The Sinking of the Laconia: Survivors' Stories

Discussion in 'Books, Films, TV, Radio' started by Drew5233, Jan 2, 2011.

  1. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot Patron 1940 Obsessive

    This looks too good to put in the Whats on TV thread !

    I've just seen an advert for this on BBC2 and it does look very very good indeed with lots of CGI of the U-Boat, the Liner and what looked like a Liberator attacking her - One not to miss !

    Saturday, 8th Jan 19:30 on BBC Two

    BBC - BBC Two Programmes - The Sinking of the Laconia: Survivors' Stories

    Documentary following the story of the sinking of the Cunard Liner Laconia in World War II through the personal testimonies of six survivors.

    The Laconia was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of West Africa in September 1942. Captain Hartenstein of the U-156 believed the ship to be a troop carrier but on finding that he had torpedoed civilians he launched a rescue operation taking people onto the U-boat and attaching lifeboats to the stern. The Americans based at Ascension Island intercepted a message for help from Hartenstein and sent a B-24 bomber to investigate. On locating the U-boat the Americans proceeded to drop several bombs, forcing the Germans to abandon the rescue. The survivors subsequently endured five days in a lifeboat with dwindling rations until they were finally picked up by the Vichy French Cruiser Le Gloire.

    The real life accounts of the survivors are supplemented with illustrative archival moving footage, photographs of the actual incident and short exerts from the drama 'The Sinking of the Laconia'.

    Narrated by Lindsay Duncan.

    There's a few clips in the link below amongst other programmes with the best bits around 1.22 and 1.45

    YouTube - BBC Winter/Spring 2010 Trailer
  2. Peter Clare

    Peter Clare Very Senior Member

    The attempt to save the survivors of Laconia

    Contrary to Allied wartime propaganda that portrayed U-boat captains and crews as war criminals who gloatingly machine-gunned helpless merchant sailors, atrocities had in fact been extremely rare in World War II. In the early years, U-boat crews often actually helped their victims. One commander, Herbert Schultze of the U-48, consciously or unconsciously emulating one of his World War I predecessors, went so far as to send radio messages to the Admiralty in London asking that a ship be sent to pick up survivors of a freighter he had just sunk.

    No one made a more heroic effort to give mercy than Lieutenant Commander Werner Hartenstein, the 32-year-old captain of the U-156. On the night of September 12, Hartenstein torpedoed the British troopship Laconia, which was evacuating British servicemen and their families, together with some prisoners of war, from British Africa. On board were 463 British crewmen, 286 British servicemen, 80 civilians (some of them women and children), 1,800 Italian prisoners of war and 103 Polish guards. Hartenstein no sooner heard shouts for help than he began to pick the victims out of the water, so far 90 rescued, he radioed to U-boat headquarters. request instructions. Donitz knew that torpedoing Italian soldiers could have a serious effect on Germany's relations with her Axis partner. He diverted two U-boats from off Freetown, Sierra Leone, to the scene; the Italians sent one of their own submarines, and the Vichy French in Dakar dispatched three warships to help pick up survivors.
    For the moment, however, the U-156 was alone. All through the night the boat cruised about, fishing people from the sea without regard for their nationality. Submarines were woefully unequipped for coping with such situations: There was hardly enough room below to handle the crew, much less extra passengers; moreover, survivors placed on the deck would be drowned if the submarine was suddenly forced to dive. At 4 a.m. the next day, Hartenstein sent out a radio message in English on the 25-meter international shipping distress band and the 600-meter commercial wavelength: if any ship will assist the shipwrecked laconia
    CREW, I WILL NOT ATTACK HER PROVIDED I AM NOT BEING ATTACKED BY SHIP OR AIR FORCES. I HAVE PICKED UP 193 MEN, 4° 52' S., 11° 26' W. GERMAN SUBMARINE. No ship came. But now the enemy knew the U-156's position.
    For two days Hartenstein struggled to keep the boats and survivors together. As far as he was concerned, the rescue operation was not a matter of military expediency but of humanitarian service. By now, 310 people were jammed on the U-156—Germans, Italians, British and Poles. An Italian doctor treated the sick and wounded, using the Germans' bandages, medicines and opium. Some of the Italians had suffered bayonet wounds in fighting with their Polish guards to escape the prison holds of the Laconia. Other people had severe injuries from shark bites.

    At last the Freetown boats, the U-506 and the 17-507, arrived. They took some of the survivors from the U-156 and removed others from lifeboats. Hartenstein now had 55 Italians and 55 British on board, including five women, and had saved the lives of some 400 people. The crews of the other boats behaved with equal concern, dispensing soup and coffee, giving up their berths to the women and the wounded. The U-boats began to gather lifeboats for the rendezvous with the Vichy French warships. While the 17-156 was thus engaged on the fourth day after the Laconia was torpedoed, disaster struck out of a clear blue sky.
    At 11:25 a.m., while the U-156's decks were crowded with survivors and many more were in tow in four lifeboats, a lookout reported hearing aircraft. A four-engine B-24 Liberator bomber with American markings was sighted approaching from the northeast. Hartenstein, anxious to show his peaceful intentions to the pilot, ordered a large improvised Red Cross flag to be spread over the 105-mm. gun and told the German crew at the antiaircraft gun behind the bridge to lie flat. At the same time, he ordered a signalman to send a Morse message to the plane in English:
    HERE GERMAN SUBMARINE WITH BRITISH SHIPWRECKED ON BOARD. IS THERE RESCUE SHIP in sight? When the pilot did not answer, a British officer asked Hartenstein if he could send a message with the signal lamp, since it might be understood better. The request was granted and the signal was duly flashed to the American pilot: raf officer speaking from german submarine.

