Actually, this was not the first liner named Laconia, for the Cunard Lines had launched an earlier ship with the same name in 1911. Ironically, that ship was also sunk by a German submarine, but in 1917.
The second ship named Laconia was launched in 1921 and was a popular liner for 17 years. Over 600 feet long and noted for her luxurious accommodations, she was one of the first ships outfitted with special stabilizing water tanks to prevent rolling as she plied the North Seas. When World War II started, she quickly became part of the British Royal Navy. Her blue and white hull—offset by a red smokestack—was covered with battleship gray paint. Her garden cafes were removed and naval guns were bolted to her decks.
Now regarded as an armed merchant cruiser, the Laconia was used by the British Navy for transport duty. After carrying a load of gold bullion from the Isle of Wight to the United States, she was primarily used to transport British soldiers to the Middle East. Early in 1942, after disembarking her passengers, the ship was loaded with Italian prisoners of war, most of whom had been captured in Libya.
Bound for England, the ship was to sail south through the Suez Canal, round the Cape of Good Hope, then proceed north along the West coast of Africa. On board were 463 ship’s officers and crew, 286 military personnel, 80 civilians (including women and children), 1,793 Italian prisoners of war, and 103 Polish guards. In total, 2,725 people were on board.
Captain Spark took all the usual precautions—including steering zigzag courses during the day and steaming as fast as possible during the cover of night—his ship had been underway for over 2,000 miles when a coded radio dispatch ordered a course change. The Laconia was to steer to the Northwest, crossing the equator midway between Africa and Brazil. While no explanation was given, the ship’s officers believed that a later order would direct them to either Canada or the West Indies. Regardless of their eventual destination, the ship was about as far from land as possible
At 8:07 PM on September 12, 1942, while the officers and civilians were dancing in the First Class Lounge, the first torpedo struck the ship’s starboard side, destroying many of the ships lifeboats. Among those killed instantly were hundreds of Italian prisoners and the entire complement of the ship’s damage control and fire fighting crews. Steam pipes broke, the ship’s lights failed, the telephone system became inoperative, and the vessel began listing to starboard. Due to the concussion, the mainmast fell, taking with it the ship’s radio antennae.
Within minutes, a second torpedo hit the ship’s hold, allowing massive amounts of seawater to fill the prisoner-occupied hold, dooming the ship. Realizing that the ship would soon founder, Captain Spark gave the order to abandon ship. As passengers and crew rushed in the darkness to the boat deck to secure what was left of the lifeboats, the surviving prisoners were left locked in their cells.
Realizing that they were being abandoned, the surviving prisoners of war began battering their cell doors or climbing up ventilation shafts. When their Polish guards realized that the prisoners were “escaping”, many were bayoneted. (Unknown to the prisoners, while the Polish guards carried rifles with fixed bayonets, they had not been issued ammunition.)
By the time prisoners reached the boat deck, all but one of the surviving lifeboats had already been launched. Most of the prisoners had no choice but to leap from the sinking ship into the sea, despite their not having been issued flotation devices. Most of the crew, soldiers, civilians, and even the Polish guards were eventually rescued, but only 419 of the Italian prisoners of war—out of almost 1,800–survived. Survivors later testified that those who managed to swim to lifeboats were attacked with axes, so that many had their hands chopped off as they attempted to climb to the relative safety of the open boats. The blood in the water soon attracted sharks.
After firing his two torpedoes, Korvettenkapitän Werner Hartenstein of the U-156 observed over two thousand of the ship’s passengers swimming in the water. Realizing that most were civilians or prisoners of war, he launched a rescue operation—an action that was allowed under international law. At the time, naval forces of both the Axis and the Allies were operating under the old prize laws.
Hartenstein surfaced the submarine and began rescuing survivors, taking the wounded below and allowing the rest to assemble on the foredeck of his sub. Sending a radio message in the clear (normally messages were coded), the submarine’s captain asked for any nearby vessels to assist in the rescue. Germany sent several other U-boats, and the French Vichy Navy sent surface vessels.
After spreading Red Cross markers on the deck of his sub, Hartenstein began towing the assembled life boats towards a rendezvous with the French ships. It was at this point that the strange flotilla was spotted by the air crew of an American B-24 Liberator bomber. The crew reported the sub, that it was flying Red Cross markers, and that the deck was crowded with prisoners. Nevertheless, the plane’s crew was ordered to attack the submarine by their commanders who were concerned about the number of Allied ships being sunk by German U-Boats.
The B-24 dropped bombs on the sub, then began to strafe the vessel with its machine guns. When Hartenstein crash dived his boat, hundreds of survivors drowned.
As more American planes arrived at the site of the vessel’s sinking, the U-506 was also attacked while rescuing survivors and was forced to submerge, leaving the people crowded on its deck to the mercy of the sea.
Altogether, 1,619 people perished with the sinking of the Laconia. But, the death toll would continue to rise.
Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, the man in charge of German submarine forces, after reviewing the events, issued the Laconia Order. Realizing that airplanes could reach a surfaced submarine faster than the vessel could submerge to safety, Dönitz specifically forbade submarine commanders from engaging in any form of rescue operations. This order effectively resulted in unrestricted submarine warfare for the remainder of the war by both the Axis and the Allies.
A blog is far too short a vehicle in which to list all the casualties that resulted from subsequent attacks. Submarines routinely ignored the plight of downed aircrews and survivors of sunken ships. While their stories are too numerous to relate, I can tell you what happened to a few of the people mentioned in this account.
Captain Sparks, who had already had one ship sunk from beneath him, was not among those rescued, and there are conflicting accounts of how he died. The crew of the B-24 was awarded medals for its bravery. After the war, Grand Admiral Dönitz was tried at Nuremberg—in part for issuing the Laconia Order. Despite a letter from Admiral Chester Nimitz stating that American submarines also engaged in unrestricted warfare, the admiral was sentenced to ten years at Spandau Prison.
For Korvettenkapitän Werner Hartenstein and the U-156, the end came quicker. On their next patrol, the German submarine was spotted by an American PBY flying near Barbados. After dropping bombs, the crew observed the submarine breaking in two. Eleven men surfaced from the doomed boat and the PBY circled back and dropped a rubber life raft. Though some of the men made it into the life raft, when rescue ships later scoured the area, no sign of the life raft was ever found.
Comparisons with the loss of the Titanic seem inevitable. There were loosely the same number of passengers, fairly close to the same number of casualties, and in both cases, the majority of the casualties came from a group of passengers who were physically prevented from boarding an inadequate number of lifeboats. But, where almost everyone is fairly knowledgeable about the Titanic, very few people remember the Laconia—a tragedy where most of the loss of life could have been prevented. Had it been the Nazis who had attacked those attempting such a rescue, I have no doubt that we would have all watched a great movie commemorating the event.