Yet that was not the end of the story. What unfolded was a remarkable tale of heroism and events both remarkable and ultimately truly unfortunate for many of those involved. The U-boat surfaced, its commander hoping to capture the senior crew of the ship. The horrified crew instead saw over 2000 people in the water.
The Germans had not known that they had just destroyed a PoW ship. The survivors of the sinking were six hundred miles from the coast of Africa. There were over sixty British civilians and over 400 British and Polish troops. Their cargo had been a strange one – 1800 Italian prisoners of war. The first irony of the situation then, was that the German U-boat had imperilled many of its own allies.
Then, the U-Boat commander Werner Hartenstein (left), made an extraordinary decision that went beyond all protocol.
He ordered the U-boat to surface he ordered his submariners to save as many of the marooned survivors as possible.
This act of humanity would save the lives of many hundreds of people. Yet the tragedy of the Laconia was not over yet.
His message was plain and simple. Broadcast on the 25 meter band in clear English it said “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.” He continued to rescue more survivors after the message was sent, including 5 women.
The French Vichy government dispatched two warships from Senegal. The U-boat was then joined by two others German submarines (U-506 and U-507) and an Italian one, the Cappellini. With the four submarines, their gun decks draped in Red Cross flags headed towards the rendezvous point. The survivors on the top decks of the submarines were bewildered but no doubt happy to be alive.
This story on its own would be remarkable enough. Yet fate had a cruel twist in store.
The U-boats, to anyone not fully aware of the situation, would have been seen to be behaving in a highly suspicious manner. First and foremost the rules of war did not allow a combat ship to fly Red Cross flags so the fact that the U-boats were doing this was extremely irregular. Secondly, their British allies were also fearful of the U-boats, despite the fact they had diverted two of their freighters to the area. The fear was that the U-boats, carrying so many Italians, would choose to destroy the freighters.
Richardson ordered Lieutenant James D. Harden, the pilot of the B-24 bomber which had spotted the convoy of submarines back to the area. It bombed and depth charged the vicinity, one landing among the lifeboats behind U-156, others straddled the submarine. Hartenstein had no other choice. He cast the survivors adrift and dived to the depths, escaping destruction.
To this day the controversy of the incident persists – how much required assistance and protection should military forces give to non-combatants caught up in sea battles? Several of the combatants and other survivovrs involved give their account of the Laconia Incident below.
Written by Alan Bleasdale it stars Brian Cox (The Bourne Supremacy) who plays Captain Sharp of the Laconia.
Ken Duken plays Commander Werner Hartenstein. Andrew Buchan, Franka Potente and Lindsay Duncan also star in this much awaited adaptation of the story.