    One British sailor recalled the scene with horror. "The most short-sighted of pilots could not have failed to appreciate the facts," he said. "Here was a submarine with four boats full of survivors in tow, the first about 20 yards from her." But again the pilot did not reply, and then flew away—as was learned later, to pick up depth charges in Freetown.

    At 12:32 the Liberator returned and made a low approach. As it swooped down, Hartenstein was dumfounded to see the bomb bay open. Two bombs dropped into the sea close by. Germans, British, Italians and Poles, momentarily united by a common if unexpected enemy, shouted execrations at the American plane. On the Liberator's second approach, a German sailor severed the lifeboats' towrope with one blow of an axe. It was too late. A bomb blew up one of the boats, killing a number of passengers. By now German crewmen were making for the antiaircraft gun, but Hartenstein shouted: "Not a man goes near the gun!"
    The plane was coming at them again. One depth charge exploded directly under the control room. Women and children were screaming, and the control room and bow compartment were said to be taking water. Hartenstein had no choice: He must save his boat. "All British to leave the submarine at once!" he shouted. Then it was reported that the batteries were giving off chlorine gas; to clear the vessel of all but crew who could handle the emergency, he had to order the Italians off as well.
    By now the plane had spent all its bombs, and left the scene. The L7-156 was so badly damaged that Hartenstein decided he had to break off the rescue and head back to base. Not until September 17, five days after the sinking, when two of the Vichy French warships finally arrived at the rendezvous, were the last survivors picked up from all the lifeboats.
    Thus ended one of the most remarkable episodes in the U-boat camXpaign of World War II. The final tally of survivors was 450 out of 1,800 Italians, 588 out of 829 British, and 73 out of 103 Poles. Of the U-boats that took part in the rescue, all were sunk by aircraft on later missions. Hartenstein was killed on the 17-156 east of Barbados in March 1943. Years later it was learned that the American pilot had correctly interpreted the rescue scene around the 17-156 but that the USAAF antisubmarine base on Ascension Island had ordered him to carry out the attack anyhow, on grounds that the U-boat remained a danger to ships in the area.
    All too clearly, humaneness was no longer possible in the U-boat war. As a result of the Liberator attack on the 17-156, Donitz came to a far-reaching decision. "Never again," he vowed, "must submarines be exposed to the dangers of a rescue operation." To all U-boats he radioed an order that was to become notorious:


    'The U-boats' - Botting

    The Type IXC boat U-156 - German U-boats of WWII -
    James S likes this.
  3. James S

    James S Very Senior Member

    The Sinking of the Laconia and the U-Boat War: Disaster in the Mid-Atlantic: James P. Duffy: Books

    As Peter says , far from the propaganda image of the war and the "Wolves of the Atlantic".
    ( I must admit I do hate to see "Wolves" used in any U Boat related book , more lignocaine there Mr Dentist).

    Hartenstein did find himself with a problem and he made his own decision to help all be they Italian or civilian.
    He even brought to his watch tower an RAF officer and had him signal the aircraft asking that they did not attack.

    The book in the link above is well worth buying if you want to read up on the Laconia incident bought and read it myself with no regrets.

    Communications with an enemy power in wartime I dare say are never easy and it is regrettable that perhaps in some ways this contributed to the loss of life amongst those initially rescued.
    In making his decision Hartenstein ignored orders from his own command and with a rescue underway Donitz could do little , the impact of the "Laconia Order" which followed did Donitz no favours in 1945-46.

    Had this rescue attempt succeeded it may not have changed the general nature of submarine warfare which was practised by both Axis and Allied submarine commands but it would have made a difference between living and dying for some of those in the Laconia's lifeboats.

    Hartenstien did not survive the war , his command was later sunk by US aircraft.
  4. Oggie2620

    Oggie2620 Senior Member

    Will have to watch it or at least record it so I can watch it later...
  5. At Home Dad (Returning)

    At Home Dad (Returning) Well-Known Member

  6. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot Patron 1940 Obsessive

    I noticed BBC2 is showing another programme on the Laconia this week.

    Its a two part programme with the first showing on Thursday evening this week at 9pm. I have Sky + and series linked it for the second episode.

