Saturday, 10 November 2012

The day the war stopped: The Laconia incident

U-156 & U-506 picking up survivors

This remembrance day I'm not going to talk about the horrors of war, life in the trenches or sacrifice that should be remembered.

Instead I'm going to talk about one of those rare moments where the rifles are laid down, human kinship and compassion transcend the state of war.

It happened at Christmas 1914 with a football match, or during the static trench warfare when a Saxon regiment sent warnings in dud shells to their opposing British regiment of impending barrages and to "take cover."

It also happened at sea at 22.00 on the 12th September 1942 when the German U-boat U-156 torpedoed and sank the RMS Laconia off the coast of West Africa. The Laconia had been pressed into war service as a troop ship and carried 463 crew, 286 British Soldiers, 103 Polish soldiers who were guarding a staggering 1793 Italian POWs taken in the war against Rommel and 80 civilian passengers.

Korvetten Kapitän Werner Hartenstein ordered his U-boat to surface to capture any of the ships senior officers and found himself surrounded by some 2000 people in the sea. On hearing Italian voices out in the dark he immediately feared the worst; he'd torpedoed an Italian vessel, it had happened before when a Messerschmitt 110 had shot down an Italian civilian air transport.

He began to pull survivors out of the water to try and ascertain the truth and rapidly discovered what had happened, including myriad reports from the Italians who had escaped.

After the torpedo struck Laconia the Polish guards left the POWs locked in their makeshift cells in the cargo holds. Meanwhile on deck the crew had a major problem as the ship began to list further and further they were only able to use a percentage of their life boats.
The Italian prisoners managed to break out or climb up vents and rushed the decks where they're attempts to rush the boats were met with gunfire and bayonets. Faced with a wall of steal many elected to jump into the sea.

Hartenstein hurriedly sent out a message to U-boat command;

Versenkt von Hartenstein Brite Laconia. Marinequadrat FF 7721 310 Grad. Leider MIT 1500 Italienischen Kriegsgefangenen. Bisher 90 gefischt. 157 CNN. 19 Aale, passat 3, erbitte Befehle.

Sunk by Hartenstein British Laconia. Grid 7721 310 degrees. Unfortunately with 1500 Italian POWs. Till now 90 fished. 157 cubic meters (oil). 19 eels 8 torpedoes, trade wind force 3. request orders.

In the water things were getting desperate. The evacuation was far from perfect and many lifeboats lay empty or half full. As the Italians tried to swim for boats they were shot at by inhabitants fearing their boat would be swamped and sunk. There were even reports of hands being severed by axes. The blood in the water attracted sharks.

"sharks darted amongst us. Grabbing an arm, biting a leg. Other beasts swallowed entire bodies" reported Corporal Monte

Jim McLoughlin was hauled aboard the U-boat and confronted by Hartenstein who demanded to know if they were Royal Navy, the Kapitän angrily said that had he known that she was a transport vessel he would never have fired upon her without warning.

Laconia slipped beneath the waves at 23:23 as U-156 began collecting survivors. Hartenstein ordered his men to bring in life boats that were half filled and fill them up with people fished from the sea.

In France Admiral Dönitz, commander of the U-boatwaffe ordered submarines from the Eisbar flotilla that was making its way to Capetown to disengage and head to Hartenstein. He was quickly over ruled by Hitler who didn't want the Capetown or U-boats jeopardised and Admiral Raeder, the Naval C-in-C ordered the boats and Hartenstein to carry on to their original target. Raeder and Dönitz ordered U-506 under Klt Würdemann, U-507 under Korvettenkapitän Schacht and the Italian submarine Cappellini to rendezvous with Hartenstein, relieve him of his survivors then proceed to the Ivory coast freeing up Hartenstein to go back to his original target. OKM, the Naval high command also contacted Vichy France who promised to send warships to relieve the U-boats.

By the next day U-156 had picked up 393 survivors and redistributed then or had them standing on the deck of the U-boat. U-506 and 507 arrived on the 14th and 15th September and also began work collecting survivors, redistributing and providing medical care. The U-507's log for 17th September states:-

Women and children had spent night aboard me. All survivors given warm meal, drinks, clothing and medical attendance where necessary.

The U-boats began to take the life boats in tow, patrolled the area and await the French vessels supporting the survivors as much as possible with the menagerie space and facilities they had aboard.

Where were the Allies?

Laconia sent a message at 22:22 after the torpedo strike.

SSS SSS 0434 South/ 1125 West Laconia torpedoed.

This was followed up by Hartenstein at 6am on 25 metre and again at 6.20 on the 600 metre international bandwidth:

If any ship will assist the ship wrecked Laconia crew, I will not attack providing I am not attacked by ship or airforces. I picked up 193 men. 4,53 south 11,26 west - German submarine.

British authorities believed it was a trap and that Hartenstein was laying in wait for rescue ships. On 15th a poorly worded message to the American forces stated that the merchant ship Empire haven was on its way to the area but made no mention of the U-boats and what they were doing. In his memoirs Dönitz was certain that one of Hartenstein's messages would have been received by the British.

