RMS Laconica was originally commissioned as an ocean-going luxury passenger ship for the Cunard line. With the outbreak of WWII she was requisitioned by the Admiralty and fitted with eight six inch guns and two three inch guns. She was put to duties as an armed merchant escort ship. Later still she became a troopship and was well known as such in both commercial and military shipping circles. She was deployed ferrying troops to the middle east and carrying prisoners of war back to Blighty. It is quite important to note that. Her military role, unlike that of the Lusitania, made her a completely legitimate target for the U-boat now awaiting her in the Atlantic ocean.
The ship left the port of Suez loaded with Italian prisoners of war from the North African campaign, guarded by Polish soldiers. And there was among the other passengers, many British service families. She steamed down the East coast of Africa, stopping at Durban where more British service families were taken on board, these being families who had escaped from Singapore as the Japanese defeated, overwhelmed and expelled the British from all their colonial possessions in the Far East. She then steamed out into the Atlantic and hundreds of miles to the west she turned North towards the equator and set course for England. She was doing 20 knots and taking a zig zag path to minimise the risk from German submarines.
She was now carrying 463 officers and crew, 80 civilians, 286 British soldiers, 1,793 Italian prisoners and 103 Polish soldiers acting as guards of the prisoners.
It was her smoke that first attracted the attention of U-boat 156.
It was to be a surface attack. In the darkness of the tropical night, at about 10 pm Captain Hartenstein, commander of the U-boat made his calculations as to distance and the time it would take for a torpedo to reach the ship which was now steaming fast and zig zagging at random. He unleashed a torpedo sometime after 10 pm and it struck the Laconia at 10.22. He immediately dived to avoid any possible counterattack. He would have watched from his periscope the explosion as the torpedo found its target below the ship’s waterline. There was no counter attack and he surfaced again and unleashed a second torpedo, this time hitting the forward starboard of the badly listing ship.. It was a successful attack on a known legitimate target and the Captain and his crew celebrated and watched the ship burn and sink. Then they heard the screams of the survivors and became alarmed for they were the screams of women and children.
He dived again and it is clear that for several hours there was a continuous and urgent exchange of signal traffic with Germany, probably on the enigma machines that each U-boat carried. Berlin advised that the Laconia was carrying Italian prisoners of war and ordered that they should attempt to rescue their allies. Hartenstein went well beyond his Berlin Orders. Or the laws of war at sea.
When he again surfaced, his crew began to rescue the civilians as well as the Italians. He took over a hundred survivors into the already crowded submarine, and another hundred or so on the top of the submarine. He collected together some four lifeboats and began to tow them in his wake, passing food and water to the survivors therein. He told Berlin what he was doing and his actions were not only approved by Admiral Donitz, he went further and ordered other submarines to assist Hartenstein in the rescue. And Vichy French forces in North Africa dispatched surface ships to meet the submarines at sea and transfer the survivors.
Red Cross flags were draped on the submarine decks and open signal traffic exchanged with the other boats making clear this was a rescue operation. Open Signals were sent to the British to the same effect, but were ignored, quite deliberately ignored by British forces available in the area and from British bases on the West coast of Africa. Hartenstein rendezvoused with another German Submarine and an Italian submarine and some of his survivors were transferred.
He then continued to slowly steam towards another rendezvous with the Vichy French surface ships, his crew’s quarters packed with the civilian survivors, his deck full of even more and still towing four life-boats.
Then came the Americans. They had a secret airbase established on Ascension Ireland and a B-24 bomber was sent out to search for the now missing and lost RMS Laconica. They saw Hartenstein’s submarine, with its red cross flag and its life-boats in tow. And they attacked. Five passes, five bombs.
They killed over a 100 of the survivors in the lifeboats and Hartenstein was forced to clear the submarine of all remaining survivors and put them in the remaining lifeboats. He cut the tow lines and dived for safety. He kept on board some of the rescued military officers as prisoners of war.
The survivors were now, again, adrift in the Atlantic. But the Vichy French ships were coming and were searching for them and they were rescued again. This time they were taken to Casablanca and interned by the Vichy French who intended to hand them over to the Germans and have them transferred to Germany.
And now history threw its dice again. The survivors had been in internment by the Vichy French for some two months when, in November 1942 the Allies launched Operation Torch. The operation was commanded by General Eisenhower who set up his headquarters in Fortress Gibraltar. Sixty-five thousand Allied troops invaded French north Africa. They were to crush the Vichy French and to expel German influence from the Mediterranean area and advance toward Tunisia.
And the survivors were liberated!
The sources say they were taken by ship to America, for the Americans had provided the main invasion force of North Africa and some of her ships, now empty, had brought the invading troops directly from the American East Coast.
But this group, described as looking “so happy” clearly came to Gibraltar from Casablanca.
They are pictured outside St. Bernard’s Hospital and it is reasonable to assume they had been for a check-up before being transported onwards to England. And of course they look so happy! They had survived the Japanese, survived being torpedoed, survived the sea, survived the Americans, survived the sea again and then, capture and internment. They had been rescued twice, once by the very U-boat that had sank their ship. And now they were safe. And on British soil! On Gibraltar. On the Rock. And sure, we can share in their joy and their happiness. Especially can Gibraltarians.
Of course, Facebook did not discover this story. There is nothing original here. The rescue is one of the most famous stories of World War II. There are several books on the incident and documentaries too. And the BBC ran a two-part television film dramatizing the story, written by the legendary Alan Bleasdale. So no one is claiming any Facebook credit for this story. No. What Facebook does, can do, is to bring such stories alive again; to refresh them, recall them, tell them to a new generation. Spark new interest, spread the word. It is one of the great pleasures of Facebook.
Some of those in the photograph are probably still alive. The infant in arms will be in his or her 80’s now. And perhaps some of the younger children still breath. It is certain that the children and the child survivors will be alive. They may even be on Facebook…….
Note: 1113 survivors were rescued. 1619 perished in the torpedo attack, most of them Italian prisoners of war, still locked in the hold as the ship was struck.
Note: Capt Hartenstein’s submarine U-156, some six months later was attacked by American aircraft and sank. there were no survivors.