A Brief History
On September 12, 1942, one of the saddest and most regrettable incidents of World War II took place following the sinking of the British ocean liner the RMS Laconia by torpedoes from a German U-boat.
The Laconia was the second British liner to bear that name. The first, in an ominous preview of history repeating itself, was sunk by a U-boat during World War I. Fitted with 8 x 6 inch guns and 2 x 3 inch guns, the passenger liner was as heavily armed as a light cruiser and thus a legitimate target for U-boats. On September 12, 1942, the Laconia was sailing in the middle of the Atlantic 130 miles from Ascension Island. She was carrying close to 2,800 people which included a crew of over 400. Among the passengers were 80 civilians, nearly 400 British soldiers and Polish guards and approximately 1,800 Italian prisoners of war.
With the German U-boat U-156 in the same waters, the 601-foot long liner was in immediate peril. The U-boat shot first one torpedo and then a second into the unlucky ship. The Laconia went down in less than an hour. In the chaos that ensued as passengers attempted to abandon the sinking ship, heroic action by the Polish guards saved many lives, although however, 32 of the lifeboats had been destroyed by the blasts and many of the prisoners were already dead.
Upon surfacing, the U-boat’s captain realized the enormity of the tragedy and immediately ordered the rescue of survivors. He had the white flag bearing the Red Cross raised to indicate his rescue efforts, and quickly radioed other U-boats to assist in the rescue. Several other U-boats responded, and all flew the Red Cross flag. The captain of U-boat U-156 even called American forces on Ascension Island to report the catastrophe and to request American help in rescuing survivors.
The American commander on Ascension was apparently not apprised of the radio message for help, just that the Laconia had been sunk. A B-24 bomber was dispatched to the scene and ordered to attack the U-boats, which the plane did despite the Red Cross flags. The U-boats were forced to abandon the rescue and to dive for their own safety. Meanwhile, Vichy French ships were on their way to the scene and restarted rescue efforts some time later.
Exact numbers are not known, but somewhere in the area of 1,100 to 1,500 survived the sinking and between 1,300 and 1,700 died. In what appropriately became known as the “Laconia Order, ” Admiral Doenitz, the enraged German commander of the U-boat fleet, ordered all U-boats to henceforth refrain from any rescue attempts and to avoid calling Allied units to report survivors. While justified, this policy resulted in the death of many more Allied sailors and ship passengers over the next few years than would otherwise have occurred.
Bad things happen during wartime, and history is full of sad tales of blunders and misunderstandings, miscommunication and needless suffering. Question for students (and subscribers): What other regrettable incidents does the Laconia Incident bring to your mind? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
For another interesting event that happened on September 12, please see the History and Headlines article: “10 Spectacular Discoveries of Treasures.”
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For more information, please see…
Gibb, David and Jim McLoughlin. One Common Enemy: The Laconia incident: A survivor’s memoir. ReadHowYouWant, 2013.
Peillard, Leonce. U-Boats to the Rescue: The Laconia Incident. Cape, 1963.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Oblt. z. S. Leopold Schuhmacher of a shuttle service for shipwrecked persons from the Laconia between U156 (foreground) and U507 (background), is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.