The Laconia Incident

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The following is an extract from a letter by Horst Bredow
of September 2011 directed to all members of the FTU.

The film producers from “TEAMWORX” visited us in October 2010 asking for support of a project, they were engaged in cooperation with a British production team: A presentation of the Laconia incident. Now, almost a year later, we received the results on DVD – in English and German. To say it quite from a start: Both versions are excellent, historically impeccable, fair and objective in their presentation.

On the occasion of this documentary I would like to use the opportunity to outline, what this is all about, since I assume that our youn-ger members are not too familiar with the events around Laconia. When the documentary will be shown in movie theatres and TV starting in November 2011, our members of the FTU should have been informed prior, as we do through this notice. Here are the facts:

01 September 1942

British troop transport vessel Laconia leaves Cape Town bound for Britain. Captain Rudolph Sharp was the master of the 19.695 tons vessel of the Liverpool based Cunard White Star line.

The following persons were on board:

Officers and Crewmembers


Members of the British Armed Forces


Italian PoWs


Polish Guards


Civilians, women and children




12 September 1942

At 22:07 hrs (CET) the Laconia receives two torpedo hits fired from U 156 (Hartenstein) and remains afloat initially, however heavily damaged. The vessel was sailing un-escorted. The passengers leave the ship under tragic circumstances. At 23:23 hrs (CET) the vessel sinks at position 05°05´S and 011°38´W, Captain Sharp goes down with his ship.

When U 156 recognized the horrible extent of this disaster, above all women and children plus many Italian PoWs have been on board, – the latter being Allies of Germany and the Axis Powers- , the Commanding Officer of U 156 Hartenstein and his First Officer Mannesmann immediately initiated a major rescue operation. Hartenstein orders his Radio Operator to promulgate an open message to all, where he gives notice of the sinking of Laconia and requests all ships in the vicinity to support the rescue operation. In his message he assures that he will not attack any ship coming for help. In another message he explains to the Commander-in-Chief of the U-boat Force Doenitz the circumstances of the sinking. Doenitz understands the seamanship spirit and overall humane position of Hartenstein and orders U-boats from the Task Group “Eisbär” (= Polar Bear) to the location of the sinking, i.e. U 506 under Erich Wuerdemann and U 507 under Harro Schacht.

 14 September 1942

Apart from those survivors that could be placed in lifeboats under tow there were a total of 236 castaways on board U 156. U 507 (Schacht) had taken on board or in tow 152 Italian PoWs, 2 British officers and 86 men plus 2 women.


16 September 1942

p218_1_03At 11:25 hrs (CET) U 156 is being overflown by an US aircraft. Hartenstein had neutralized U 156 via radio broadcast and through large bed sheets converted into big Red Cross flags thrown over the guns of the U-boats. The aircraft was given signal by means of searchlight and informed about the situation by Morse code. At 12:32 hrs (CET) another US aircraft overflew the rescue convoy and started to strafe it. Those shipwrecked in tow were killed and U 156 was damaged so heavily, that all persons not being crew-members had to disembark and try to find place in the remaining life boats.

17 September 1942

U 156 receives order to abandon the rescue operation, to pre-vent the U-boat and its crew from further danger and to return to base. During the further voyage some of the damage experienced could be repaired. U 507 was able to hand over its persons re-scued to French Forces of the Vichy Administration.

In consequence of the attack Admiral Doenitz promulgated a standing order, which he later was indicted for at the Nuremberg Trial: U-boats to refrain from rescue operations of that kind, when the own U-boat is put in danger through that – the second part of this order is often omitted.

Following remarks to this:

Werner Hartenstein, Korvettenkapitän und Kommandant von U 156 gefallen am 08.03.1943
CO of U 156 Korvettenkapitän (Commander) Werner Hartenstein,
KIA am 08/03/1943

It was the Commander of the 1st Composite Squadron of the USAAF, R.C. Richardson, who became later an US General Officer in NATO, which had given order to such senseless and cynic action to attack shipwrecked persons, let alone against own Allies. The USAAF officers responsible for that were traced not before 1963.

In the pile of letters to the archive from former enemies, where these would like to express their gratitude and praise for the fairness and decency of German U-boat crews experienced, one letter concerning the Laconia incident stands out, which I would like to give to your notice. Those of you that would like to receive the original English version of the letter, please tell me. Mrs. Caroline Paton from Liverpool wrote – and this letter speaks for itself, without any additional comment.p100_1_05 p100_1_06