On Sept 12, 1942 at 2207 hours U-156 under the command of Kptlt. Werner Hartenstein torpedoed a large target in the South Atlantic in position 05.05S, 11.38W. The large vessel was the British liner Laconia (19,695 tons) which sank at 2323 hours. The liner was carrying a 136-man crew, some 80 civilians, military material and personnel (268 men) and approx. 1800 Italian prisoners of war with 160 Polish soldiers on guard. Radio message from Laconia (sent on Sept 12, 2222 hours on 600 meters-frequency) SOS SOS 0434 South / 1125 West Laconia torpedoed Shortly after the sinking the crew of U-156 was amazed to hear Italian voices in the sea amongst the people both in lifeboats and also struggling in the water itself. Hartenstein immediately began rescue operations and radioed for assistance, both from nearby U-boats and also sent out un coded messages to every vessel around to assist, promising to cease hostilities. Radio message from U-156 to BdU (Sent on Sept 13, 0125 hours): Versenkt von Hartenstein Brite "Laconia". Marinequadrat FF 7721 310 Grad. Leider mit 1500 italienischen Kriegsgefangenen. Bisher 90 gefischt. 157 cbm. 19 Aale, Passat 3, erbitte Befehle. Transl. Sunk by Hartenstein British "Laconia". Grid FF 7721 310 degrees. Unfortunately with 1,500 Italian POW's. Till now 90 fished. 157 cubic meters (oil). 19 eels, trade wind 3, ask for orders.
Uncoded message (sent on Sept 13, 0600 hours on 25 meters-frequency) : If any ship will assist the ship-wrecked 'Laconia'-crew, I will not attack providing I am not being attacked by ship or air forces. I picked up 193 men. 4, 53 South, 11, 26 West. - German submarine U-156".Hartenstein's U-156 loaded with Laconia survivors.
In the next days U-156 saved some 400 survivors, hold 200 on board and the other 200 in lifeboats. On Sept 15, at 1130 hours U-506 under Kptlt Erich Würdemann arrived at the scene and continued to rescue the survivors. A few hours later U-507 under Korvkpt. Harro Schacht and the Italian submarine Cappellini also arrived. The boats headed for shore, towing the lifeboats behind them and hundreds of survivors were both in and inside the U-boats themselves.
On Sept 16, at 1125 hours an American B-24 Liberator bomber operating from the Ascension Island arrived at the scene where its pilot spotted the boats (which at that time flew the Red Cross flag and were clearly not hostile to anyone). The pilot radioed back to his base asking for instructions and was told to attack at once which he did at 1232 hours, forcing the U-boats to cut the lines to the life boats and submerge immediately, leaving hundreds of people again struggling in the water. Thankfully this US intervention caused not as much loss of life as it could have as shortly afterwards some neutral French warships from Dakar arrived at the scene and started picking up survivors. Also many had been taken into the U-boats themselves and were safe there (only because the bomber failed to sink them though). Roughly 1500 survived the sinking.
This incident prompted one of the most controversial order Dönitz ever issued, usually known as the Laconia order today, it made it absolutely clear that no U-boats were to take part in any rescue operations from that date and leave any survivors in the sea. Up until that time U-boats had on very many occasions helped the survivors of their victims with supplies, water, directions to nearest land and so on.
Laconia-Befehl (Laconia order)
1) Jegliche Rettungsversuche von Angehörigen versenkter Schiffe, also auch das Auffischen Schwimmender und Anbordgabe auf Rettungs- boote, Aufrichten gekenterter Rettungsboote, Abgabe von Nahrungsmitteln und Wasser haben zu unterbleiben. Rettung widerspricht den primitivsten Forderungen der Kriegsführung nach Vernichtung feindlicher Schiffe und deren Besatzungen.
2) Die Befehle über das Mitbringen von Kapitänen und Chefingenieuren bleiben bestehen.
3) Schiffbrüchige nur dann retten, wenn ihre Aussagen für das Boot von Wichtigkeit sind.
