Sunday, November 25, 2018

Two Stories Concerning Submarines: Part 2, The Laconia Incident

Continuing a post about submarine incidents that either illustrate or caused eye raising policies and procedures. 

The Laconia Incident:

The Laconia:
  • RMS Laconia was built in 1921 as a British civilian ocean liner. 

Cunard Line postcard of the RMS Laconia, circa 1921 
  • During World War 2 she was requisitioned for the war effort, and by 1942 had been converted into a troopship. She was under the command of Captain Rudolph Sharp. 
  • U-156 was a Nazi U-boat commissioned on 4 September 1941 and was under the command of Kapitänleutnant Werner Hartenstein. 

A painting of U-156 under fire 

Werner Hartenstein (1908-1943) 
  • The U-boat took part in five patrols, which included attacks on shipping in which she sank twenty merchantmen, damaged another three merchantmen, and damaged the American destroyer USS Blakeley. 
Sinking of the Laconia: 
  • On 12 September 1942, the Laconia was sailing from Cape Town to Freetown. Aboard the ship, were 2,700 people, mostly Italian prisoners of war guarded by Polish troops, along with dozens of injured British soldiers and other military personnel and 87 women and children — mainly families of servicemen. 
  • U-156 spotted the Laconia off the coast of West Africa midway between Liberia and Ascension Island. Ships armed with guns (which most merchantmen and troop transports were) fell outside protection from attack without warning, therefore the Laconia was regarded as a legitimate target. U-boat captains had orders from Hitler to sink any ships carrying troops or armaments. U-156 put two torpedoes into the Laconia. 
  • From Wikipedia: 
Although there were sufficient lifeboats for the entire ship's complement, including the POWs, heavy listing prevented half from being launched until the vessel had settled. The Italian POWs were left locked in the cargo holds as the ship sank, but most escaped by breaking down hatches or climbing up the ventilation shafts. Several were shot when a group of POWs rushed a lifeboat station, and a large number were bayoneted to death in attempts to prevent them boarding the few lifeboats available. Although the Polish guards were armed with rifles with fixed bayonets, they were not loaded and the guards carried no ammunition. Witnesses indicate that few of the POWs were shot (presumably by British troops), instead most of the casualties were bayoneted.

By the time the last lifeboats were launched most survivors had already entered the water, so some lifeboats had few passengers. Only one life raft left the ship with POWs on board; the rest jumped into the ocean. Survivors later recounted how Italians in the water were either shot or had their hands severed by axes if they tried to climb into a lifeboat. The blood soon attracted sharks. As Laconia began to sink, U-156 surfaced in order to capture the ship's surviving senior officers. To their surprise, the Germans saw over two thousand people struggling in the water. 

German orders:
  • By order of Adolf Hitler, ‘Since foreign seamen cannot be taken prisoner . . . the U-boats are to surface after torpedoing and shoot up the lifeboats.’ 

The rescue: 
  • Hearing the cries of the Italians, Hartenstein assumed he had just torpedoed a ship full of Germany’s allies , then saw with horror that women and children were among the survivors. He decided to rescue everyone, regardless of nationality. Soon the entire deck of the submarine was crowded with men, women and children. They were taken below, given dry clothes, warm tea and bread. The unharmed men were put back into the lifeboats, which were then tied together or lashed to the U-boat with lifelines. All that night and the following day, Hartenstein’s men worked tirelessly under the Red Cross flag, pulling people from the sea and shepherding the flotilla of lifeboats and rafts. The survivors ended up parched, sunburned, limbs swollen and throats burning with thirst. They were treated and the German officers gave up their bunks to the exhausted survivors. 
  • The next day Hartenstein sent a coded message to the Commande in Chief for Submarines: 
Sunk by Hartenstein British "Laconia". Grid FF 7721 310 degrees. Unfortunately with 1500 Italian prisoners of war. So far 90 fished. 157 cubic metres [of oil]. 19 eels [torpedoes], trade wind 3, request orders 
  • The head of submarine operations, Admiral Dönitz, immediately ordered seven U-boats to assist to pick up survivors. Dönitz then informed Berlin of the actions he had taken. Hitler was furious and ordered that the rescue be abandoned. Admiral Raeder ordered Dönitz to disengage the U-boats, which included Hartenstein's U-156. Raeder then ordered U-506, U-507 and the Italian submarine Comandante Cappellini to intercept Hartenstein to take on his survivors and then to proceed to the Laconia site and rescue any Italians they could find. Raeder also requested the Vichy French to send warships from Dakar and/or Côte d'Ivoire to collect the Italian survivors from the three submarines. Dönitz informed Hartenstein of Raeder's orders, but kept Hartensein in the rescue operation, ordering "All boats, including Hartenstein, only take as many men into the boat as will allow it to be fully ready for action when submerged." 
  • Over the next days U-156 saved some 400 survivors, holding 200 on board and the other 200 in lifeboats. On Sept 15, at 1130 hours U-506 arrived at the scene and continued to rescue the survivors. A few hours later U-507 and the Italian submarine Cappellini also arrived. The boats headed for the African coastline, towing the lifeboats behind them and hundreds of survivors were both in and inside the U-boats themselves. 

U-156 with survivors on deck 
  • Hartenstein was now worried that Allied shipping, or planes, might sight his U-boat and attack it, unaware of who was on board. He wanted the survivors to be rescued. He therefore took a bold and n unprecedented step. Using an open radio frequency he broadcast a message in English: ‘If any ship will assist the wrecked Laconia crew, I will not attack her, provided I am not attacked by ship or aircraft. I have picked up 193 men.’ He then gave his co-ordinates, signing off: ‘German submarine.’ 

