The Laconia Affair 

The Hunted, 1942-1945 (Random House, November 1998) continues Clay Blair's history of German submarine warfare in the Second World War.   This excerpt deals with the sinking of the British troopship Laconia off the coast of West Africa and the subsequent rescue attempt by German U-boats flying the Red Cross flag.


On the morning of September 12, Werner Hartenstein in U-156, a Type IXC of group Eisbär en route to Cape Town, spotted the second enemy ship of his patrol. She was a big one: the 19,700-ton British Cunard White Star passenger liner Laconia, serving as a troopship. Northbound from Cape Town to the British Isles, Laconia was sailing alone about nine hundred miles south of Freetown. There were about 2,700 people on board, including 1,800 Italian POWs, 268 British military personnel, 103 Free Poles who were guarding the Italians, and about 80 women and children.

Remaining hull-down beyond the horizon, Hartenstein tracked Laconia until dark, then ran in by the light of a full moon to make a surface attack. He fired two bow torpedoes. One hit forward, the other amidships. Laconia stopped dead in the water. The crew lowered lifeboats and threw over rafts. The radio operator sent out a submarine warning (SSS), giving the name of the ship and her position, adding that Laconia had been torpedoed. No Allied radio monitors picked up this warning or the distress message, or a second one Laconia broadcast four minutes later. But Hartenstein heard them and doubtless his pulse quickened. Counting confirmed claims on his two prior patrols to the Caribbean and the Clan Macwirter sunk in Sierra Leone 119, Laconia's 20,000 tons brought his sinkings to 100,000 tons and made him eligible for a Ritterkreuz.

Laconia had enough lifeboats and rafts to support all 2,700 persons aboard her, including the POWs. But owing to the sharp list of the ship, many boats and rafts could not be launched. Others were improperly launched and capsized or swamped. Chaos reigned on the boat decks. Many lifeboats entered the water and pulled away half full or less. Laconia's captain, Rudolph Sharp, brave and defiant to the end, chose to go down with his ship, which sank about an hour and a half after the torpedoes hit. The noise of her exploding boilers attracted scores of sharks to the scene. They attacked the hundreds of survivors who had jumped into the sea wearing life preservers.

Circling the sinking ship in the darkness at a safe distance, Hartenstein watched her lowering away lifeboats. Then he heard men shouting in Italian, "Aiuto! Aiuto!" ("Help! Help!"). He fished out several of the Italians and from them learned to his shock and dismay that they were survivors of a shipment of hundreds of Italian POWs from North Africa. They told Hartenstein that both torpedoes exploded in POW pens deep in the ship's hold, killing hundreds. The Poles who were assigned to guard the POWs refused to unbolt the doors on the pens and consequently hundreds of Italians who survived the torpedoes went down with the ship. Several hundred or more broke out of one pen and scrambled topside, but they were refused places in lifeboats at gun and bayonet point.

According to the rules of war being observed by Axis and Allies alike, Hartenstein was in no way guilty of any infraction. Laconia was armed (two 4.7" naval guns, six 3" antiaircraft guns, and so on), zigzagging, and blacked out, hence a legitimate submarine target. Inasmuch as the U-boat rules discouraged - or even prohibited - rescue or capture of survivors of sunken ships (except captains and chief engineers), Hartenstein was free to resume his journey to Cape Town, leaving all the survivors, including the Italians, to fend for themselves. But he did not. Perhaps concerned that the accidental killing and stranding of so many Italian soldiers could cause a serious political rupture in the Axis high command, and/or deeply moved by humanitarian considerations, Hartenstein launched a rescue operation. In two hours, he fished out ninety Italians, many suffering from bayonet wounds or shark bites.

There were "hundreds" more Italians floating in the water, many without life jackets, clinging to wreckage. Hartenstein soon realized he could not take them all on board. Nor could he leave them behind. What they urgently needed were more U-boats. He therefore notified Dönitz of the situation - that Laconia "unfortunately" carried "1,500 Italian POWs" - and requested instructions. Approving Hartenstein's rescue operation, Dönitz immediately directed seven other U-boats to proceed at high speed to the disaster scene: the other four U-boats of group Eisbär, including the tanker U-459, plus Erich Würdemann's U-506, in the Gulf of Guinea, and Harro Schacht's U-507, homebound from a foray to Brazil, and the Italian submarine Cappellini, commanded by Marco Revedin. Dönitz then notified Berlin of the situation, the action he had taken, and of a hastily concocted plan to have the eight rescue submarines land the survivors in the port of Bingerville, on the Vichy French Ivory Coast, about six hundred miles to the northeast.