4) Bleibt hart. Denkt daran, das der Gegner bei seinen Bombenangriffen auf deutsche Städte keine Rücksicht auf Frauen und Kinder nimmt!
1) 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 primary demands of warfare esp. the destruction of enemy ships and their crews.
2) The orders concerning the bringing in of skippers and chief engineers stay in effect.
3) Survivors are only to rescue, if their statements are important for the boat.
4) Stay hard. Don't forget, that the enemy didn't take any regard for woman and children when bombarding German towns.
This order was used as an excuse for the controversial conviction of Dönitz for war crimes at Nüremberg in 1946. Most sensible people agree that the German U-boats fought hard but fair considering the situation and the US submarine force fought with the same aggressiveness against japanese shipping (and if anything the US subs were more unforgiving). Thus many say that Dönitz was simply punished for being too efficient at his job and his U-boats having been to much of a threat to allied shipping and the outcome of the war. Dönitz served 11 years and 6 months in prison.
HISTORICAL NOTES - Werner Hartenstein.....'Sachenstoltz' literally means 'Pride of Saxony', and that is just what Werner Hartenstein was. While he is best remembered for his humanitarian efforts to save thousands of victims of the British liner LACONIA, he was also a very successful Skipper with 19 ship sinkings to his credit. While patrolling in the Caribbean, he made the fatal mistake of allowing some of his men to sun bathe on deck as U-156 moved ahead at slow speed. They were spotted and attacked by a US Navy PBY CATALINA of VP.53 off Barbados, and the boat was lost will all hands in the depth charge attack that quickly followed. His conning tower emblem was the coat of arms of the city of Plauen.
22.00 hours, September 12 1942. German submarine U-156 is on patrol in the South Atlantic off the bulge of West Africa midway between Liberia and Ascension Island. Peering through his periscope, Lieutenant Commander Werner Hartenstein, U-boat ace and holder of Germany’s highest military honour, the Knights Cross, spots a large allied target sailing alone. He attacks and soon his torpedoes have sent the 20,000-ton ship to the bottom of the ocean. But Hartenstein’s satisfaction at the kill soon turns to horror. Surfacing in the hope of capturing the ship’s senior officers and gleaning intelligence information, Hartenstein is appalled to see over two thousand people struggling in the water. For the target U-156 had just sunk was the former Cunard White Star liner, the Laconia. Unbeknownst to Hartenstein, the Laconia was carrying not only her regular crew of 136 but also 80 British women and children, 268 British soldiers, 160 Free Polish troops and 1800 Italian prisoners of war. Aghast at the huge numbers in the water, Hartenstein immediately mounted a rescue operation. Soon U-156 was crammed above and below decks with two hundred survivors including five women with another 200 survivors in tow aboard four lifeboats. Hartenstein radioed to U-boat headquarters in Hamburg alerting them to the situation. Head of submarine operations, Admiral Karl Dönitz (later Chief of the entire German navy and briefly Führer after Hitler's suicide) immediately ordered two other submarines to divert to the scene. Meanwhile Hartenstein sent out a message in plain English to all shipping in the area giving his position, requesting assistance with the rescue effort and promising not to attack. U-156 remained on the surface for the next two and a half days. Just before noon on September 15, she was joined by U-506 commanded by Erich Würdeman and a few hours later by both U-507 under Harro Schacht and the Italian submarine Cappellini. The four submarines with lifeboats in tow and hundreds of survivors standing on the hulls headed towards the African coastline and a rendezvous with Vichy French surface warships which had set out from Senegal and Dahomey (now Benin). The Laconia incident, as it became known, was to have far-reaching consequences. Until then it was common for German submarines to assist torpedoed survivors with food, water and directions to the nearest land. But as his U-boats had been attacked whilst mounting a rescue mission under the Red Cross flag, Admiral Dönitz gave the order that henceforth all rescue operations were prohibited and survivors were to be left in the sea. His Laconia order was used to help convict Dönitz of war crimes at Nuremberg in 1946 even though American submarines in the Pacific operated under the same instructions. He was sentenced to 11 1/2 years, spending most of that time as a companion of Rudolf Hess in Berlin's Spandau prison. But at least Dönitz survived the war and lived into old age. He died on Christmas Eve 1980 at the age of 89, his funeral being attended by thousands of old comrades including over 100 holders of Germany's highest military honour, the Knights Cross, plus many senior officers of the post-war, west-German Federal Navy.
