Another Case of Truth more Dramatic than Fiction

This is my review of The Sinking of the Laconia and the U-Boat War: Disaster in the Mid-Atlantic by James Duffy.

A recent television drama on the sinking of the Laconia during WW2 prompted me to obtain this book. With the aim of putting the already well-documented Laconia incident in context, it provides plenty of examples to show that Hartenstein, Captain of the U-boat U-156 which torpedoed the Laconia, was not alone in putting himself out in the attempt to rescure survivors once they had ceased any attempt to retaliate. German U-boat crews regularly pulled people out of the water, helped them into lifeboats or even on board the submarine, provided food, blankets, medical aid when needed and gave directions to the nearest coast, helped to repair lifeboats, even towed them to passing ships that would take them to safety.

What has made the Laconia incident so striking is the sheer number of survivors, meaning that Hartenstein did not have the capacity and enough supplies to meet their needs without calling for help. As photographs bear out, at one point the entire deck of the sub was crowded with some 200 survivors. There is also the issue of their composition: the Laconia was found to be carrying up to 1800 Italian prisoners of war. The fact that many were trapped below decks as the Laconia sunk was likely to cause diplomatic tension between the Germans and their Italian allies, so Hartenstein was under pressure to do what he could to save the rest.

If Hartenstein had been able to carry out his plan of calling on available U-boats and enemy "Allied" craft to relieve him of his human burden, virtually all those surviving the inital onslaught would have been saved. Sadly, an American bomber on the mid-Atlantic refuelling base of Ascension Island was given by officers who were probably not in full possession of the facts the terse and fateful order "Sink sub at once". Hartenstein had no option but to order the survivors to jump overboard, cut loose the lifeboats, and make a rapid dive for his own crew's survival.

Although the level of detail is sometimes too much for a general reader to take, this book is full of fascinating information. To reduce the risk of attack, ships used to follow a zigzag course, very wasteful of fuel. Only on moonless nights could they risk travel in a straight line, with all lights blacked out. The subs used diesel fuel at the surface but battery power under water. They faced risks on a daily basis when it was necessary to rise to the surface to use diesel power to recharge these batteries.

After the Laconia incident, Admiral Donitz was obliged to issue the infamous "Laconia Order" forbidding U-boats from taking enemy survivors on board. For this he suffered opprobrium, and was imprisoned after the war for his aggressive attacks on Allied shipping. However, Donitz probably refused in the sense of managing not to obey Hitler's order for U-boat commanders to kill the crews of sunken ships, even if they were on lifeboats.

This book leaves it to us to debate the morality of launching a torpedo with the aim of killing as many people as possible, but then risking one's own life to save the survivors of this action. Hartenstein, a brave and humane man with the misfortune to live under the authority of a crazy dictator lost his own life when the U-156 was blown up a few months later.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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