Berlin had other ideas. Professing to be humiliated and outraged by the loss of Italian comrades, Hitler declared that Hartenstein should have said nothing, quietly submerged, and left the scene. He insisted that nothing was to interfere with Eisbär's surprise attack on Cape Town, which was designed to deliver a crippling blow to military supplies destined for the British in Egypt and the Soviets, via the Persian Gulf. In response to this tirade, Admiral Raeder directed Dönitz to disengage all Eisbär boats from the Laconia rescue, including Hartenstein's U-156, and send them onward to Cape Town, per the original plan. Würdemann's U-506, Schacht's U-507, and Revedin's Cappellini were to take on Hartenstein's Italian survivors and to pick up other Italians if they could be rescued without endangering the boats. No British or other Allied survivors were to be rescued, only Italians. In place of landing the survivors in Bingerville, Raeder was to request that the Vichy French send warships from Dakar and/or the Ivory Coast to meet the U-boats at sea and take off the survivors.

In the meantime, Hartenstein fished out about four hundred survivors. He took 193, including 172 Italians and twenty-one British men and women, on board U-156 and put the others in lifeboats. In response to queries from Dönitz, he described the sinking and the scene in detail and suggested "a diplomatic neutralization" (i.e., a temporary cease-fire) in the area in order to effect a safe rescue of both Allied and Axis survivors. Dönitz relayed this unusual proposal to Berlin, but Admiral Raeder and the OKM rejected it, in part because Hitler in his rage had directed that no word of the Laconia sinking or the proposed Axis rescue be transmitted to the Allies, and in part because Raeder did not think it wise to enter into a "deal" with the untrustworthy Allies.

No one told Hartenstein that his "neutralization" proposal had been rejected. In any case, he did not wait for approval. On his own initiative on the morning of September 13, he broadcast this extraordinary message in plain English three times:

If any ship will assist the shipwrecked Laconia crew I will not attack her, providing I am not attacked by ship or air force. I picked up 193 men. 4 degrees -52" south. 11 degrees - 26" west. German Submarine.

The British in Freetown intercepted this message, but believing it might be a ruse de guerre, refused to credit it or to act. While waiting for a response, Hartenstein cruised about, rescuing and redistributing the survivors. To relieve the crowding on U-156, he transferred thirty-one English and Italians to lifeboats but kept four British women. To prevent lifeboats from swamping, he redistributed about one hundred survivors from overloaded lifeboats to those with more space. Later in the day, Dönitz cancelled orders to the four oncoming Eisbär boats to assist in the rescue and specifically directed Hartenstein to turn over all survivors to the first U-boat to arrive at the scene - probably Würdemann's U-506 - and then head south to rejoin group Eisbär for the attack on Cape Town. In response to Berlin's request, the 7,500-ton Vichy French cruiser Gloire sailed from Dakar, and two sloops, the fast 650-ton Annamite and the slower 2,000-ton Dumont d'Urville, sailed from Conakry, French Guinea, and Cotonou, Dahomey, respectively.

During September 14 Hartenstein continued to play the role of shepherd. He logged that in addition to the 162 survivors on board U-159, he was surrounded by "roughly twenty-two large fully filled boats and a large number of small rafts." He retrieved and righted swamped boats, doled out water and food to British and Italians alike, and shifted survivors around to equalize the loads in the boats. He intercepted messages from Dönitz to the four Eisbär boats ordering them to cancel rescue operations, turn about, and go on to Cape Town, to Helmut Witte in U-159, alerting him to prepare to relieve Hartenstein for operations with group Eisbär, and detailed instructions to Hartenstein and to Würdemann in U-506 and Schacht in U-507 for conducting rescues and meeting the Vichy French ships. Dönitz warned the three German rescue submarines: "All boats, including Hartenstein, only take as many men into the boat as will allow it to be fully ready for action when submerged."

On the following day, September 15, Würdemann and Schacht arrived at the scene. By then Dönitz had formally substituted Helmut Witte in U-159 for Hartenstein in group Eisbär and had directed Hartenstein to continue the rescue operations until the Vichy French ships arrived. In compliance with Dönitz's order not to overcrowd the U-boats, Hartenstein transferred 132 Italians to Würdemann's U-506, retaining 131, including five women. In addition, Würdemann took in tow four lifeboats, containing, he logged, "about 250 people." Schacht took on board from the lifeboats or rafts 149 Italians, two English officers, and two women. In addition, he also took in tow four lifeboats containing, he logged, "eighty-six Englishmen and nine Poles."

After these rescues had been carried out, Würdemann and Schacht gave Dönitz brief descriptions of their situations. In reporting that he had four lifeboats containing 250 people in tow, Würdemann did not say the boats contained British and Poles. Dönitz assumed they were some of the hundreds of Italian survivors. In reporting that he also had four lifeboats in tow, Schacht stated that they contained ninety-five British and Poles. Upon receipt of this message, Dönitz directed Schacht but not Würdemann to cut the lifeboats loose.

Copyright © 1998 by Clay Blair. All rights reserved.

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