Built: 1922 by Swan Hunter & Wigham Richardson, Newcastle.
Tonnage: 19,695 grt, 11,804 nt.
Engines: Twin screw, turbines, double reduction geared, 2,528 NHP, 16 knots by builder.
Passengers: 350 1st Class, 350 2nd Class, 1,500 3rd Class, 434 Crew.
Laconia made her maiden voyage on the 25th of May 1922, Southampton-New York and apart from alternating occasionally to Boston, commencing voyages in Hamburg and summer cruising between 1930 to 1939 her career had been incident free and pretty uneventful. Converted for use as a troop transport in 1939 she was duly armed with two 4.7 inch naval guns fabricated in Japan during the first world war, six three inch anti-aircraft guns, six one and a half inch anti-aircraft guns, four quick firing Bofors, two groups of two inch rockets, two box kite anti-aircraft bombs which were flown when under aircraft attack from the mainmasts at a height of two hundred and fifty feet and two pair of anti mine paravanes.
Laconia arrived in the Bay of Suez on the 11th of August 1942 and disembarked over three thousand troops, their equipment and supplies at Port Tewfik. Her Captain was Rudolf Sharp, CBE, RD, RNR and he, along with many other Merchant Navy personnel often questioned the British Governments propensity to seriously overload their ships. In this particular instance approximately three thousand people that included seriously wounded men, Italian prisoners of war, women & children from various service and official backgrounds and last but not least an alleged two hundred fifth columnists and low grade spies bound for internment camps in South Africa. The ships lifeboat and raft capacity in no way could accommodate all those onboard having just thirty two lifeboats, forty big rafts and various other smaller ones. Captain Sharp’s second in command was Chief Officer George Steel and his Senior First Officer was J.H. Walker with whom Captain Sharp had sailed with on Lancastria, after her sinking Captain Sharp had asked the Admiralty for Walker to be specifically assigned to Laconia under his command. The ship had a permanent Officer Commanding Troops, Lt. Colonel Liswell of the Beds & Herts. Regiment; for the voyage Lt. Colonel Baldwin had been appointed IC the POW’s and to assist both had support Officers and other ranks.
Laconia sailed late on the 12th of August and by the following morning was well out of range of enemy planes, those onboard relaxed for the first time in three or more days. Black out was strictly adhered to and regular exercise periods were organised for all those capable onboard including the Italians. Her first port of call was Aden and then on to Mombassa for bunkers where those who could get shore leave stepped on dry land for a few hours. Those Italian POW’s who needed immediate hospital treatment and the two hundred or so fifth columnists were also landed, later they would all rejoice in there unexpected deliverance from events about to unfold. Laconia sailed from Mombassa on the 22nd of August with Durban being her next port of call.
Conditions for the Italian prisoners deteriorated somewhat as they left the equatorial zone for those of a cooler clime, all wearing uniforms for desert warfare and existing on a daily ration of two spoonfuls of jam, two slices of bread, two cups of tea and a bowl of extremely thin soup. She arrived in Durban on the 28th where she was to stay for three days; further hospital cases were landed and more service and civilian personnel embarked including one hundred and three Polish guards for the POW’s, although heavily armed the Poles were issued no ammunition.
Laconia’s last port of call was Cape Town where even more service personnel boarded bringing her final compliment to 463 Officers and crew, 286 passengers from all three services, 1,800 Italian POW’s, 103 Poles, and eighty civilians including women and children. She sailed on the 1st of September and until just before midnight of the tenth all had been quite uneventful, Hall-Lucas the Junior First Officer and Buckingham the Senior Third Officer were on watch when a coded message from the Admiralty arrived. Buckingham went down below to the Purser’s Office to decode the transmission and by 0115 had deciphered and handed over the message to Captain Sharp. It read, “Alter course, September 11th, two hours after sunset”, affixed was the course heading to be followed which took Laconia further out into the Atlantic and away from the coast positioning her equidistant from Brazil and West Africa. Captain Sharp’s first assessment of the alteration in headings was that perhaps, bearing in mind all the POW’s he was transporting, that he and Laconia were being rerouted to Canada or the United States. At the specified time on the eleventh, 2200 hrs, Laconia duly altered course.
