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.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Carol Morden April 23, 2015 at 10:41 pm

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

Carol Morden April 23, 2015 at 10:37 pm

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

Barnaby100 April 17, 2015 at 9:22 pm

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

Barnaby100 April 17, 2015 at 9:03 pm

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.

Barnaby100 April 17, 2015 at 8:40 pm

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

Gordon Murphy March 31, 2015 at 1:03 pm

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.

Bob Farley December 3, 2014 at 7:38 pm

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.

samantha November 29, 2014 at 8:05 pm

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

Muriel O'Hanlon June 11, 2013 at 12:52 pm

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.

jenny February 26, 2013 at 8:04 am

Hello I’m looking for any info on third officer buckingham fr laconia he was taken p o w on board u boat 507 if any one has any info please contact jennyusa100@gmail.com thank you

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