U-156 torpedoes the RMS Laconia

The liner RMS Laconia, torpedoed on the 12th September 1942.

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:

12.09.42

21.00 FF734
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.

22.22
Steamer transmitting on 600 meters:
“SSS SSS 04 34 S 11 25 W
LACONIA torpedoed.”

22.26
Steamer sends on 25 meters:
SSS SSS
de g j e d 8 05 m
04 S 11 25 W
at 2036 GMT
LACONIA torpedoed.”
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

01.25
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.

03.45
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.
Set off.

04.00
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.

04.37
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.

06.00
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.
German submarine.

06.10
Repeated transmission twice on 600 meters.

07.20
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.

….

22.30
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.

Shuttle service for shipwrecked persons from the Laconia between U156 (foreground) and U507 (background) as they redistribute the rescued men between them on the 15th September 1942. Picture taken by Oblt. z. S. Leopold Schuhmacher.

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.

Over a thousand men were adrift in the Laconia’s lifeboats.

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.

This was the last complete patrol by Werner Hartenstein and U-156. She was sunk on her next patrol, in 1943.

18 thoughts on “U-156 torpedoes the RMS Laconia”

  1. My grandad, Edwin Turvey, was on a Cunard cruise ship that had been converted to a troop carrier during WWII. The Laconia, was sunk on 12 September 1942. They were on their way from Cape Town, South Africa to Free Town, Sierra Leone. Grandad was British Army. He was one of 268 British soldiers. There were also 1,800 Italian prisoners of war who were being guarded by 160 Polish soldiers and 80 civilians aboard as well as crew. When the torpedo struck at 8:10 pm many of the Italian prisoners were killed instantly. Grandad was ordered to stand guard at the stairs where surviving prisoners might try to escape after the torpedo hit. He said he said “yes sir” but he knew the ship was sinking so left to try and save himself. There were polish allies also guarding the prisoners.

    He was in the water and eventually made it to a lifeboat. He said it was terrible. There were sharks attacking people. He also said once the lifeboats were full some Polish and British army prevented Italian pows from getting into the boats because they would have been swamped. He did not say if he participated in this but he at least witnessed it. He was in the water/lifeboat for several hours.

    He told me about the German U boat captain, Captain Hartenstein, surfaced and helping them. He said they were treated well. The captain and crew did what they could for the survivors in about 20 lifeboats and a number of small rafts. At 6:00 a.m. on September 13th, Captain Hartenstein broadcast a message, in English, to all ships in the area requesting assistance and promising not to attack. The British apparently didn’t know if this was a trap or real so did not respond. Purportedly, they also did not tell the American airmen stationed on Ascention Island about the call for assistance, only telling them that there were German subs in the area. Three other German and Italian subs came to assist and were helping with rescue efforts.

    On September 16th at 11:25 a.m., the four submarines were spotted by an American B-24 Liberator. The American planes came over and bombed the subs. The u-boats were not sunk but at least 2 lifeboats were and several survivors were killed. The remaining survivors, my Grandad was one, were ordered off the u-boats and were all put in the lifeboats and the U-boats escaped. The survivors were told the Vichy French would come and pick them up. A few boats tried to row for Africa but not many survived on those boats. The next day the survivors were picked up by the Vichy French.

    Grandad was taken by Vichy French as a POW to North Africa. He said it was not great, he got 1 egg a day. He told me he and 2 other guys eventually escaped but within a few days they came across enemy soldiers. He thought they were done for but the Vichy French just directed them to allied forces who had just taken North Africa for the allies in Operation Torch in November, 1942. I don’t know where he fought in the rest of the war or if he got to return to England before he returned to the army.

    He told me at the end of the war in 1945 he saw Berlin. He said the destruction was incredible. It was hard to get home to England as there was so much destruction in Europe and chaos after the war. He was sent home on a ship via New York. He was there for some time (not sure how long-maybe days or a week?). He said it was a huge party. Americans were very complimentary on how polished the British soldiers looked. He remembers being drunk and playing a kids piano in a department store. He also said British soldiers could go into American military offices and request money and they gave it to them. He thought they were just being nice helping them out but once he got back to England he realized they had written it down and he ended up owing money to the British army! I think he said it was around 40 pounds-a lot of money then.

  2. Hi- my father was aged 2 at the time and survived with his mother. His father and brother died. His mother did not survive long after the war but he says he was taken to California after the Americans liberated the prison camp they had been held in. Does anyone else know of any other survivors who were also shipped to the USA?

