The Atlantic Ocean can be an unforgiving place at the best of times. During the Second World War, combatants on both sides were at peril both from the ocean and the enemy. On 12 September 1942, the British ship RMS Laconia, which was armed, was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat 156.
Yet that was not the end of the story. What unfolded was a remarkable tale of heroism and events both remarkable and ultimately truly unfortunate for many of those involved. The U-boat surfaced, its commander hoping to capture the senior crew of the ship. The horrified crew instead saw over 2000 people in the water.
The Germans had not known that they had just destroyed a PoW ship. The survivors of the sinking were six hundred miles from the coast of Africa. There were over sixty British civilians and over 400 British and Polish troops. Their cargo had been a strange one – 1800 Italian prisoners of war. The first irony of the situation then, was that the German U-boat had imperilled many of its own allies.
The survivors faced a certain and protracted watery death.
Then, the U-Boat commander Werner Hartenstein (above), made an extraordinary decision that went beyond all protocol.
He ordered the U-boat to surface he ordered his submariners to save as many of the marooned survivors as possible.
This act of humanity would save the lives of many hundreds of people. Yet the tragedy of the Laconia was not over yet.
Over the course of forty eight hours the crew of the U-156 saved over 400 people. Yet the sheer numbers created a new problem. 200 could be crammed aboard and atop of the submarine – yet the remainder had to be towed behind in a series of lifeboats strung together. Hartenstein gave orders – he asked for a communiqué to be sent to the Allies requesting a rescue ship.
His message was plain and simple. Broadcast on the 25 meter band in clear English it said “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.” He continued to rescue more survivors after the message was sent, including 5 women.
The French Vichy government dispatched two warships from Senegal. The U-boat was then joined by two others German submarines (U-506 and U-507) and an Italian one, the Cappellini. With the four submarines, their gun decks draped in Red Cross flags headed towards the rendezvous point. The survivors on the top decks of the submarines were bewildered but no doubt happy to be alive.
This story on its own would be remarkable enough. Yet fate had a cruel twist in store.
The U-Boat and its strange cargo were spotted by an American B-24 bomber on the morning of 16 September. It radioed its base Commander, Captain Robert C Richardson who then had to make the hardest decision of his life.
The U-boats, to anyone not fully aware of the situation, would have been seen to be behaving in a highly suspicious manner. First and foremost the rules of war did not allow a combat ship to fly Red Cross flags so the fact that the U-boats were doing this was extremely irregular. Secondly, their British allies were also fearful of the U-boats, despite the fact they had diverted two of their freighters to the area. The fear was that the U-boats, carrying so many Italians, would choose to destroy the freighters.
Richardson feared that the secret airfield and fuelling depot on Ascension would also be discovered – and destroyed – by the Germans. The airfield and its supplies were vital to the Allied war effort in North Africa and Russia.
Richardson ordered Lieutenant James D. Harden, the pilot of the B-24 bomber which had spotted the convoy of submarines back to the area. It bombed and depth charged the vicinity, one landing among the lifeboats behind U-156, others straddled the submarine. Hartenstein had no other choice. He cast the survivors adrift and dived to the depths, escaping destruction.
Hundreds of the survivors perished in the attack and its aftermath. However, the French vessels arrived several hours later and approximately 1,500 of the passengers survived. The consequences to many were severe – Admiral Donitz of the German Navy forbad any further rescues of crews whose ships had been destroyed. Although U-boats occasionally disobeyed him, generally they followed his order.
To this day the controversy of the incident persists – how much required assistance and protection should military forces give to non-combatants caught up in sea battles? Several of the combatants and other survivors involved give their account of the Laconia Incident tonight on BBC two.
Sadly Werner Hartenstein, although, he received an iron cross, was separated from his beloved crew, of which respected and loved him, and vice versa.
This ultimately broke his heart.
He was given a new crew, and in his first misson since the Laconia Incident, his U-boat was bombed on the 13th March 1940.
There were no survivors.