The RMS Laconia was an ocean liner designed for people travelling between Liverpool and New York, across the Atlantic Ocean. During World War II she was converted into a troopship for carrying soldiers.
At 8:10pm on 12th September 1942, RMS Laconia was torpedoed by a German U-boat submarine, U-156, as she was travelling from Cape Town in South Africa back to the United Kingdom. On board were 2,700 people, including: 1,800 Italian POWs (Prisoners of War), 268 British soldiers guarding them, about 80 British women and children and a 136-man crew.
There was an explosion in the hold and many of the Italian prisoners died instantly. Captain Sharp ordered the ship to be abandoned and for the: women, children and injured to be taken into the lifeboats first. At 11:23pm the ship sank with Sharp himself and many of the remaining Italian prisoners still on board. Those in the lifeboats were now left floating adrift, with many more also struggling to swim in waters where sharks were common.
At the same time, however, U-156 surfaced. When realising that had been Italians on board (who Germany was allied with), along with civilians who now facing certain death, the U-Boat Commander Werner Hartenstein decided to instruct his men to save as many of the survivors as possible. He sent out a message to all shipping in the area giving his position and requesting assistance, promising not to attack.
Soon 200 people were crammed above and below decks on the submarine and another 200 were attached in tow in four lifeboats. They were also joined by the crews of other U-boats in the area over the next few days who helped survivors floating on other lifeboats and rafts.
On 16th September, two US fighter planes sighted the rescue mission but despite Red Cross banners being waved, started firing at the U-boat fearing that it was a trap. Knowing that it was too dangerous to dive underwater with so many people on board, the Germans cast adrift the lifeboats and ordered the survivors into the water. The submarines then dived and escaped. A few hours later, some French ships arrived from Africa and managed to rescue just over 1,000 people.
After the incident, German Admiral Karl Dönitz issued the Laconia Order, ordering his U-boat commanders not to rescue survivors from any future attacks. He also awarded Commander Hartenstein with the Ritterkreuz military award and a desk job at naval command. Preferring to stay with his men, however, Hartenstein refused it. U-156 sank a year later with no survivors.