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RMS Laconia

Posted to Maritime Musings (by on January 22, 2013

Subject of a humanitarian rescue during WWII

 The Royal Mail Ship (RMS) Laconia entered service in 1922 as a Cunard ocean liner, engaged primarily in the trans-Atlantic trade.  It replaced the previous Laconia (built 1911), which had been sunk during the First World War.  At 601 feet in length, it was designed to carry 350 first-class passengers, 350 second-class passengers, and 1,500 third-class passengers.  Immediately after commencement of the Second World War, the Laconia was requisitioned by the British Admiralty and converted into an armed merchant cruiser.  It was fitted with eight 6-inch guns and two 3-inch guns (for use against aircraft).  The Laconia spent most of the next two years serving as a high-speed convoy escort.  In early 1942, it was converted into a troop carrier.  In September 1942, the Laconia departed Cape Town, South Africa en route Freetown, Sierra Leone.  On board, in addition to the crew, were 268 British soldiers, 103 Polish soldiers (serving as POW guards), 80 civilians (including 48 women and children), and 1,793 Italian prisoners of war.  On the night of 12 September 1942, the German submarine U-156 (Korvettenkapitan Werner Hartenstein commanding) was patrolling off the coast of West Africa when it spotted and attacked the Laconia, firing two torpedoes.  The Laconia sank quickly, but not before a number of lifeboats and liferafts could be launched.  When Hartenstein realized that noncombatants and POW were involved, he surfaced and began rescue operations.  He sent a coded message to U-boat headquarters, which dispatched other U-boats to assist.  As many survivors as possible were brought aboard (most kept on deck) and four lifeboats were tied astern.  A make-shift Red Cross flag was placed over the gun mount.  Three other submarines (two German and one Italian) arrived and took similar action.  An American B-24 Liberator bomber appeared overhead, flying from a secret Allied airfield on Ascension Island.  Reporting the situation, the bomber was ordered to attack.  It dropped several bombs, sinking two lifeboats, but only slightly damaging the U-156.  The submarines quickly ceased rescue operations and departed.  Three Vichy French warships arrived on scene later and rescued most of the survivors.  Of the Laconia’s original complement of 2,732, only 1,113 survived.  Of the 1,619 who died, 1,420 were Italian POWs.  Captain Hartenstein and the U-156 did not survive the war – the submarine was sunk off Barbados on 8 March 1943.


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