Out in the Atlantic, 55O miles south of Cape Palma on Laconia’s new heading lay U-156 commanded by Werner Hartenstein, U-156 had been in Hartenstein’s charge since her completion at Deshimag A.G. Wesser dockyards in October of 1941. This was her third voyage and she formed a fifth part of the Polar Bear group made up of U-68, U-172, U-504 and U-459 a supply submarine more commonly referred to as Milch Cows which increased the groups range by one third. Yet another group called Blucher helped form what was referred to as a “rake” spread across an expanse of the Atlantic fifty miles apart. Hartenstein first spotted the smoke from Laconia at 0937 hrs on the twelfth and immediately gave the order to proceed at best possible speed, about sixteen knots, in her direction, by 1300 hrs he was able to positively identify her as a liner but not sure whether she was an AMC or a troop transport. As they neared Laconia at 1800 hrs they were able to determine that she was sailing a zigzag course on a heading of 310°, an hour later Hartenstein fixed his position at 5.0° south, 11.08° west. As night fell at 1955 hrs Hartenstein edged closer and could clearly see that some of those onboard were clearly in breach of standing orders with regards the blackout, light was emitting from more than one porthole. At 2007 with tubes one and three ready Hartenstein ordered first number one away and then twenty seconds later number three, little did he know the havoc he was about to wreak onboard the British ship in just a few moments more.
As U-156 had attacked Laconia whilst still on the surface, all those on deck and in the conning tower could clearly see the first explosion that tore an enormous hole by way of number four hold killing immediately the vast majority of the 450 Italians entrapped within. The second torpedo, which, struck a few seconds later, further for’d at the level of number two hold seemed to do less damage, nevertheless this hold was also full of Italians. So that he could identify his victim, for German Naval records, Hartenstein edged closer to Laconia and came to rest approximately two miles away by which time Laconia had started to list to starboard.
Buckingham the Senior Third Officer had been making a courtesy call in the passenger accommodation when the first torpedo struck and as the ship began to list he rapidly made his way to the bridge arriving just as the second torpedo exploded and the general alarms went off. Captain Sharp’s first order to Buckingham was to seek out and throw overboard the ships code and log books, he then turned to First Officer Walker and asked if all the watertight doors had closed, on confirmation that they were he ordered Walker to take charge of the lowering of Laconia’s lifeboats. Buckingham, with the assistance of an AB managed to throw over all the code and log books that were all kept in weighted canvas bags, locked in a safe in the chartroom, both men had to make several trips to the ships side before all the books had been dealt with. On his return to the bridge he was then asked to go aft to the radio room and see if the Captain’s messages had in fact been transmitted, he found all three Radio Operators working their switchboards sending SSS calls as well as Laconia’s position, SSS being the recognised SOS call with the addition of a submarine possibly still in the vicinity. He returned to the bridge via the lower decks and arriving on E-Deck could clearly hear some of the bulkheads giving way under the sheer weight of water, he told Captain Sharp of his discovery on his return to the bridge. Captain Sharp’s only response was to order all those remaining on the bridge to immediately seek out their respective lifeboats and to abandon ship. The sheer panic and disorder that greeted them on their arrival on A-Deck was indescribable with passengers milling around in total darkness not knowing whether to go lower to be nearer the sea when they jumped or higher in an attempt to escape the inevitable, most ignoring the entreaties of both the officers and crew.
