The Sinking of the Laconia – not always good and evil are on one side.
First published on The Correspondent – July/August 2006
In the May/June issue of the Club magazine I found a very interesting review of two books, The Sinking of the Lancastria by Jonathan Fenby and the Sinking of the Lisbon Maru by Tony Banham. I would like to add a few words about the Sinking of the Laconia by Frederick Grossmith. This story is retold in his book published in 1994. This is surely the best and most complete book ever printed on this subject, even if there are more details that have yet to come to light. The author is the son a seaman who had served aboard the ship, but who was transferred just before its last voyage.
I am personally interested in the tragedy of the Laconia because the victims were mostly Italians, and the villains in this case were British and Americans, not Japanese or Germans. The British ship Laconia was sunk by a German U-boat near the island of Ascension on Saturday, 12 September 1942. She was a huge ship, a 20,000-ton luxury transatlantic cruise ship built by Cunard in 1922. She had been requisitioned and armed by the Admiralty in 1939. When she was attacked she was carrying 486 crew, 286 British and 103 Polish soldiers, 80 British women and children, plus 1,793 Italian prisoners of war (POWs) captured in Libya who were being transferred to Britain via Suez, with 90 of their women and children. Werner Hartenstein, commander of the U-156, had stalked her since early in the morning of her final day. When he got within periscope range he was reassured that this was indeed a military target. Laconia was equipped with two 4.7-inch naval guns, six 1-1/2-inch anti-aircraft guns, four Bofors and two two-inch rocket launchers. The British flag was flying and she was zig-zagging during daylight hours. At night she had steamed at full speed ahead with lights off. Captain Rudolph Sharp, commander of the Laconia, had made the mistake of not reducing the huge emissions of smoke through the funnel, which made his ship a very noticeable target. Worse than that, he forgot to run preparations for a possible attack. This may explain why the lifeboats were without water, searchlights, fishing nets and lines. The Italian prisoners had been squeezed below decks for five weeks, and no evacuation drills were ever made. So when the emergency came, nobody knew what to do. Two torpedoes hit the Laconia just after 8 pm and all hell broke loose immediately. The ship appeared to have been mortally wounded and was doomed. At 8:20 pm, Lieutenant Tillie ordered the Laconia crew to “stand down” and then he said: “Look after yourselves, lads!”
The Italian prisoners locked behind iron gates below deck were forgotten. Only 400 managed to break free and reach the surface. Some of the remainder, seeing no way out, tried to kill themselves by beating their heads against the iron bulkheads. Some 1,400 of them still lie at the bottom of the ocean. What surprises me most today – and I don’t know if it is so because I am Italian or because I am human – is the fact that a moral dilemma never seems really to pop up in books describing this disaster, not even in Grossmith’s book . Why did nobody try to help them? Even the BBC, when it broadcasted a programme about this tragedy two years ago, gave the Italian victims only a passing mention. It seems that the cover-up, which disturbed even Winston Churchill, remains in place. No one cared about them then and no-one cares about them today. When about 400 Italians managed to set themselves free and reach the surface, British and Polish troops fired and bayoneted them, even though, as records show, there were more than enough life jackets and space on lifeboats to go round. As Grossmith put it: “Many met death under a hail of bullets when they tried to reach the upper decks after escaping from their prison hatch; a matter not spoken about, save in hushed tones by certain crew members.”
During the melee some British troops shot their catering staff, mistaking them for Italians. They also chopped and slashed with axes at the hands and arms of the unfortunate Italian POWs trying to get on board life-rafts. Only after seeing that space was enough some crews agreed to make some room also for them.
At 9:20 the Laconia disappeared below the waves. James Campbell, a RAF serviceman, remembers swimming in the water: “We eventually met up with a lifeboat which had dozens of Italians clinging to its sides. We shouted and asked if they had room for two more. A huge Scots guardsman was cracking the Italian heads open with an oar and shouted that he’d soon make room for us…”
Their blood quickly attracted sharks and barracuda and many of the survivors later succumbed to their attacks. At this point the German U-boat surfaced and the killing of Italians suddenly ceased. It seemed as if everybody suddenly realised that they were all just fellow survivors. Hartenstein radioed to Paris asking for instructions from Admiral Karl Dönitz. Ignoring Hitler’s instructions, Dönitz ordered him to rescue as many people as possible, with particular emphasis on the Italians, who were still allies of Germany. Hartenstein soon realised that if help was not forthcoming pretty quickly many more would die and he took the unorthodox decision to broadcast a message in English, giving his position away, to persuade Allied ships to come to the rescue. His message was: “If any ship will assist the shipwrecked Laconia crew I will not attack her, provided I am not attacked by ship or air force. I picked up 193 men. 4 52’ South. 11 26’ West. German submarine.”
This message was sent en clair more than once on different wavelengths, but no-one believed him and no ship was sent. Three French sloops belonging to the Vichy Republic moved to the area from Dakar after receiving German assurances, and promises of compensation. Dönitz then directed two more U-boats: the U-506 and U-507 to the area to help survivors, together with the Italian submarine Cappellini. The Italian submarine was commanded by Marco Revedin who recorded an account in his diary. The U-506 and U-507 were sunk in the following months. Hartenstein, aged 33, was lost along with his U-156 near Barbados on March 8, 1943.
Marco Revedin reached the area of the disaster four days after the attack. He encountered lifeboats with British on board. The British women raised up their infant children and were crying, begging him to spare their lives. The Italian captain’s diary entry reads: “They thought we were going to open fire on them as they would have been led to believe by British propaganda…When we left they gave the fascist salute and shouted: ‘Viva il Duce,’ and ‘See you when the war is over’!” The book also recounts an encounter with Cappellini written by Claude Jones, a baggage master, who in 1947 wrote a bombastic account of his experience for the magazine War Illustrated: “Here we had seawolves of a different tribe. We could hardly expect this encounter to pass as the previous one had (with the Germans), especially with Italians among us who might give a garbled account of what had occurred to many of their companions when the Laconia had been torpedoed…The tide of luck again ran in our favour! Kegs of water, flasks of Chianti, boxes of biscuits and cigarettes were produced from the submarine.”
On the morning of Wednesday, September 16, while the Italian and German submarines were still busy helping and sheltering survivors, and serving mugs of coffee, an American B- 24 Liberator appeared in the sky. The commander was Lieutenant James D. Harden. A message in English, by a British officer, was sent to the plane, but it was ignored. Harden, however, saw a large white flag with the red cross stretched across the deck of U- 156 and many lifeboats around the ship. The plane radioed to base for instructions. Captain Robert Richardson, later a member of the top brass in US military aviation circles, ordered it to attack. The plane returned, climbed slowly to 250 feet and dropped five bombs. One sank two lifeboats, three missed and one did some serious damage to the U- 156. The German crew could not believe what was happening, and did not even try to respond with their anti-aircraft gun. Several years later, the Americans admitted to what happened, but no disciplinary action of any kind was ever taken. The crew of the plane were awarded medals for bravery. The explanation given by the then retired General Richardson to Grossmith was that the British did not tell them about the Laconia and the inexperienced plane crew apparently thought that German submarines had life boats on board which could be used for their crew to go out fishing. After this attack, Dönitz ordered all his vessels to abandon the rescue and leave. This became known as the “Laconia incident” and from then on, German submarines were forbidden to rescue survivors. When Dönitz, who served as Reich President for 20 days following Adolf Hitler’s suicide, was put on trial in Nuremberg he testified about what had really happened, about the reckless behaviour of the Allied forces, and thus avoided the death penalty.
An Article from The Telegraph in 2011 with snippets from a BBC series: