The night from 12 to 13 September 1942 of the year in the South Atlantic was lunar. A large passenger ship ripped up ocean waves in its direct outpost about 900 miles south of Freetown. The British liner "Laconia", which followed the 15-knot junction, was heading from Cape Town to the British Isles. In 20 hours 07 minutes a strong explosion shook the body, after a short period of time - another explosion. The ship lost the course and began to heel. The radio operator broadcast a warning about the appearance of a submarine (SSS signal), the name and coordinates of the vessel, adding that Laconia was torpedoed. This radio message did not receive any of the Allied radio transmitters. Like the next one sent four minutes later. A few miles from the liner, Werner Hartenstein, the commander of the German U156 submarine, being in a positional position, was informed about the interception of the radio signal of a ship torpedoed by him. He checked the directory: so it was, it was 20-thousandth "Laconia".
The way to the south
The 1942 summer of the year was extremely fruitful for the German kriegsmarine. Allied antisubmarine defense in the Atlantic was disorganized; the waters of the waters adjacent to the coast of the United States, the commanders of submarines reasonably considered almost reserved hunting grounds. The areas of operation of Admiral Dönitz’s wards were expanding. The successful return of 28 boats operating in the South Atlantic, as well as the growing number of submarine tankers, prompted the German command to continue patrolling the area during the second half of summer and early autumn.
The total number of German boats allocated for action on the communications of the Allies in the southern region of the Atlantic, was seventeen, summarized in three groups. They were supported by three submarine tankers, two former Danish submarines converted into torpedoes. Three Italian submarines patrolled there, carrying out their own missions. Among the other groups of submarines aimed at the southern waters was the Icebear (Polar Bear) group, which consisted of four “veterans” of the IXC series: large ocean boats of increased autonomy and cruising range. The group’s activities were to be provided by the underwater tanker U-459, one of the three involved in the operation. The tasks of the group included operating at Cape Town and further penetration into the Indian Ocean, into the Mozambique Channel.
Hartenstein on deck U156
U156 under the command of 33-year-old Corvette-Captain Werner Hartenstein, who was a member of the Iceberg group, left 15 August 1942 from French Lorient. The boat, successfully crossing the dangerous Bay of Biscay, headed for the area of the upcoming operation. On the way, on August 27, near the Azores, the submarine was temporarily included in the Blucher group to attack a convoy from Sierra Leone (SL 119). In this non-core business, Hartenstein managed to sink a British freighter out of the convoy with a displacement of 6 thousand tons of Clan McVierter.
September 12 in 11 37 hours of minutes when the boat was on the surface, one of the lookers reported that he saw smoke on the right. Hartenstein immediately ordered an increase in speed to 16 nodes. U156 confidently reduced the distance. By 15 watches the Germans realized that they were dealing with a large cargo-passenger vessel.
The British transport ship Laconia was not a new ship. By the time of the events described, it was in operation for twenty years. The liner went into operation in 1922, being built at the famous Kunard Line shipyard, a persistent competitor to White Star Line, the owner of the ill-fated Titanic. "Laconia" did not belong to the "flagships" of the passenger fleetwho chased the possession of the "blue ribbon of the Atlantic." With a displacement of 19695 tons, the liner worked on lines in the North Atlantic before the war. The passenger capacity of the ship reached 1580 people. With the outbreak of World War II, Laconia, like many other liners, was converted into military transport. In a new capacity, she could accept up to 6 thousand people.
12 August 1942 of the Year Laconia left Suez for the UK to bypass Africa. It was a necessary necessity: the passage through the Mediterranean Sea was found to be totally unsafe. On board the ship was a 2789 man. Of these, 136 was a man of the crew, 80 civilian passengers, including women and children, 268 British military, 1800 Italian prisoners and 160 Polish soldiers acting as jailers. Captain Rudolf Sharp commanded the ship.
U156 gradually reduced the distance. Hartenstein, waiting for darkness, decided to attack the enemy from a positional position. In 22 hours 03 minutes (German time), two torpedoes were launched from the nose torpedo tubes. In 22.07, one hit was hit first, then the second hit. As it turned out later, the torpedoes were hit by the holds No. XXUMX and No. XXUMX, where the Italians were held captive. The ship lost its course and began to lurch. The victim began to actively broadcast its coordinates, a signal about the appearance of a submarine and a message that the Laconia liner was torpedoed. 4 thousand tons of British liner, coupled with the 2-thousandth "Clan MacVirter", taking into account previous victories, brought the total score of Hartenstein to 20 thousand tons - then he could claim to receive the Knight's Cross.
Meanwhile, the German submarine circled near the sinking ship, waiting for it to sink. The liner had a sufficient number of life-saving equipment, primarily boats and rafts. But because of the large roll, not all of them managed to be lowered into the water. The injuries sustained by Laconia were incompatible with life. The ship was dying. According to eyewitnesses, many boats departed from the dying liner half empty. The captured Italians, who managed to escape from the locked premises, tried to take places in the boats, but, according to the testimony of the survivors later, the Polish soldiers from the guards drove them away with bayonets and butts. Rudolf Sharp stood calmly on the bridge, who decided to stay on the ship until the end. Everything he could, he had already done: the alert signal was sent, the command to lower the lifeboats was given.
