In September 1942 the Laconia, built in 1922 as a cruise liner but requisitioned by the Admiralty as a troop carrier, was torpedoed and sunk in the shark-infested South Atlantic while carrying over 2,700 people, including 1,800 Italian prisoners of war and 80 civilian passengers. The U-Boat Commander responsible, Werner Hartenstein, immediately launched a major rescue attempt, turning the U-156 into a hospital ship and exposing her to great danger. The Germans sent two further U-Boats to help, the U-506 and U-507. The Italians sent another submarine, the Cappellini. The French sent three warships, the Gloire, Ammanite and Dumont-d'Urville. The British could do nothing, and the Americans, in the fog of war, twice attacked the rescuers with a Liberator bomber.
After the attacks, the U-Boats did their best to continue their mission, taking survivors to the rendezvous point with the French ships, but Admiral Dönitz then issued the 'Laconia Order', forbidding his submarines carrying out further rescue attempts. This was a major turning point in the Battle of the Atlantic and in the general history of sea warfare, for the Laconia Order has since been standard practice in submarine attack.
In all, nearly 2000 people lost their lives in the Laconia incident, victims of torpedoes, sharks, struggles to get into the lifeboats, bombs or thirst. Two lifeboats were missed by the rescuers. They drifted slowly towards Africa, most of their passengers dying en route. One survivor, Doris Hawkins, wrote a graphic contemporary account of this journey, most of which is included in The Sinking of the Laconia.
This book is constructed from survivor's own stories, contemporary accounts and official documents and includes much hitherto unpublished detail about the ship and her tragic fate.
Paul Watkins Publishing