U-156 as she was at the time of the US attack

At 11.32 on 16th B-24 Liberator flew over the scene and was signalled by Hartenstein and an RAF officer who was aboard saying they were on a peaceful mission. They also had a Red cross flag draped over the conning tower.

RAF officer speaking from German submarine, Laconia survivors on board, soldiers, civilians, women, children.

At the Ascension Island secret airbase Senior duty officer Captain Robert C. Richardson III who feared the Germans would move to attack their base or the Allied craft heading to the area and disbelieved any combat ship would fly the Red cross ordered Lt James Harden to return to the site and sink the sub.

At 12:32 he duly began his attack run. Hartenstein saw what was happening and ordered the lines towing the lifeboats cut and everybody back into the water so that the Submarine could submerge. Following an order that had come from Dönitz that he was to save as many lives as possible without endangering his own vessel or crew, he ordered the dive.

Lt. Harden claimed the Sub was sunk and the crew received medals later for their success.

Hartenstein's vessel survived with minor damage. Unfortunately, as he reported in his log;

While the tow with four lifeboats was being cast off, the aircraft dropped a bomb in the middle of these latter. One boat capsized

Hartenstein ordered the lifeboats to hold position hoping that the other two U-boats would collect them and with his damaged craft withdrew. Indeed a communique from Dönitz reaffirmed the stance that the Kapitän's first duty was to his crew and boat and if it was necessary to preserve them he had to be ruthless and abandon the rescue.

As the U-156 withdrew two life boats decided not to heed the German's instructions and headed for the African coast. The first boat made it to the coast after 27 days with 16 out of an original 68 survivors, the second was picked up by a British trawler some 40 days later with only 4 out of 52 occupants alive.

Dönitz sent fresh orders to the remaining U-boats telling them not to bother with the Red cross flags as he doubted the British would respect them in the light of what had happened to Hartenstein. A few hours later he requested an update.

U-507 held 491 (15 women & 16 children)
U-506 held 151 (9 women and children)
Meanwhile the Cappellini was picking up survivors set adrift by U-156.

Fresh orders were sent through to bring the Italians aboard, put the British and Poles into the boats, mark position and set adrift before heading to the rendezvous to meet the French. Dönitz felt that if they were to risk the lives of his U-boat crews it should be for their allies. Schacht and Wurdemann felt differently and disobeyed the order keeping the boats in tow.

The USAAF hadn't finished with them and five Liberators took to the skies. One spotted a lifeboat adrift and reported it to the Empire haven. Lt. Hardin spotted the U-506 and began an attack run. The U-boat cut its lines and crash dived and thankfully no one was hurt this time.

On 17th September the British signalled Ascension Isles informing them that French vessels were now in the area. Captain Richardson, now fearing invasion recalled his bombers.

The French had indeed arrived and the Gloire picked up 52 survivors some 60 miles away and met the U-boats at 14:00 on 17th and transferred all but two British officers aboard. Gloire proceeded to the rescue area and recovered another 11 lifeboats. After a good sweep of the area and a meeting with another French vessel, the Annamite, a count was made.

373 Italians, 70 Poles, 597 Britons (including 48 women and children) had been saved.

The Cappellini was delayed making the rendezvous as the French vessel Dumont-d' Urville had found survivors of another sunken ship, the Trevilly and had paused to look for more. 6 Italians and two British officers were kept aboard whilst the others were transferred.

RMS Laconia

All in all 1113 of 2732 were saved from the water. Had Hartenstein not acted as he did the death toll would have certainly been much higher. Although those on Laconia found themselves in peril because of the U-165, Kapitän Hartenstein and the others risked the lives of their crews to try and save as many lives as possible. It was the last action of it's kind. Dönitz, fearful of losing men and ships in token gestures like this issued the Laconia order forbidding U-boat crews from aiding those in the water and to think of themselves first.

War is a tragedy and it is unfortunately the innocents who pay with their lives. I leave you with the story of one survivor's story.

One survivor, a missionary nurse called Doris Hawkins was one of the 16 who washed up in Liberia. She had been escorting a 14 month old girl, Sally, who was lost at sea.

"We found ourselves on top of the arms and legs of a panic-stricken mass of humanity. The lifeboat, filled to capacity with men, women and children, was leaking badly and rapidly filling with water; at the same time it was crashing against the ship's side. Just as Sally was passed over to me, the boat filled completely and capsized, flinging us all into the water. I lost her. I did not hear her cry, even then, and I'm sure that God took her immediately to Himself without suffering. I never saw her again."


Wikipedia article "The Laconia incident"

Gudmundur Helgason's article "The Laconia incident" on which also features articles on Hartenstein and the U-boats involved.

Dönitz, K. "Ten years and twenty days" the memoirs of the Admiral.

Mallmann - Showell, J "The U-boat century; German Submarine warfare 1906-2006"