  3. I’m looking for information about my grandad Frank beardsall he was a baker on the RMS laconia

  4. Jason,

    A B-24 of the 98th Bomb Group was flying from a secret base on Ascension Island. The pilot was Lt. James D. Harden, and the navigator was Lt. Jerome Perlman. They spotted the sub carrying the survivors, with lifeboats in tow (and displaying the Red Cross flag) and contacted the senior officer on duty that day at Ascension Island, Captain Robert C. Richardson III. Lt. Harden was given the order “Sink Sub.” The order later resulted in Dönitz’s “Laconia Befehl” for the German Naval Forces,stating survivors would not be rescued. It is considered a “prima facie” war crime.
    There is a movie (quite well done) about the Laconia Incident, free to watch on Youtube, and also a book “The Sinking of the Laconia and the U-Boat War…” by James P. Duffy.

  5. I was on the ship Stratheden with my mother, elder sister and brother. We were docked by the S.S. Laconia and asked to disembark and board her. The purser agreed to allow us to remain on the Stratheden – lucky family. Father had remained in Egypt.

  6. Does anyone know who the responsible parties in the USAAF on Ascension Island were or the unit which actually made the attack, or a reliable source for details of any of the above.

  7. Hi my name is Harry Gibson,

    I was 3 ½ years old when this event took place. I was travelling on board the Laconia from South Africa to the UK with my Father (RAF Sgt) and my Mother.

  8. Looking for Percy Mills( Johnny ),6398054′ Royal Sussex regiment : 1st battalion – missing at sea – 12 Sept 1942 ??? His name is on the Alamein Memorial

  9. Hi, I’m trying to find any info on my uncle, John Henry Heard, who was a Royal Artillery gunner on the Laconia, listed as killed. He was Welsh from a small village called Nantyffyllon, near Maesteg, Glamorgan. I’m particularly interested in any photos or newspaper reports. Many thanks,Carol

  10. My uncle, John Henry Heard, was a Royal Arillery Gunner on board the Laconia, and was listed as killed. I’m trying to build up the story of the ship and it’s demise. I have a lot of info already, but am particularly interested in photos and news reports. John Henry was Welsh, from a small village called Nantyffyllon, near Maesteg, Glamorgan. Any snippets gratefully received. Thanks, Carol

  11. Sorry. He remembered getting back to London for Christmas. He was born in Egypt. The photos are of his christening amongst the pyramids. Taken on a box brownie or equivalent

  12. Gordon. To clarify. About 15 years ago my daughters school asked them for the ww2 stories. From their families. My father them recounted this story. It was support by photos. I emailed the imperial wAr museum and they said they had no idea about his story I despite sending squadron details and photos. There are one squadron details on line but not then. By chance I told a colleague who is ww2 interest. Several months later he emailed me and said it was the Laconia. A while after the Laconia hit the headlines through the drama. I have no idea why the imperial war museum didn’t match it. My father remembers getting back to London for Christmas 1942 so we knew it must have been autumn 1942 or 1943 but they still couldn’t match it. I can upload ten squadron pictures if that helps . You might see you relatives.

  13. Gordon. My father was one of the raf families evacuated from Egypt in 1940. They then went to South Africa. As far as we can tell (and the imperial war museum can’t verify) his earliest memory is picking up the Laconia survivors. The injured men left on 1 ship the Laconia and the women and children on a second. They were to convoy off South Africa.

    We have photos of the squadron in Egypt in 1940 and personal photos from South Africa. 10 years ago I emailed it the imperial war museum and they denied there was ever a ship. Then the Laconia story hit the press. My grandmother never mentioned it as it was so awful. We believe as an officers wife she was key in getting the group from Egypt to South Africa. My fathers godfather died and his children and wife were on the 2nd ship

  14. My uncle James Murphy was an RAF Corporal returning from Egypt on the Laconia when it was sunk, his death is listed as 20 October 1942. I have read many accounts but would welcome more specific detail.

  15. My cousin Ebeneezer Burgess was an RAF Corporal traveling on the Laconia. At the time we were told only the bare facts: that he was drifting in one of the life boats for a month and died of wounds. His name is on the Alamein Memorial. I have read ‘The Sinking of the Laconia’ by Frederick Grossmith and ‘One Common Enemy’ by Jim McLoughlin. And can guess the end of the story but I would still like to know what it was, however unpleasant and distressing it may be.

  16. Am looking for any info about Alber Edward Hammarton, Sergeant in the RAF lost from the SS Laconia, he was my Great Uncle

  17. Am trying to find a list of the crew that died that were aboard RMS Laconia. Am specifically looking for a stoker whose name was Robert Dwyer.

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