  7. CL1

    CL1 116th LAA and 92nd (Loyals) LAA,Royal Artillery Patron

  8. James S

    James S Very Senior Member

    I liked that , looking forward to the second part.
  9. At Home Dad (Returning)

    At Home Dad (Returning) Well-Known Member

    Really very good drama. I'd be interested to know how much it cost
    to get made (presumably a co-production with Germany?), it didn't
    look cheap but I also dont think it cost that much in modern production

    My only criticism is a usual one for me. They spend so much effort on
    costume accuracy etc, yet never seem to be able to get male haircuts
    correct for the era!

    I was also surprised by the lack of Ww1 ribbons on many of the older
    Merchant navy chaps.

    And the Poles didn't come out of it looking too clever!

    Favourite scene: the Captain going down with his ship...
  10. KOF

    KOF Junior Member

    Haircuts and noses, Dad!
    The British Officer Ben Coutts had most of his nose blown off I seem to recall. He was great friends with my grandparents, I even remember meeting him when I was young. He wasn't the prettiest of men, I seem to remember my mother telling me that he had work done on his face, after he eventually got back to Britain, by MacEndo (?), the Guinea Pig Club chap. A bandaid across the nose is no true representation of his situation!

    From the "dramatisation" he seemed a bit of a buffoonish English officer, however he was Scottish and certainly no buffoon. He had been wounded at Tobruck, though had served in Eritrea/Ethiopia I think fighting the Italians. Unfortunately all my books are in storage at the moment otherwise I'd look up one of his auto-biographies. "A Scot at War" covers his time in Africa and the sinking of the Laconia.

    On a final note, I found a blog on tinterweb where several descendants of survivors and survivors have posted comments on the production of this programme. It seems some of them had contacted the producers offering assistance with the film, first hand accounts from living survivors, stories from families of survivors who had died, etc,....but, they received no replies. The people making this film seemed not to be interested.
    This is such a shame. There will now be only a handful of people who actually witnessed these events, hopefully the "Survivor's Stories" programme on Saturday will help redress the balance.

    Overall I felt that the drama was just using the Laconia incident as a vehicle for an allegorical tale of humanity in wartime. It had so much promise, yet, fell so far from what could have been.

    Anyhoo, mini rant over!


    CL1 likes this.
  11. James S

    James S Very Senior Member

    I can see where you are coming from Colin, a drama rarely tells a history - "Uncle Andy" has tipped me off not to miss tomorrow evenings programme so hopefully it will address some of the points you have made.
    As a drama very good but drama is not history.
    ( I was surprised to see a 10x80 flakglas mounted on the UZO stand. :) )
  12. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot Patron 1940 Obsessive

    James its another different Drama I believe. The saturday one was what I saw originally advertised.
  13. At Home Dad (Returning)

    At Home Dad (Returning) Well-Known Member

    Welcome aboard, Colin, and thank you for that info.
    It may have been that the project was already in
    production when the relatives contacted the company,
    or else, as often happens, that production co's do tend
    to steer a bit wide of relatives in stories like these due
    to being possibly later accused of not correctly portraying
    accuracy to the relatives story.

    Personally, I think it was a master class. Well directed,
    well written, well cast, well designed etc, even the CGI
    was understated.

    Other than the Captain and First Officer going down with
    the ship, I have to say that I absolutely loved the fine
    representation of the Americans and the part they played!
  14. At Home Dad (Returning)

    At Home Dad (Returning) Well-Known Member

    The saturday documentary will presumably be using footage
    from the drama to illustrate the survivor story's.

    Should be good

    James its another different Drama I believe. The saturday one was what I saw originally advertised.
  15. englandphil

    englandphil Very Senior Member

  16. Jedburgh22

    Jedburgh22 Very Senior Member

    Quite pleased with the BBC on this one - a decent war drama with excellent production values for TV followed up by a related documentary - however would have been better had it been on prime time on BBC1 instead of the usual turgid diet of cr*p!
  17. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot Patron 1940 Obsessive

    Excellent ! Even Andrea enjoyed it.
  18. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot Patron 1940 Obsessive

    I couldn't help thinking there was so much more that could have been said and done from the survivors interviews. When the 30 minute programme finished I was left feeling 'Is that it?'

    Such a shame compared to the two part film IMO.
  19. KOF

    KOF Junior Member

    I'd agree with that sentiment. It was fascinating to hear first hand accounts of the incident, but in the end it was... "was that it?" , unsatisfying like. Don't get me wrong, the programme was very enjoyable from a history buff angle. Seeing the subtle changes of emotion in the survivors faces as they were recounting their memories gives real meaning to the story, but somehow it felt as though there wasn't enough . There's more there that wasn't talked about.

    On a slightly different note. Sharks! I don't remember sharks in the drama. Where were the sharks? Did I miss them in an inappropriate toilet break? They certainly seemed quite important in the survivors memories.

    Anyhoo, .... that is all!


  20. skull181

    skull181 Member

    What do you think of the above BBC TV film?

    I watched it and I'm delighted that it was done by a British company instead of the usual American hollywood bull.
    I enjoyed it and found it very interesting.

    It showed U-Boat 156 commander Hartenstein :poppy: in a good light.

    A memorial/plaque to him would be a good idea.

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