On U-156 Hartenstein had decided to close with Laconia in an attempt to pick up her Captain and had to maneuver around the spreading wreckage, as he neared they could clearly see survivors in the overcrowded boats and others clinging to the boats sides. As he approached he thought, then dismissed the idea that he’d heard “Aiuto!” called and continued to circle, deciding that it would be impossible to locate Laconia’s Captain he decided to leave. As he departed the scene he heard the call he’d previously dismissed called again. After fishing some of the circling survivors out of the sea and discovering that in fact she had been loaded with Italians Hartenstein realized the enormity of the uniqueness of his situation. Half a mile away Laconia finally slipped beneath the waves. Hartenstein had no other option other than to commence rescue operations and radioed headquarters for guidance.
Buckingham found himself floating all alone in thankfully a relatively calm sea, seeing a faint light in the distance he swam towards it finding himself alongside an upturned lifeboat with two men clinging to its side, one of them was Second Officer Stokes. Unfortunately Stokes had a broken leg but with the assistance of the other man Buckingham was able to drag him onto the upturned lifeboat, with little else to do, but wait for daybreak. All three men soon found themselves back in the water when struck by a large wave, having secured Stokes atop the unturned boat once more he left to look for another lifeboat leaving Stokes in the charge of the other survivor, neither were seen again. Buckingham swam and floated around all night only disturbed when bumping into corpses rising and falling in the prevalent swell.
Meanwhile in Paris at the German U-Boat Command Admiral Donitz had been roused from his sleep at 23:25hrs by his adjutant, Hessler, who handed the message Hartenstein had sent from U-156 explaining the predicament he now found himself in after sinking Laconia which as it turned out was carrying Italian prisoners of war. Donitz thought long and hard for over three and a half hours before authorizing other U-Boats to go to Hartenstein’s aid and to rescue all those in the water. The Vichy French fleet based at Casablanca was also informed and dispatched the cruiser Gloire accompanied by the sloops Dumont d’Urville and Annamite. Also Hartenstein openly radioed his position to all ships in his area asking for assistance and also adding that the German U-Boats that were also on their way wouldn’t attack allied ships that came to their aid, at this time there were 193 survivors already aboard U-156. The Italian submarine Cappellini was also ordered to proceed with all haste to assist U-156.
As day broke Buckingham spotted a lifeboat in the distance and made his way towards it hoping there would be room for him aboard her, to his dismay not only was it full to overflowing but also was surrounded by others desperately trying to stay afloat. He recognized the officer at the boats stern as Purslow the ships doctor and asked him if any other lifeboats were in the vicinity to which Purslow replied that there was indeed another over to the east but was quite a distance away. With no other option open to him Buckingham struck out in the direction indicated by Purslow and finally reached the other lifeboat after an hour and a half’s swimming, thankfully hands reached down and assisted him into the boat. After recovering from his ordeal he discovered that only fifteen other survivors were aboard, an RAF serviceman and fourteen Italian prisoners of war. He then decided to return to the overcrowded boat and rescue those still in the water, in all a further seventy-three survivors were lifted aboard. Soon two other lifeboats joined them and Buckingham decided to keep the four boats together and set sail the following day for the west coast of Africa, that night the boats posted lookouts in an effort to maintain contact.
Apart from a thirty-minute test dive made by Hartenstein U-156 had remained on the surface and after signalling in English his intentions to remain as such commenced his search for further survivors in the early hours of the 13th. Even Donitz in Paris was surprised at Hartenstein’s message in English en clair, such an unprecedented incident by a German submarine commander asking his enemy to come to his aid in rescuing their shipwrecked personnel, but would the English recognize the proposed neutralized zone, only time would tell. The German Command itself was split on the issue, Hitler was said to have been furious, even more so if he’d been informed of Hartenstein’s message in English which had been deliberately kept from him. By the third day U-156 had under its control 400 survivors equally divided between those onboard the submarine and those in lifeboats surrounding her and Kapitan Wurdemann onboard U-506 had picked up a further two hundred. For those scattered out of view life was quickly becoming intolerable as their lifeboats drifted further and further away from the site of the sinking. Miraculously after yet another night spent drifting they awoke to find themselves in a group of a half dozen boats and a short while later a submarine approached and informed them that both their position was known and help was on its way. As the day wore on the boats started to drift apart once more and by evening had become totally scattered. A few miles away yet another group of four boats had managed to stay together and had set sail for the coast of North Africa under the leadership of Buckingham. Shortly after 14:00hrs on the 15th these boats were found by Schacht’s U-507, after embarking the women and wounded he took the four lifeboats under tow warning them at the same time bad weather was expected that evening. As Buckingham had secured his painter just after 16:00hrs to the boat ahead he thought he heard the distant noise of aeroplane engines but couldn’t be sure. A fifth boat was found just before nightfall, this brought U-507’s total to 153 survivors.
