Hartenstein and the Laconia Incident

The DH is fascinated by WW2 history and more specifically with U-boat history. In turn I have learned a fair bit about U-boat tactics and have become equally fascinated with this period. I even watched and reviewed every submarine movie ever made post 1956, most of which focus on the brilliantly capable, often flawed but very human U-boat and American captains, their tactics and the gruelling life of the submariner. In learning about U-boat history we came upon this fascinating story of U-boat Captain Werner Hartenstein and the Laconia Incident, epitomising honour in war. The quoted texts are from war historian James Duffy’s 2009 book on the incident, The Sinking of the Laconia and the U Boat war: Disaster in the Mid-Atlantic

Soldiers of modern India are familiar with the great epic the Mahabharata, which extols the qualities most respected in war – courage, honour and that most Indian of all high virtues, Dharma. Though much is heard of these values we tend to see little evidence of it today. However, here is a story that captures the highest ideals of honour in war, setting an example for every soldier and crystallising the greatest of human qualities despite the terrible vagaries of war. This is the story of Werner Hartenstein and the Laconia incident.

 Werner Hartenstein began his career in the German Navy in 1928. He took command of U156 in September of 1941 and just as many other better known commanders like Krestchmer and Gunter Prien did, Hartenstein took part in the battle of the Atlantic, sinking nearly 20 ships and damaging one warship, the USS Blakeley. 

Werner Hartenstein – U-boat Captain

On the night of September 12, 1942, Hartenstein was patrolling in search of British merchant traffic, as part of the wolf pack that hunted Allied ships. His boat silently lurked below the surface, 900 miles South of Freetown, Sierra Leone and 250 miles North East of Ascension Island in the Atlantic Ocean. 

Location of A = Ascension Island in the Atlantic Ocean and Sierra Leone (marked)

In her heyday, the RMS Laconia had played host to the high and mighty of the British elite. Built in 1921, the luxury liner was the first ship to circumnavigate the globe using the newly invented gyrocompass. The graceful vessel formed part of the Cunard fleet, a distinction also held by the Titanic and the Lusitania, the sinking of the latter causing the US to join WW1. 

The Laconia had a capacity of 347 first class and 1500 third class passengers. She had a luxurious saloon, library, lavishly decorated dining rooms, opulent smoking rooms complete with fireplace and a garden lounge with potted trees. She was built for luxurious cruising. In 1941 as Laconia was in the sunset of her career at sea, she was hastily commandeered by the Admiralty, the British War Office, and fitted with self defence guns, now becoming a troop carrier, ferrying regiments of British infantry to bolster Britain’s offensive in North Africa. As was customary, she followed a zigzag course and evasive steering at night as U-boats had been actively targetting Allied Ships. Although she was carrying POW’s these letters were not clearly marked on her sides, making her look like purely troop transport (Duffy, 2009 pg61)

RMS Laconia – postcard picture

On the night of September 12th, 1942 the destinies of Werner Hartenstein and the Laconia would become inexplicably intertwined and the resulting incident would leave profound implications on the progress of the U-boat war in the Atlantic.  Ironically, this tragedy serves as an example of the highest honour in modern warfare. It was just after sunset on the night of Saturday, Sept 12th when a lookout on U156 noticed the first plumes of smoke on the horizon. Hartenstein immediately ordered battle stations, readied his crew and began his approach on to the unsuspecting target. Closing to visual range, Hartenstein observed her gun mountings, detected her zigzag maneuvers and rightly identified her as a legitimate target. He carried out his attack at 20:04 hrs, firing two torpedoes which impacted the Laconia, stopping her dead in the water and sinking her within minutes.

As was the custom in the those days, Hartenstein surfaced his boat to identify the vessel, her destination and cargo and notch up his tonnage sunk. As the U156 snaked through the burning wreckage, Hartenstein and his crew were horrified by what they saw. For among the stricken survivors clinging desperately to the flotsam all around them and scrambling in to what lifeboats remained, were scores of women and children. As it turned out, the Laconia was not only carrying 268 British soldiers and a 136-man crew but 1,800 Italian POWs, 103 Free Poles and some 80 British women and children, in total around 2,700 people. Alas, the Laconia had carried no distinguishing markings that Hartenstein may have recognised to show that she was carrying POWs and civilians.

