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Laconia incident

The 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

As the ship began to sink, Hartenstein surfaced, hoping to capture the ship's senior officers, and was appalled to see over two thousand people struggling in the water. The 20,000-ton liner Laconia was carrying not only her regular crew of 136 but also some 80 civilians, military material and 268 British soldiers, and about 1800 Italian prisoners of war with 160 Polish soldiers on guard.

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.

Head of submarine operations, Admiral Karl Dönitz immediately ordered two other submarines 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 plain English to all shipping in the area giving his position, requesting assistance with the rescue effort and promising not to attack. It read:
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.

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 Würdeman and a few hours later by both U-507 under Korvettenkapitän Harro Schacht and the Italian submarine Cappellini. The four submarines with lifeboats in tow and hundreds of survivors standing on the hulls headed towards the African coastline and a rendezvous with Vichy French surface warships which had set out from Senegal and Dahomey.

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.


  1. Jegliche Rettungsversuche von Angehörigen versenkter Schiffe, also auch das Auffischen Schwimmender und Anbordgabe auf Rettungsboote, Aufrichten gekenterter Rettungsboote, Abgabe von Nahrungsmitteln und Wasser haben zu unterbleiben. Rettung widerspricht den primitivsten Forderungen der Kriegsführung nach Vernichtung feindlicher Schiffe und deren Besatzungen.
  2. Die Befehle über das Mitbringen von Kapitänen und Chefingenieuren bleiben bestehen.
  3. Schiffbrüchige nur dann retten, wenn ihre Aussagen für das Boot von Wichtigkeit sind.
  4. Bleibt hart. Denkt daran, das der Gegner bei seinen Bombenangriffen auf deutsche Städte keine Rücksicht auf Frauen und Kinder nimmt!

Laconia Order

  1. All efforts to save survivors of sunken ships, such as the fishing out of swimming men and putting them on board lifeboats, the righting of overturned lifeboats, or the handing over of food and water, must stop. Rescue contradicts the most basic demands of the war: the destruction of hostile ships and their crews.
  2. The orders concerning the bringing-in of skippers and chief engineers stay in effect.
  3. Survivors are to be saved only if their statements are important for the boat.
  4. Stay hard. Remember that the enemy has no regard for woman and children when bombing German cities.