In 21 the hour of 25 minutes GMT “Laconia” sank.
In the waves
Hartenstein saw the boats being launched and the ship finally sank. Having decided to come closer, he heard shouts in Italian: “Aiuto! Aiuto! ”- and raised several people on board. To their surprise, the Germans learned that there were a lot of Italian prisoners of war on the “Laconia”, a large number of whom died from an explosion of torpedoes, and were not given a place in the lifeboats.
According to the then rules of warfare at sea, Hartenstein was not to blame. The British liner was an armed ship (two 4,7-inch naval guns, three inch anti-aircraft guns, several machine guns). He walked without lights, anti-submarine zigzag, that is, was a legitimate target for a submarine. And since the instructions of the submarine fleet did not encourage anyone to take on board or rescue (well, except perhaps the captain or the senior mechanic), U156 could safely follow on to Cape Town. But Hartenstein did otherwise. It is difficult now to say with certainty what motivated this officer: fear of a major political scandal and responsibility for the death of hundreds of Italian allies or considerations of humanity. The commander of the German submarine decided to conduct a rescue operation.
Survivors of "Laconia"
Within an hour, 19 Italians were picked up from the water, many of whom were injured with bayonets. In addition, the disaster attracted many sharks to the area. On the waves were hundreds of Italians, many of whom, not having life jackets, held on to the wooden fragments. Hartenstein, realizing that he was powerless alone to help such a mass of people, contacted the command and asked for instructions. Dönitz approved the decision of the German commander to assist those in distress and ordered the seven boats in the vicinity (the whole Iceberg group and two others returning to the base) to go at full speed to the drowning site of Laconia.
The Germans began to frantically think about what to do with so many people in the open ocean during the fighting. The original rescue plan was to disembark all those rescued by eight submarines (including U156) in the port of Bargenville (Ivory Coast), controlled by the Vichy government. Between the German instances - the Dönitz headquarters near Paris and the OKM Raeder in Berlin - an active exchange of dispatches begins with the general subtext "What to do?" And "What will the Fuhrer say?". Hitler himself after receiving information about the drowning of "Laconia" fell into the rage traditional for controversial situations and demanded the speedy preparation of the attack on the Cape Town area, the allies' most important transport hub in South Africa - the situation of the Italian-German Africa Corps was constantly increasing in Egypt. all new convoys were unloaded. The Fuhrer believed that the rescue operation should be curtailed. Not knowing about all the details of the unfolding situational crisis, Hartenstein, who had already had a 13 man on board the morning of September 192 (the rest were stationed in boats nearby), went on the air on his own initiative and in English conveyed a message that the German underwater the boat conducts rescue operations at the site of the death of the Laconia liner, indicating the coordinates. She has a rescued person aboard the 192 and will not prevent any help from the Allies if they, in turn, do not open fire on her.
A British radio station in Freetown received this message, but considered it an enemy ploy. U156, meanwhile, increasingly began to resemble a cross between Noah's Ark and the duck flock. Hartenstein distributed people from overloaded boats to less loaded ones. He assisted everyone - both Italians and Englishmen. Shared ship stocks. Boats, in order to avoid tipping or scattering in the water, were towed or moored to the submarine.
Inflamed with the wrath of the Fuhrer, Dönitz canceled the order for the four submarines of the Eisbourg group, going to help Hartenstein, leaving it in force only for two of the closest U506 and U507, whose patrols were already ending. Hartenstein himself was supposed to transfer the rescued to any of the two German boats and follow to the Cape Town area for action within the IceBur group. Dönitz also contacted the command of the Vichy forces in the region and asked for assistance. The French responded, and the Gluar cruiser departed from Dakar, from Conakry (French Guinea) and Cotonou (Dahomey), one sentry guard.
All day 14 September Hartenstein dealt with his charges, while taking a bunch of instructions on the radio from Dönitz. It was already the second day after the drowning of “Laconia”, and the allies did not take any noticeable action to save the survivors. September 15 to the scene came, finally, two more submarines - U506 (Würdemann) and U507 (Schacht). Part of the rescued was distributed to the newly arrived submarines.
Neither Berlin nor the German boat commanders knew that the Americans had recently built an airfield on the British Ascension Island, which was 250 miles south of the place where Laconia was sunk. The airbase was supposed to perform primarily anti-submarine functions. 15 September, the British authorities finally notified Ascension Island of the incident with Laconia and the departure of the merchant ship Empire Haven to rescue the survivors. However, the radiogram was made so confused that it seemed as if “Laconia” had just been sunk. Not a word was said about the efforts of Hartenstein to save people, nor about his proposal of temporary neutrality, nor about the French ships going to assist. The British asked for air support for their operation. The Americans replied that the B-25 based on the island did not have a sufficient radius of action, so a transit B-24 "Liberator" would be sent the next day.
