Werner Hartenstein and the Laconia Incident

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The Cunard White Star liner Laconia converted into a troopship during World War II

22.00 hours, September 12 1942.  German submarine U-156 is on patrol in the South Atlantic off the bulge of West Africa midway between Liberia and Ascension Island. Peering through his periscope, Lieutenant Commander Werner Hartenstein, U-boat ace and holder of Germany's highest military honour, the Knights Cross, spots a large allied target sailing alone.  He attacks and soon his torpedoes have sent the 20,000-ton ship to the bottom of the ocean.  But Hartenstein's satisfaction at the kill soon turns to horror.  Surfacing in the hope of capturing the ship's senior officers and gleaning intelligence information, Hartenstein is appalled to see over two thousand people struggling in the water.  For the target U-156 had just sunk was the former Cunard White Star liner, the Laconia.  Unbeknownst to Hartenstein, the Laconia was carrying not only her regular crew of 136 but also 80 British women and children, 268 British soldiers, 160 Free Polish troops and 1800 Italian prisoners of war.  

Cunard postcards of the Laconia

Aghast at the huge numbers in the water, Hartenstein immediately mounted a rescue operation.  Soon U-156 was crammed above and below decks with two hundred survivors including five women with another 200 survivors in tow aboard four lifeboats.  Hartenstein radioed to U-boat headquarters in Hamburg alerting them to the situation.  Head of submarine operations, Admiral Karl Dönitz (later Chief of the entire German navy and briefly Führer after Hitler's suicide) immediately ordered two other submarines to divert to the scene.  Meanwhile Hartenstein sent out a message in plain English to all shipping in the area giving his position, requesting assistance with the rescue effort and promising not to attack.  U-156 remained on the surface for the next two and a half days.  Just before noon on September 15, she was joined by U-506 commanded by Erich Würdeman and a few hours later by both U-507 under Harro Schacht and the Italian submarine Cappellini.  The four submarines with lifeboats in tow and hundreds of survivors standing on the hulls headed towards the African coastline and a rendezvous with Vichy French surface warships which had set out from Senegal and Dahomey (now Benin).

Werner Hartenstein
alone in the conning tower of U-156
Map of the sinking of the Laconia




There was not to be a fairytale ending to Hartenstein's mission of mercy, however.  The following morning the four submarines, now with Red Cross flags draped across their gun decks, were spotted by an American B-24 Liberator bomber flying out of Ascension Island.  Hartenstein signalled to the pilot requesting assistance.  Lieutenant James D. Harden USAAF turned away and notified his base of the situation.  The senior officer on duty that day, Captain Robert C. Richardson III, had two choices: let the U-boats go, thus enabling them to sink more allied shipping later, or order the B-24 to attack, almost certainly condemning many of the Laconia survivors to their deaths.

"Sink sub!" was the order Harden received.  He flew back to the scene of the rescue effort and attacked with bombs and depth charges.  One landed among the lifeboats in tow behind U-156 whilst the others straddled the submarine itself.  Under attack, Hartenstein felt he had no option but to cast adrift those lifeboats still afloat and order the survivors on his deck into the water.  The submarines dived and escaped.  Many hundreds more of the  Laconia survivors perished, but the Vichy French vessels managed to re-rescue about 1100 later that day.  South African seaman, Tony Large, endured 39 days adrift in an open life boat before he was finally picked up.


Lieutenant Commander Werner Hartenstein with the crew of U-156

The Laconia incident, as it became known, was to have far-reaching consequences.  Until then it was common for German submarines to assist torpedoed survivors with food, water and directions to the nearest land.  But as his U-boats had been attacked whilst mounting a rescue mission under the Red Cross flag, Admiral Dönitz gave the order that henceforth all rescue operations were prohibited and survivors were to be left in the sea.  His Laconia order was used to help convict Dönitz of war crimes at Nuremberg in 1946 even though American submarines in the Pacific operated under the same instructions.  He was sentenced to 11 1/2 years, spending most of that time as a companion of Rudolf Hess in Berlin's Spandau prison.  But at least Dönitz survived the war and lived into old age.  He died on Christmas Eve 1980 at the age of 89, his funeral being attended by thousands of old comrades including over 100 holders of Germany's highest military honour, the Knights Cross, plus many senior officers of the post-war, west-German Federal Navy. 

Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz during World War II  

Dönitz as an old man in the 1970's

Werner Hartenstein and his crew were not so fortunate.  Six months after the Laconia incident, on 8th March 1943 whilst on patrol east of Barbados, U-156 was depth-charged by another American bomber.  She was sunk with all hands.

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