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Monday, September 12, 2005

The Laconia Incident, September 12, 2005

Today in 1942, the cruise liner Laconia was sunk by the German submarine U-156 in the South Atlantic between the African coast and Ascension Island. While thousands of ships were sunk by both the Allied and Axis powers during the Second World War, this sinking would change the nature of submarine warfare in the Atlantic.

The Laconia was a 20,000 ton vessel with a crew of nearly 140 men. On her last trip, she was carrying 80 civilians, nearly 450 soldiers and 1800 Italian prisoners of war. The ship was transporting the POWs to England for internment. Just after 10PM local time, Kptlt. Werner Hartenstein of the U-156 torpedoed the Laconia. She sank a little over an hour later.

As the the surfaced submarine approached the site of the sinking, the crew began to hear the voices of survivors, some in life rafts and some in the water. They were speaking Italian. Realizing that he had sunk a vessel carrying Italian prisoners, men who were allied with Germany, he ordered his crew to begin rescue operations. He also did something unprecedented for a submarine captain: he broadcast a message in the clear asking for assistance from any ship, Allied or Axis, in the area. He also promised to not attack any vessel in the area as long as he was not fired upon.

U-156 picked up 200 survivors and took another 200 in tow aboard their life rafts. On September 15th, a German and an Italian submarine arrived on the scene and began taking survivors aboard. One British and one French warship sped toward the scene, having heard Hartenstein's transmission but assuming it was a trap.

At 11AM the next morning, an American B-24 Liberator operating from Ascension Island flew over the small flotilla. The pilot radioed what he saw back to his base and asked for orders. He was told to attack the submarine, which he did at once. The submarines quickly cut the life boats loose and submerged. Many of the survivors, who had been forced by cramped conditions to remain on the ships' open decks, found themselves once again in the water. The ships were all flying the Red Cross flag at the time of the attack, so it is not known if the pilot did not see the flags or chose to disregard them. None of the submarines were sunk.

Eventually, some French warships from Dakar arrived and began to pick up the survivors who were still in the water. Approximately 1500 people survived the sinking.

When German Admiral Karl Donitz heard about the incident, he was enraged. As commander of all German U-Boats, he issued what became known as the Laconia Order. The order stated that U-boat crews were not to engage in rescue operations of any type and that survivors of sinkings were to be left in the water. He called for crews to remain “hard”, reminding them that the enemy was bombing German women and children.

The Laconia Order would show up again after the war when Admiral Donitz was put on trial at Nuremberg. There is much controversy over the fairness of Donitz's prison sentence (he served 11 years and 6 months), but there is no doubt that the Laconia Order damaged his defense beyond repair.

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