On September 16, the Italian cruiser submarine Cappellini (Marco Revedin) joined the German submarines. That same morning, the B-24 Liberator, piloted by James D. Harden, took off from Ascension Island, loaded with conventional and depth bombs. In 9.30, two and a half hours later, Harden noticed U156. From the boat, the plane was identified and, on the orders of Hartenstein, a self-made flag with a red cross, 6 × 6 feet in size, was raised on it. The Germans also tried to communicate using light lights, but in vain. The American, keeping a safe distance, contacted the base and asked for instructions. Without knowing anything about Hartenstein's initiatives and suspecting why there are four Axis boats here, squadron commander Robert Richardson briefly ordered: "Sink them all."
Harden, describing the circle, returned to U156 and went in to attack. The Liberator bomb bombs opened, and in the first run he dropped three bombs. The two went too far, and the third one exploded behind the stern of the submarine, turning over one lifeboat. Then the Americans, having made several test visits, dropped two more bombs, one of which had already directly damaged U156. The boat leaked, gas began to flow from the damaged batteries. Hartenstein ordered all those rescued aboard to jump overboard, and the team to wear life jackets. He sent a distress signal on three different waves three times. Fortunately for the Germans, the damage was not fatal, the flow of water was soon stopped, the amount of gas released from the batteries was insignificant.
When the attack on the boat, under the flag of the Red Cross, reported Dönitz, he was furious and ordered Hartenstein to no longer participate in the rescue.
The next day, September 17, the Americans who started to taste began to show increased activity. Five local B-25 and the same ill-fated "Liberator" from morning to night were engaged in an intensive search for a German wolf pack circling nearby. Persistent in search of Harden, he managed to find U506 Wurdemann, on board who had an Italian 142 and nine Englishwomen with children. Fortunately for the Germans and the ones they saved, the B-24 was jammed with a bomb rammer. When re-entering Harden dropped three depth charges, but Würdemann was able to dive and go to depth. On Ascension Island, another radio message was received from Freetown stating that the Vichy ships had left Dakar. The Americans decided that the French were going to attack Ascension Island, and therefore the entire garrison began to prepare to repel the attack.
The rescue. Afterword
On the same day, September 17, three French ships finally arrived at the site of the death of Laconia, which began to pick up people who had already spent five days in boats, in the water and on submarines. The cruiser "Gluard" and two patrol ships received rescued from German and Italian submarines. To the limit, the loaded cruiser went to Casablanca via Dakar. The watch ship “Dumont d'Urville” was in the search area until 21 September, when it became clear that there was no one to save. Two boats with “Laconia” with twenty people reached the African continent on their own (16 met them on September on the way to the place of the tragedy, “Kappelini” provided them with water and provisions). Thus, it can be estimated that of the 2700 people on the English liner, approximately 1600 died in the crash, including almost a thousand of the 1800 Italian prisoners of war. All those who were taken to the Gluar in Casablanca, were interned by the French. Allied forces liberated the British and Poles during Operation Torch. The fate of the rescued Italians remained unknown. If at the time of the capture of French Morocco they were not repatriated, then, apparently, they were captured again. U156 continued her combat career, Hartenstein did, despite the reprimand for "Laconia", was awarded the Knight's Cross. 8 March 1943, U156, died with the entire crew east of the island of Barbados.
By the end of the rescue operation, Admiral Dönitz was extremely annoyed. He believed that Hartenstein demonstrated the inability to properly understand the situation, offering a silent truce. All three German commanders, in the opinion of the admiral, unreasonably risked their boats, exposing them to attack. As a result, U156 and U506 almost died in an air attack. Dönitz had long warned his commanders against attempts at any price to save anyone. Wishing to emphasize these thoughts in a more categorical form, in the evening of September 17, the German submarine commander issued the so-called order "Triton Zero", which received fame in the fleet as the "Order of" Laconia ". The main essence of it was to ban the submarine commanders to provide any assistance to people from sinking ships. The text called for “to be harsh” and to remember that “the enemy does not care about women and children bombing German cities”. The underwater war, already devoid of sentiment, legally received the status of ruthless, uncompromising, ruthless. The noble knights - the submariners of the First World War, like Lothar von Arnaud de la Perrier - are gone and have become nothing more than characters of beautiful legends.
In 1946, at the Nuremberg trials, where Grand Admiral Donitz was held as a defendant, the prosecutor from Britain tried to characterize the “order of Laconia” as brutal and inhuman. But the admiral’s defense cited as an example of cruelty and inhumanity the actions of the allied aviationwhich carried out the bombing of German ships flying the Red Cross flag, which carried out a rescue operation. The US Admiral C. Nimitz, who was called as a witness, finally buried the prosecution on this item. He calmly stated that not a single American boat would engage in such rescue operations, and that he was surprised at the zeal of the Germans in this situation.
History Wars at sea, as, indeed, the whole military history is rich in unusual, surprising, but generally tragic stories. The episode with “Laconia” was not typical for the world war that was gaining momentum. But it seems that if the Soviet ship were to be in the place of a British airliner, German submariners would hardly have shown such philanthropy and compassion for the enemy. All these beautiful stories about “truces of the Libyan wells”, kindness to each other pilots shot down over the English Channel, would only arouse the contempt of the Soviet soldiers, who were a hostile form of life for the Reich army to be destroyed.