On the 12th September the German U boat U-156 torpedoed a passenger ship off the coast of Africa. There was nothing remarkable about that until they discovered who was being transported aboard her – Italian Prisoners of War. The log of U-156 gives an indication of the problems subsequently encountered:
Evening navigation fix: 4°58.6′S 11°08′W.
Closed to night range. Steamer steers 310°.
21.07 FF 7721
Initiated surface attack.
Trade wind 3, nearly overcast, Vis. medium
22.07 FF 7721
Fan from tubes I and III with half spread angle. Target angle 90°, target speed 14 knots, estimated range 1500 meters, target length 140 meters, Eto 30 knots, depth 3 meters, running time 3 minutes 6 seconds.
1. hit amidships. 2. hit heard, but explosion not observed.
Firing range considerably underestimated. Therefore the steamer must be substantially larger.
Steamer stopped. Puts out boats. Settles by the bow. Holding in position, downwind (range 2-3000 meters), waiting for sinking.
Steamer transmitting on 600 meters:
“SSS SSS 04 34 S 11 25 W
Steamer sends on 25 meters:
de g j e d 8 05 m
04 S 11 25 W
at 2036 GMT
Interfered with transmission with own transmitter.
According to radio call sign is the steamer “LACONIA”, Cunard White Star Line, Liverpool.
During a circle to windward Italian cries for help are heard. People fished out: Italian prisoners of war from North Africa. Steamer reportedly had 1200-1800 on board.
23.23 FF 7721
Steamer has sunk (19695 GRT)
Survivors taken on board. Shortly after sinking heavy under water detonation similar to a depth charge. A steamer is detected on short wave close by: his transmitter hits on 25 meters across all bands.
13.09.42 600 nm South of Cape Palmas
00.00 FF 7722
According to Italian statements, the British closed the water-tight compartments to the living quarters of the prisoners after the hits and attempts by the Italians to board the lifeboats were repulsed at gunpoint.
SE 3-4, Sea 3, medium swell, Vis. poor, heavily cloudy
Sent Radio Message on America circuit:
Sinking by Hartenstein British LACONIA in naval square FF 7721 310° Unfortunately with 1500 Italian prisoners. Up to now 90 fished out. 157 cbm, 19 torpedoes, trade winds 3, request orders.
Radio Message received:
Group Eisbär, Schacht, Würdemann and Wilamowitz proceed immediately to Hartenstein in naval square FF 7721 at high speed. Schacht and Würdemann report position.
Boat is in the debris field full of Italians, cannot help further, have taken 193 on board, this is the extreme limit for prolonged submerging.
Radio Message received: To Hartenstein: Immediately report: If ship has transmitted, if the shipwrecked are floating mainly in boats or adrift and further particulars about the sinking location.
Sent Radio Message on America circuit:
Ship transmitted exact location. Have aboard 193 men, including 21 British. Hundreds from shipwreck are floating with only life preservers. Suggest diplomatic neutralization of the area. By radio monitoring an unknown steamer was nearby. From Hartenstein
04.50 FF 7722 Test dive.
05.23 Surfaced. Stopped in position.
Transmitted radio message twice on 25 meters:
If any ship will assist the ship-wrecked LACONIA crew, I will not attack her, providing I am not attacked by ship or air force. I picked up 193 men. 4 52 S 11 26 W.
Repeated transmission twice on 600 meters.
Radio Message received: Hartenstein remain near the scene. Ensure ability to dive. All boats take over only so many that boats remain ready to submerge. More regarding neutralization to follow.
Received Radio Message:
1) Hartenstein turn over rescued to the first arriving boat, presumably Würdemann then continue to the south.
2) The boat that takes over waits for Schacht or Würdemann and the Italian, distribute the rescued.
3) Delivery of all rescued to a French ship or harbor arranged. More to follow.
Unfortunately the radio message broadcast in the clear by Hartenstein commander of U-156 was believed to be a ruse by the Allies. When a US Liberator bomber found the the U-156 on the 16th she was ordered to attack even though the boat was apparently displaying a Red Cross. U-156 was forced to submerge but was not sunk. The rescue plan was only interrupted and the subsequent arrival of a French ship meant that almost 1500 men were saved.
However the incident led to the infamous ‘Laconia Order’, an explicit German order to the U-boats not to attempt rescues of survivors from any torpedoed ship:
Every attempt to save survivors of sunken ships, also the fishing up of swimming men and putting them on board lifeboats, the setup right of overturned lifeboats, the handing over of food and water have be discontinued. These rescues contradict the primitive demands of warfare esp. the destruction of enemy ships and their crews.
The orders concerning the bringing in of skippers and chief engineers stay in effect.
Survivors are only to be rescued, if their statements are important for the boat.
Stay hard. Don’t forget, that the enemy didn’t take any regard for woman and children when bombarding German towns.