At 03:00hrs Hartenstein received orders for the rendezvous with the Vichy French warships; unfortunately an hour later he had to reduce speed when one of his engines developed problems. Four hours later he sighted another lifeboat and had it attached to the other three already under tow. At 11:25hrs a lookout reported engine noises and a short while later a four-engined plane was spotted making its way towards them, Hartenstein immediately ordered that a previously made red cross flag be draped over the deck gun. As the plane neared them it clearly became identifiable as an American B-24 Liberator, Hartenstein at first ordered his signaller to send a message in Morse and in English, this was followed by another message, this time sent by a British officer from the submarine and was as follows: ‘RAF officer speaking from German submarine, Laconia survivors on board, soldiers, civilians, women, children’ The plane made no response whatsoever but just turned to south westwards and flew off.
At this juncture it would be only right and proper to explain exactly who received what message and when, transmitted by Hartenstein of U-156. The en Clair message was reputedly only received by the British Base at Freetown, Sierre Leone but not by the recently opened American USAAF base on Ascension Island. On the 15th of September the British base informed the Americans of Laconia’s sinking but not of the German rescue operation underway. Freetown then asked the Americans for air cover for British ships that were making for Laconia’s last known position, the Americans dispatched a B-24 Liberator to assist the following morning. It begs the obvious question, when the British authorities asked for American assistance why didn’t they inform the Americans of the German offer of help? As it was the first time such an offer had been made its remarkable that more information wasn’t forthcoming from the British, make of it what you think. Though the submarine was reported as towing four lifeboats and flying the Red Cross flag the Liberator was ordered to attack.
Everyone onboard the submarine was convinced that the plane had in fact turned for base and was in the process of radioing for help. Half an hour later the planes engines were heard again returning in their direction, it was assumed by all onboard that it was either to drop supplies or drugs. As the plane banked and dropped to two hundred and fifty feet, Hartenstein was horrified to see its bomb bay doors open and two bombs released. Fortunately for those onboard, German, Italian and British both bombs exploded some distance from the submarine and as the plane banked for a second run Hartenstein ordered that the towrope to the lifeboats be cut. A third bomb exploded amidst the lifeboats destroying one and a fourth exploded some 200 yards distant. A third run by the Liberator released the final bomb, this time the aim proved rather better and U-156 suffered damage to her hull integrity, with the Liberator wheeling above Hartenstein, with no other option ordered the immediate evacuation of the British survivors, compliantly they obeyed. Realising that he couldn’t dive safely with so many personnel onboard Hartenstein ordered that the Italians leave also, in the end some had to be forcefully ejected, once completed U-156 dived for trials at 1345hrs and at 1600hrs when completely satisfied held his position until late evening. U-156 surfaced at 2142hrs and with his radio repaired signalled U-boat Command in Paris with the following message: Hartenstein. While towing four lifeboats, in clear weather and displaying large Red Cross flag from bridge, was bombed by an American Liberator. Aircraft dropped five bombs. Have transferred survivors to lifeboats and am abandoning rescue work. Proceeding westwards. Repairs in hand. Commander Revedin aboard the Italian submarine Cappellini had arrived on the scene on the morning of the 16th and a short while later came upon the first lifeboat, this was followed by more and included many still in the water. Revedin handed both water and supplies out to all three nationalities without favour. By evening there were forty nine Italians down below in the submarine and a large number of British and Polish on deck. By the morning the submarine was rolling around in a large swell and many of those on deck had been swept back into the sea, those that survived were fed hot soup and biscuits and given cigarettes. When speaking to the Italians down below Revedin discovered that he had stumbled on those released by U-156, this was confirmed at 1130hrs when he received the following message: Bordeaux to Cappellini: Reporting attack already undergone by other submarines. Be ready to submerge for action against the enemy. Put shipwrecked on rafts except women, children and Italians, and make for sotto-quadratino 56 of quadratino 0971 where you will land remainder shipwrecked on to French ships. Keep British prisoners. Keep strictest watch enemy planes and submarines. End of message. Revedin decided to stay on the surface and rode out the evening with those boats still in his vicinity.
