoners of war, which was a surprise for U-156's commanding officer Korvettenkapitän Werner Hartenstein.|
|13 Sep 1942||German submarine U-156 rescued survivors of British troopship Laconia 290 miles northeast of Ascension Island; at 0125 hours, Korvettenkapitän Werner Hartenstein of U-156 radioed his German superiors for additional ships to help with the rescue; at 0600 hours, Hartenstein radioed, in English, for all ships in the area to help with the rescue.|
|14 Sep 1942||290 miles northeast of Ascension Island, U-156 remained on the surface and attempted to help the hundreds of survivors of British troopship Laconia as they awaited the arrival of rescue ships.|
|15 Sep 1942||At 1130 hours, U-506, U-507, and Italian submarine Cappellini arrived in waters 290 miles northeast of Ascension Island to help U-156 in the rescue of survivors of British troopship Laconia.|
|16 Sep 1942||At 1125 hours, a US B-24 Liberator bomber based in Ascension Island spotted the 4 Axis submarines rescuing survivors of British troopship Laconia; despite the crew's observation of red cross flags, US Captain Robert Richardson III ordered the bomber to attack the submarines; the attack commenced at 1232 hours, and the submarines were forced to abandon the lifeboats they were towing and dive under the surface.|
|17 Sep 1942||German Navy Admiral Karl Dönitz, who had previously supported rescuing survivors of submarine targets, ordered his submarine commanders to cease such actions in light of the Laconia incident on the previous day where an American bomber attacked a German submarine, full of survivors, flying a large red cross flag.|
|17 Sep 1942||The same Ascension Island-based US B-24 Liberator bomber that had attacked German submarines rescued survivors of sunken British troopship Laconia on the previous day attacked the submarines again, forcing U-506 to dive while 142 survivors were still on the deck; later in the day, French cruiser Gloire, sloop Annamite, and sloop Dumont d'Urville arrived to take on 415 Italian and 668 Allied survivors from the German submarines.|
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General Douglas MacArthur at Leyte, 17 Oct 1944