American bombing: 
  • From Wikipedia: 
During the night the submarines became separated. On 16 September at 11:25am, U-156 was spotted by an American B-24 Liberator bomber flying from a secret airbase on Ascension Island. The submarine was travelling with a Red Cross flag draped across her gun deck. Hartenstein signalled to the pilot in both Morse code and English requesting assistance. A British officer also messaged the aircraft:  
RAF officer speaking from German submarine, Laconia survivors on board, soldiers, civilians, women, children.  
Lieutenant James D. Harden of the United States Army Air Forces did not respond to the messages, and turned away and notified his base of the situation. The senior officer on duty that day, Captain Robert C. Richardson III, who claimed that he did not know that this was a Red Cross-sanctioned German rescue operation, ordered the B-24 to "sink the sub". He later claimed that:
- He believed that the rules of war, at the time, did not permit a combat ship to fly Red Cross flags.
- He feared that the German submarine would attack the two Allied freighters diverted by the British to the site.
- He assumed that the German submarine was rescuing only the Italian POWs. 
In his tactical assessment, he believed that the submarine might discover and shell the secret Ascension airfield and fuel tanks, thus cutting off a critical Allied resupply air route to British forces in Egypt and Soviet forces in Russia. 
Harden flew back to the scene of the rescue effort, and at 12:32 attacked with bombs and depth charges. One landed among the lifeboats in tow behind U-156, killing dozens of survivors, while others straddled the submarine itself causing minor damage. Hartenstein cast adrift those lifeboats still afloat and ordered the survivors on his deck into the water. The submarine submerged slowly to give those still on the deck a chance to get into the water and escape. According to Harden's report, he made four runs at the submarine. On the first three the depth charges and bombs failed to release, on the fourth he dropped two bombs. The crew of the Liberator were later awarded medals for the alleged sinking of U-156, when they had in fact only sunk two lifeboats.  
Ignoring Commander Hartenstein's request that they stay in the area to be rescued by the Vichy French, two lifeboats decided to head for Africa. One, which began the journey with 68 people on board, reached the African coast 27 days later with only 16 survivors. The other was rescued by a British trawler after 40 days at sea. Only four of its 52 occupants were still alive.  
The order given by Richardson has been called a prima facie war crime. Under the conventions of war at sea ships, including submarines, engaged in rescue operations are held immune from attack. 

Second rescue operations: 
  • Also from Wikipedia: 
Unaware of the attack, U-507, U-506 and the Italian submarine Cappellini continued to pick up survivors. The following morning Commander Revedin of Cappellini found that he was rescuing survivors who had been set adrift by U-156. At 11:30am Revedin 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 minor grid-square 56 of grid-square 0971 where you will land remainder shipwrecked on to French ships. Keep British prisoners. Keep strictest watch enemy planes and submarines. End of message.  
U-507 and U-506 received confirmation from headquarters of the attack on U-156 and were asked for the number of survivors rescued. Commander Schacht of U-507 replied that he had 491, of which fifteen were women and sixteen were children. Commander Wurdemann of U-506 confirmed 151, including nine women and children. The next message from headquarters 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 rescue rendezvous. The respective commanders chose not to cast any survivors adrift. 

  • The Laconia incident had far-reaching consequences. Until that point, U-boats had often assisted torpedoed survivors with food, water, simple medical care for the wounded, and a compass bearing to the nearest landmass. It was rare for survivors to be brought on board as space on a U-boat was extremely limited. 
  • On 17 September 1942, in response to the incident, Admiral Dönitz issued an order which later became known as the Laconia Order. In it Dönitz prohibited U-boat crews from attempting rescues; survivors were to be left in the sea. 
  • The order: 
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 rescue, 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. 

What happened to. . .? 

Karl Donitz -
  • Admiral Karl Dönitz (1891 – 1980) played a major role in the naval history of World War II and briefly succeeded Adolf Hitler as the head of state of Nazi Germany. As Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, on 7 May 1945, he ordered Alfred Jodl, Chief of Operations Staff of the OKW, to sign the German instruments of surrender. 
  • Following the war, Dönitz was indicted as a major war criminal at the Nuremberg Trials on three counts: 
(1) conspiracy to commit crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity;
(2) planning, initiating, and waging wars of aggression; and
(3) crimes against the laws of war. 
The issuing of the "Laconia order" was the centrepiece of the prosecution case, a decision that backfired badly. Its introduction allowed the defence to recount at length the numerous instances in which German submariners acted with humanity where in similar situations the Allies behaved callously. Dönitz pointed out that the order itself was a direct result of this callousness and the attack on the Laconia rescue operation by US aircraft.
He was found not guilty on count (1) of the indictment, but guilty on counts (2) and (3) nd was sentenced to ten years' imprisonment. 
  • After his release, he lived in a village near Hamburg until his death in 1980 
Karl Donitz 

Werber Hartenstein -
  • On 8 March 1943, Hartenstein and the entire crew of U-156 were killed in action by depth charges from a U.S. PBY Catalina aircraft east of Barbados.. 

Rudolph Sharp -
  • Captain, Rudolph Sharp, brave and defiant to the end, chose to go down with The Laconia, which sank about an hour and a half after the torpedoes hit.

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