Meanwhile the same morning that Cappellini had arrived at the scene Schacht’s U 507 was continuing with its search, one of the last to be pulled from some wreckage was a pregnant woman who the captain immediately sent below with the rest of the women and children. Later both Schacht and Wurdemann of U-506 received confirmation from headquarters of the attack on 516 and asked them for their respective numbers of survivors rescued, Schacht signaled that he had 491 of which fifteen were women and sixteen were children, Wurdemann confirmed 151 including nine women and children. The next message ordered them to cast adrift all the British and Polish survivors, mark their positions and instruct them to remain exactly where they were and proceed with all haste to the rendezvous.
The French cruiser Gloire arrived sixty miles north north west of the rendezvous on the morning of the 17th and immediately came upon Laconia’s motorboat carrying fifty-two survivors including one woman and several ships officers, all were British. Gloire’s next contact was when she came across the sloop Annamite at 1230hrs, both ships headed towards the scheduled rendezvous with the submarines and at just past 1400hrs came upon U-507 and U-506 the latter submerging until the formers transfer was completed. Both Buckingham the Laconia’s second officer and Smith an RAF man were retained onboard U-507 for internment later, Buckingham survived the war and later returned to Cunard, sadly Smith was to die of dysentery contracted aboard the submarine after being landed at Bordeaux. On completion of U-507’s transfer she reversed roles with U-506 and by 1840hrs the task had been completed with all 315 survivors being accommodated aboard Annamite.
Meanwhile Gloire had sailed off on her own and had discovered four lifeboats under sail at 1600hrs, the occupants, a mixture of nationalities were in a pitiful condition and it took until just after 1800hrs to get them all aboard. The Gloire set off in search once more and only fifteen minutes later discovered a further seven boats all roped together, again a cross section of Laconia’s complement manned the boats. Whilst the occupants were helped aboard Captain Graziani of Gloire had been scanning the ocean and had seen a boat over to the south east, when the embarkation was completed, now quite dark for it was 2035, Graziani set off to search for her with all the searchlights switched on. Fortunately the boat was quickly spotted, being seriously overloaded and with a choppy sea and the late hour it proved extremely difficult to get all aboard, however this was successfully achieved by 2200hrs. Graziani had decided by then to make for the scheduled rendezvous with the Annamite at 0100hrs and as he turned one of the lookouts claimed that he had seen a light further to the south west, fortunately for the eighty four occupants of that boat Gloire’s captain had decided, much against his better judgement to investigate, it wasn’t until 0140hrs, some forty minutes after his rendezvous time with Annamite that all survivors were safely aboard the Gloire.
Below are pictures of Roland and his Wife Yvette from France. Roland was onboard the Gloire and took the picture of the U-156 shown below
Once all the survivors had been safely accommodated aboard Graziani radioed Quémard of Annamite and told him of his delay and rearranged a new rendezvous time for 0930 the following morning. On his way to the predetermined location Annamite was twice investigated by American Liberators, the second time Quémard was convinced that he too was about to be bombed and frantically maintained a signal declaring that they were Red Cross, eventually the Liberator’s pilot appeared to either understand or be totally confused for he turned and flew off. The ships met just before 0930hrs and the transfer of survivors from the cramped Annamite to Gloire commenced immediately, by 1230hrs it was completed and Graziani ordered a count to take place. Beside the ships compliment of 750 there were an additional 373 Italians, 70 Poles and 597 British that included 48 women and children, Graziani sensibly ordered that the survivors be separated by nationality where space permitted. The British were housed up forward, the Poles, again forward but further aft on the starboard side, the women and children midship with the Italians accommodated aft. The sick bay was overcrowded with many suffering from both wounds and total exhaustion and on the first night of rescue two were to die, a ships officer and a crewmember, both were buried at sea with full military honours the following morning. The Gloire arrived at Dakar on the 21st and after both revictualling and bunkering sailed that afternoon for Casablanca arriving there on the 25th.