Terribly conflicted and aghast by what he saw around him, Hartenstein ordered the survivors be taken on board, with no distinction to be made between British, Poles or Italians. Some who came aboard not only had injuries from escaping the sinking, exploding Laconia but also shark and barracuda inflicted wounds from the infested waters. “When someone was fished out of the sea they were given dry clothes while supplies lasted or waited for theirs to be dried in side the sub. They were all given warm coffee or tea and something to eat. The uninjured men were then placed back in to lifeboats wherever there was room while women and children were urged to stay on board.” At one point Hartenstein reported having 193 people on board the sub.

 After hours of the relentless rescue effort, Hartenstein radioed Admiral Donitz in Paris, seeking guidance, his conscience refusing to allow him to abandon his hapless victims. After much debate, Admiral Donitz ordered other U-boats in the area to come to U 156’s assistance. The Vichy French in North Africa were also informed and two ships, a cruiser Gloire and a sloop Annamite set sail a day later due to bad weather. Donitz feared the political impact of leaving Germany’s allies i.e Italian soldiers to perish and if he did order the survivors to be thrown back in to the water, the negative impact this would have to the morale of the U-boat crew would be devastating. Donitz was a man of great honour and “he considered maintaining the high morale of men who had volunteered to go to war in the small cramped submarines as one of his most important responsibilities.”

But Hartenstein knew that no ships or submarines would reach him for several days and the rescue operation was taking its toll on the crew and quickly diminishing rations. There were around 16 to 22 lifeboats, an uncounted number of rafts and hundreds of people treading water trying to fend off the hungry sharks and barracudas. 200 people were crammed on to the submarine’s long slim deck as she maneuvered through the wreckage herding the lifeboats together in what was quickly turning from an audacious attack in to a desperate rescue operation. An additional 200 people were placed in 4 of the U-boat’s lifeboats, the galley worked round the clock, the German crew handed out cold cream to the badly sunburned, medical aid to the injured, food and water to all and repaired damaged life boats. 

The deck of U156 crammed with Laconia’s survivors

“There was no indication that the crew disagreed with their commander’s decision to help the survivors, but the job was much greater than they could have anticipated. Bodies and body parts in the water brought on regular forays by the barracudas and sharks.” Added to the difficult task of keeping lifeboats in tow and their lines secured to the sub, was the potential for retaliation by the POWs against their former captors as Poles, Brits and Italians were not kept segregated but were mixed up together in the lifeboats.” (Duffy, 2009)

As the humanitarian situation worsened and no ships or subs were seen on the horizon, early on Sunday morning Hartenstein made a dramatic move, following his dharma, he took the single greatest humanitarian step in the U-boat war. Effectively announcing a temporary cessation of hostilities, Hartenstein broadcast the following message on an open frequency band in English, and draping a large red cross over his fin, continued with his rescue effort. “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 gave his co-ordinates signing off, “German Submarine”.

 Shortly before noon on Tuesday (3 days after the Laconia sank) U-506 came alongside U 156 which had gone from attack submarine to rescue vessel and refuge for more than 200 people. Wurdemaan of U506 took on board well over 200 people from the lifeboats and waters. Soon another submarine joined the rescue effort, picking up 153 survivors and half a dozen lifeboats in tow. On Wednesday, an Italian submarine, captained by Cappellini raced to the scene at full surface speed. He encountered a lifeboat of 50 British people who had a compass, a map, and a radio transmitter operated by a pedal dynamo. He writes how incredibly well organised they seemed to be and that their only request of him was some water. The lifeboat continued on its way telling the Italian to proceed in the direction he was headed as there were many more lifeboats in the water.

After three days of rescue operation, four Axis submarines in the South Atlantic acted like sheep dogs trying to keep numerous life boats together in the hope of transferring them to the French ships they were expecting. The four struggled to provide medical care, food and water to the survivors and their crew and knew it was not long before their own supplies would be exhausted. They all waited anxiously for the French war ships however, this was not to be.

 In Paris, even as Admiral Karl Donitz had approved the rescue operation he was not the only one who had heard Hartenstein’s appeal over the radio waves. Far to the South, at 7 am on Wednesday the 16thof September, an American B-24 bomber based at Ascension Island, Wideawake Field was readying for take off to investigate the inexplicable signal from the German boat. Adding to the confusion were messages from the British that Vichy French warships were headed their way, and may be harbouring pro-Axis feelings after Churchill’s destruction of French fleet and the Americans had no knowledge of the U-boat’s rescue efforts. 

