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Laconia incident

The Laconia incident happened in the Atlantic Ocean during World War II. On 12 September 1942, RMS Laconia, carrying some 80 civilians, 268 British Army soldiers, about 1,800 Italian prisoners of war, and 160 Polish soldiers (on guard), was struck and sunk by a torpedo from Kriegsmarine submarine U-156 off the coast of west Africa.

The U-boat commander, Kapitänleutnant Werner Hartenstein and his crew heard Italian voices coming from those struggling in the water and realized their error. The Germans immediately commenced rescue operations and were joined by the crews of other U-boats in the area.

Heading to rendezvous with Vichy French ships under Red Cross banners, the U-boats were deliberately attacked by a U.S. Army B-24 Liberator bomber.

This event profoundly affected the operations of the German fleet, which abandoned the practice of attempting rescue of civilian survivors under the "Laconia Order" of Admiral Karl Dönitz.


German attack

At 10 p.m. on September 12, 1942, U-156 was patrolling off the coast of West Africa midway between Liberia and Ascension Island. The submarine's commanding officer, Kapitänleutnant Hartenstein, spotted a large British ocean liner sailing alone and attacked it.

At 10:22 p.m. the liner, sailing under the name Laconia, transmitted the following message on the 600-meter band

SSS SSS 0434 South / 1125 West Laconia torpedoed

signifying "under attack by submarine".

As Laconia began to sink, Hartenstein surfaced. He hoped to capture the ship's senior officers. To his surprise, Hartenstein saw over two thousand people struggling in the water.

Survivor Jim McLoughlin states in One Common Enemy Hartenstein asked him if he was in the Royal Navy, which he was, and then asked why a passenger ship was armed, stating, "If it wasn't armed, I would not have attacked." McLoughlin believes this indicates Hartenstein had thought it was a troop transport rather than a passenger ship; in fact, by signalling to the Royal Navy, Laconia was acting as a de facto naval auxiliary. Moreover, merchantmen armed with guns (which most were) fell outside the protection from attack without warning and the requirement to place survivors "in a place of safety" (for which lifeboats did not qualify); therefore, it made no difference if she was a troop ship.

Rescue operations

Hartenstein immediately began rescue operations. Laconia sank at 11:23 p.m. At 1:25 a.m. September 13 Hartenstein sent a coded radio message to Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote (Commander-in-Chief for Submarines) alerting them to the situation. It read:

Head of submarine operations, Admiral Dönitz, immediately ordered two other U-boats to divert to the scene. Soon U-156 was crammed above and below decks with nearly two hundred survivors, including five women, and had another 200 in tow aboard four lifeboats. At 6am on September 13, Hartenstein broadcast a message on the 25-meter band in English (and plain language) to all shipping in the area giving his position, requesting assistance with the rescue effort and promising not to attack. It read:

U-156 remained on the surface at the scene for the next two and a half days. At 11:30am on September 15, she was joined by U-506 commanded by Kptlt. Erich Würdemann and a few hours later by both U-507 under Korvettenkapitän Harro Schacht and the Italian submarine Cappellini. The four boats, with lifeboats in tow and hundreds of survivors standing on their decks, headed for the African coastline and a rendezvous with Vichy French surface warships which had set out from Senegal and Dahomey.

American bombing

The next morning, September 16, at 11:25 a.m., the four submarines, with Red Cross flags draped across their gun decks, were spotted by an American B-24 Liberator bomber from Ascension Island. Hartenstein signalled to the pilot requesting assistance. Lieutenant James D. Harden of the U.S. Army Air Force turned away and notified his base of the situation. The senior officer on duty that day, Captain Robert C. Richardson III, replied with the order "Sink sub."

Harden flew back to the scene of the rescue effort and at 12:32 p.m. attacked with bombs and depth charges. One landed among the lifeboats in tow behind U-156 while others straddled the submarine itself. Hartenstein cast adrift those lifeboats still afloat and ordered the survivors on his deck into the water. The submarines dived and escaped. Hundreds of Laconia survivors perished, but French vessels managed to re-rescue about a thousand later that day. In all, some 1,500 passengers survived.

Under the Hague Conventions, hospital ships are protected from attack, but their identity must be communicated to belligerents (III, 1-3), they must be painted white with a Red Cross emblem (III, 5), and must not be used for other purposes (III, 4). Since a submarine remained a military vessel even if hors de combat, the Red Cross emblem did not confer automatic protection, although in many cases it would have been allowed as a practical matter. The order given by Richardson has been called a possible war crime, but the use of a Red Cross flag by an armed military vessel would be a violation under the Geneva Convention of 1949 (II, 44). There is no provision in either convention for temporary designation of a hospital or rescue ship. Under the informal rules of war at sea, however, ships engaged in rescue operations are held immune from attack.


The Laconia incident had far-reaching consequences. Until then, as indicated in point #1 of the "Laconia Order," it was common for U-boats to assist torpedoed survivors with food, water and directions to the nearest land. Now that it was apparent the Americans would attack rescue missions under the Red Cross flag, Dönitz prohibited rescues; survivors were to be left in the sea.

At the Nuremberg Trials held by the victorious Allies in 1946, Dönitz was indicted for war crimes, including the issuance of the "Laconia order":

See also



  • Bishop, Chris (2006). Kriegsmarine U-boats 1939-45. London: Amber Books.
  • Rohwer, Jürgen; Gerhard Hummelchen (1992). Chronology of the War At Sea 1939-1945: The Naval History of World War Two. 2nd rev., expanded edition, Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press.
  • McLoughlin, Jim (2006). One Common Enemy: The Laconia Incident: A Survivor's Memoir. Australia: Wakefield Press Pty. and also ISBN 094806577X

Further reading

External links

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