On arrival and just before disembarkation, Colonel Baldwin, on behalf of all the British survivors presented Captain Graziani with a sheet of paper that read as follows: “We the undersigned officers of His Majesty’s Navy, Army and Air Force and of the Merchant Navy, and also on behalf of the Polish detachment, the prisoners of war, the women and children, wish to express to you our deepest and sincerest gratitude for all you have done, at the cost of very great difficulties for your ship and her crew, in welcoming us, the survivors of his Majesty’s transport-ship, the Laconia.” The Poles then went onto present a drawing emblazoned with the Polish eagle and a small sailing ship; all as a token of their gratitude thanking all the French sailors signed this.
Revedin onboard the submarine Cappellini had been unable to find the French warships so radioed for instructions and awaited a response. The other French sloop Dumont-d’Urville hadn’t found any of Laconia’s survivors, however quite by chance she came upon a lifeboat from the British cargo ship Trevilley of the Hain Steamship Co; that had been torpedoed and sunk on the 12th when in convoy, Trevilley’s captain, after some consideration decided that his thirteen charges were far better off being rescued there and then and accepting the prospect of internment instead of trying to make landfall. A search for the other two lifeboats from Trevilley failed to locate them so the sloops captain, Madelin, then headed for the rendezvous point. After further radio communications with Dakar Madelin was ordered to rendezvous with the overloaded Cappellini and this he duly did on the morning of the twentieth. Having transferred most of the ex Italian P.O.W.s Cappellini departed retaining onboard six Italians and two British Officers. Later Dumont-d’Urville rendezvoused with Annamite and yet another transfer took place with all the Italians transferring to the Annamite, she berthed at Dakar on the 24th. Two lifeboats that had headed for Africa when U-156 was bombed suffered dreadfully and of the 119 onboard only twenty were to survive. Of Laconia’s original compliment of 2,732 only 1,113 survived initially, some were to unfortunately die later from injuries received. The incident provoked Admiral Donitz into issuing his ‘Laconia Order’, which forbade his U-Boats from going to the aid of survivors. At the Nuremberg trials Donitz was cleared of any wrong doing over this order, he was however convicted on other more serious charges.
Note: The fates of the four rescuing submarines are as follows: U-156 was sunk by a U.S. Catalina on the 8th of March 1943 when east of Barbados, all 53 onboard were killed. A U.S. Liberator west of Vigo sank U-506 on the 12th of July 1943, 48 of her crew went down with their ship, and six were rescued. U-507 was sunk on the 13th of January, 1943, by a U.S. Catalina north west of Natal, South Africa, all 54 onboard were killed. Cappellini was captured by the Germans in Penang on the 10th of September 1943 and renamed U.IT.23, on the 8th of May she was handed over to the Japanese and subsequently renamed I.503, she survived the war and surrendered at Kobe on the 30th of August 1945, the American Navy scuttled her at Kii Suido on the 16th of April 1946.
Gloire, Annamite and Dumont-d’Urville all surrendered to the Free French Forces on the 23rd of November 1942. All three survived the war with Gloire seeing service at the Anzio Landings February 1944 and the Dragoon Landing at Provence on the 15th of August in the same year. She was scrapped on the 2nd of January 1958. The two sloops both saw service during the Indo-China and Vietnam wars, Dumont-d’Urville was stricken in 1958, Annamite’s eventual fate unknown.
James Carson, Director
Site Origination Date: 10 May 2005.
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