As the bomber overflew the three U-boats, Hartenstein hoped that the plane was coming in response to his open frequency message. He had prepared for this by making a large red cross sewn on to a six foot square piece of white cloth and had it spread over the large deck gun. He ordered his anti-aircraft gunners to lie down out of sight. “He made every possible effort to show the approaching pilot his peaceful and humanitarian intentions.” (Duffy 2009)

 The B24 circled above what the pilot saw to be a very strange scene. He saw the flag and the life boats and survivors crowded on the submarine’s deck. The pilot reports that he radioed the sub to identify its nationality but received no reply. Hartenstein ordered his signal men to ask the pilot if help was on the way but no one on board the bomber could read the signal lamp’s message. An RAF officer asked permission to transmit a Morse code message but that too gained no response from the Americans.

Flying a tight pattern and running out of fuel the pilot radioed his report to Ascension Island, the B24 awaited instructions. After much debate over his report, confused by the Red Cross flag and concluding it was a trick, certain that this was an enemy sub but unable to know if the survivors were from Allied or Axis ships but equally firm that their mission was to protect Allied shipping from U-boats, they gave the B24 a chilling four word order, “Sink sub at once!” Thirty minutes after the bomber arrived on the scene, it turned towards the U-boats, making a low pass over the scene, arcing high and long before aligning itself and starting what was to be one of the most controversial bombing runs in history.

 Hartenstein watched in horror as the bomb bay doors opened and released two bombs, both missing their target but causing huge swells of water to wash over the sub’s deck and the people on it. He ordered the lines to be cut and prepared for evasive maneuvers. On its second run, the bomber’s depth charges missed the U-boat but landed amongst the lifeboats and blew one of them to smithereens, ripping the bottom out of another. An officer requested Hartenstein to give the order to use the anti-aircraft guns to shoot down the bomber but he refused (we will never know why). On its third pass the bomber released two more depth charges one of which exploded beneath the U-boat and caused her to rise out of the water and splash back down again. Damage reports indicated that she was taking on water.

As the bomber had exhausted its payload and flew South West, assuming that it had at least partially sunk the sub, Hartenstein rescued as many as he could from the destroyed lifeboats. He had planned to keep the Italians on board since they were after all German allies but after reports of a gas leak from the batteries,they had to go. He went as close to the remaining life boats as he could and 110 men, women and children jumped overboard in to the shark infested waters. Hartenstein performed the only maneuver that could save him and his crew – a crash dive in to the safety of the deep, leaving scores of helpless victims to the mercy of the sea.

In all 1600 people lost their lives in the Laconia incident and caused Karl Donitz to issue what would come to be known as “The Laconia Order” forbidding German U-boats from surfacing to provide assistance to the crew of ships attacked, eventually leading up to a term we often hear today – unrestricted submarine warfare. The Americans’ decision to attack was never fully investigated and the justification for their decisions remains a mystery, shrouded in secrecy and perhaps even shame to this day.

Werner Hartenstein, the hero of the Laconia incident died with his men when U 156 was sunk in the Atlantic by a US bomber in March 1943 at 12°38′N 54°39′WMany survivors of the Laconia incident paid tribute to Hartenstein, his personality, his unflinching respect for human life, and his tryst with destiny, hailing him as a “most gracious and honourable sailor”.

With our fascination for U-boat history and memorabilia, the DH and I knew we had to have an artifact from this most captivating and inspiring story to add to our modest collection. Having scoured the Internet for a piece of this history, we finally happened upon and paid a small fortune for a small spoon (whose perforated bowl we can only assume is a strainer of some kind, possible used in the bar?) that bears the crest of the RMS Laconia. When mounted, it will have an inscription of Hartenstein’s famous signal and will serve as a reminder for generations to come of honour, courage and dharma in the conduct of war. 

RMS Laconia Spoon Crest

Spoon from RMS Laconia

A TV mini movie called Sinking of the Laconia  was made in 2010.  

About nonsense girl

Galley slave, qualitative researcher working in development, married my best friend, writing about my life, my family, my dog, TV, Indian culture, astronomy and my garden. www.nonsensegirl.wordpress.com
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3 Responses to Hartenstein and the Laconia Incident

  1. mh says:

    thank you for the post that highlights the tugs of dharma that the warrior encounters.one finally defaults to the basic training at homes and academies in such situations. beyond legalities and tactical wisdom, there is always a humane perspective..that was clear with this post. i deeply appreciate the effort you’ve taken to own a piece of history.

  2. Alka Ganesh says:

    Incredible, rivetting, courageous, heart-stopping….. have run out of words to describe the incident, and the moral dilemma the man must have been in. The fact that he did not dither, just went on doing what he knew to be right, makes him a member of a very select and small band of humans.

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