Laconia incidentThe Laconia incident was an event in World War II that profoundly affected the operations of the German U-boat fleet and caused the conviction, four years later, of Admiral Karl Dönitz of war crimes.
At 10pm on September 12, 1942, U-156 was patrolling off the coast of West Africa midway between Liberia and Ascension Island. Kapitänleutnant Werner Hartenstein spotted a large British liner sailing alone and attacked.
At 10:22pm Laconia transmitted on the 600-meter band
- SSS SSS 0434 South / 1125 West Laconia torpeded
Hartenstein immediately began rescue operations. Laconia sank at 11:23pm. At 1:25am September 13 Hartenstein sent a coded radio message to Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote (Commander-in-Chief for Submarines) alerting them to the situation. It read:
- Versenkt von Hartenstein Brite "Laconia". Marinequadrat FF 7721 310 Grad. Leider mit 1500 italienischen Kriegsgefangenen. Bisher 90 gefischt. 157 cbm. 19 Aale, Passat 3, erbitte Befehle.
- Sunk by Hartenstein British "Laconia". Grid FF 7721 310 degrees. Unfortunately with 1500 Italian POWs. So far 90 fished. 157 cubic meters (of oil). 19 eels (slang for torpedoes), trade wind 3, ask for orders.
- 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.
The next morning, September 16, at 11:25am, 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 USAAF 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 12:32pm 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. Many hundreds of the Laconia survivors perished, but Vichy vessels managed to re-rescue about a thousand later that day. In all, some 1500 passengers survived. An English seaman, Tony Large, endured forty days adrift in an open life boat before he was finally picked up.
The Laconia incident had far-reaching consequences. Until then it was common for U-boats to assist torpedoed survivors with food, water and directions to the nearest land. Now that it was apparent that the Americans would attack rescue missions under the Red Cross flag, Dönitz ordered that rescues were prohibited; survivors were to be left in the sea.
Dönitz's "Laconia order" convicted him of war crimes at Nuremberg in 1946 despite the fact that American submarines in the Pacific operated under the same instructions. Dönitz served 11 years 6 months in prison.