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Dick Boyle is a former submarine officer with extensive post-service experience with the Arctic Submarine Lab. He is currently engaged in writing a thorough history of submarines.

On the evening of 12 September 1942, U-156 (Hartenstein) sank the armed British liner LACONIA (19,695 tons) about 250 nm NE of Ascension Island in the South Atlantic. Repercussions would continue right on through the postwar Numberg Tribunal proceedings.

LACONIA, en route from Suez to UK, carried 2, 73 2 souls: 1,800 Italian prisoners of war (with 103 Polish guards), a crew of 463, 286 members of the British Armed Forces, and 80 civilians, including women and children dependents.

When Hartenstein realized that survivors included Italians, he commenced rescue operations and told Commander-in-Chief, U-Boats {BdU) what he was doing. At 0400Z (GMT) on the 13th, he transmitted the following message in English on two international distress frequencies:

“If any ship will assist the ship-wrecked LACONIA crew, I will not attack her, provided I am not attacked by ship or air force. I picked up 193 men. 4-52S l 1-26W. German submarine.”

Hartenstein insisted on a trim dive to be sure he could go deep to avoid danger. The dive was a success.

Meanwhile BdU Admiral Donitz ordered U-506 (WUrdemann) and U-507 (Schacht) to rendezvous with U-156 and assist. Arrange-ments were also made for the Italian submarine CAPPELLINI (Revedin) to proceed to the scene. A parallel request went to Vichy France, and the colonial sloops DUMONT-D’URVILLE (1,969 tons) and ANNAMITE (647 tons) were dispatched from Dakar. Later ( 14 September), the cruiser GLOIRE (7,600 tons) also headed for the LACONIA sinking site. The Vichy ships were expected to be on station by the morning of 17 September.

During the day of 13 September, Hartenstein lightened his load by transferring 31 survivors to lifeboats. He also pulled about 100 others from the water and distributed them among lifeboats that had available space.

On the morning of 15 September U-156was shepherding a fleet of about a dozen lifeboats. Women, children and infirm men were taken aboard the U-Boat, and able-bodied men were put back into the boats. By noon Hartenstein had 263 survivors on board his submarine. At about this time, WUrdemann showed up with U-506, and he took 132 Italians. Both submarines then checked lifeboats for people in need of medical attention, all the while re-settling others in boats that had space. A couple of damaged lifeboats were temporarily emptied and repaired.

That afternoon, U-507 came upon a group of life boats and began to embark survivors, taking boats in tow as well. With 152 survivors on board, Schacht cast off the boats temporarily and made a successful trim dive.

The real event came on the morning of 16 September. U-156, with 110 survivors on board was collecting lifeboats at 0925Z, when an American B-24 Liberator began circling the U-Boat and its tow of four lifeboats. Hartenstein wrote in his War Journal:

“As proof of our peaceful intentions displayed large Red Cross flag four meters square on bridge facing line of aircraft’s flight …

The commander of the B-24 reported back to his base on Ascension Island by radio and requested instructions

Hartenstein ordered the following messages sent in English by flashing light to the aircraft:

[ U-156 Crew Member]: “This is German submarine with English survivors. Is there a rescue ship in sight?”

[RAF Survivor]: “This is RAF officer aboard German submarine. There are LACONIA survivors, soldiers, civilians, women, children.”

Apparently, nobody on board the B-24 could handle Morse Code well enough to read the messages. Neither got through.

Meanwhile, back at Ascension, a young officer who was in radio contact with the B-24 commander conferred with a superior and then issued the order: “Sink Sub.”

The B-24 made three bombing runs at low altitude (about 250 feet). After the first attack, the lifeboats were cut free. A bomb from the second attack hit one of the lifeboats and capsized another. Some occupants were killed. The final attack delivered a delayed action bomb that exploded under the Control Room of U-156. There were still Italians and British women and children below decks. Some panicked.

U-156 was damaged, and Hartenstein knew that he had to dive soon. Moving close to the remaining lifeboats, he ordered all survivors to leave his submarine. They came topside through opened deck hatches and jumped overboard.

The U-boat was sufficiently repaired to make a trim dive by l 145Z. Hartenstein left the area heading west.

The fate of most of the LACONIA survivors was decided within the next few days when those picked up by rescue submarines U-506, U-507 and CAPPELLINI were transferred to the Vichy French ships. The saga didn’t end until late October, however, when the last occupied lifeboat was sighted by a convoy. Only four of the original 31 occupants survived that ordeal. In all, 1, 111 LACONIA survivors made port, but several died shortly after debarkation.

The “LACONIA Order,” issued by Donitz on 17 September, would haunt him at Nilmberg:

“1. All attempts at rescuing members of ships that have been sunk, including attempts to pick up persons swimming, or to place them in lifeboats, or attempts to upright capsized boats, or to supply provisions or water are to cease. The rescue of survivors contradicts the elementary necessity of war for the destruction of enemy ships and crews.

2. The order for the seizure of commanding officers and chief engineers remains in force.

3. Survivors are only to be picked up in cases when their interrogation would be of value to the U-Boat.

4. Be severe. Remember that in his bombing attacks on German cities the enemy has no regard for women and children.

F.O. U-Boats”

Some found it difficult to be severe. Shortly after the “LACONIA Order” was issued, U-506 (Wilrdemann) sank a British steamer and gave sustenance to survivors in a lifeboat. WUrdemann further swore his radioman to secrecy and had him transmit the location of the lifeboat on the international distress frequency.”

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