WHEN THE BATTLE of the Atlantic—the war’s longest campaign and history’s most destructive naval campaign—finally ended, more than 3,000 merchant ships had been sunk and more than 30,000 seamen killed. On the Axis side, some 27,000 officers and crew, 75 percent of those who fought in Kriegsmarine U-boats, lost their lives—a death rate higher than in any branch of any armed force on any side of the conflict between 1939 and 1945.
Given a global death toll exceeding 60 million—including the territorial struggles in Europe that delivered the coup de grâce against the Third Reich—those statistics may seem modest. But none of those battles could have been fought, let alone won, without Allied victory in the Atlantic. “The Battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war,” British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote. “Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea, or in the air, depended ultimately on its outcome, and amid all other cares we viewed its changing fortunes day by day with hope or apprehension.”
One day in particular stands out. On September 17, 1942, Admiral Karl Dönitz, commander in chief of Germany’s U-boat fleet, issued a fateful command:
All attempts to rescue the crews of sunken ships will cease forthwith. This prohibition applies equally to the picking up of men in the water and putting them aboard a lifeboat, to the righting of capsized lifeboats and to the supply of food and water. Such activities are a contradiction of the primary object of war, namely the destruction of enemy ships and their crews.
That command—soon known as the “Laconia Order”—arose from a September 12, 1942, engagement that caused more deaths than the sinking of any other single Allied ship by a U-boat during the Battle of the Atlantic and that made an already cruel campaign even crueler.
IN MID-SEPTEMBER 1942, five long‑range U‑boats—type IXCs—were some 900 miles south of the West African port of Freetown, en route from the Bay of Biscay for operations off Cape Town, South Africa. Dusk was gathering on Saturday, September 12, when one sub—U‑156, commanded by Werner Hartenstein, 34—sighted a large vessel heading north.
The RMS Laconia, a luxury liner turned troopship, was bound for Britain. Aboard were more than 2,730 people—among them 1,800 Italian prisoners of war, some 290 Allied servicemen returning home on leave, 80 civilians, and a crew of 463. The Laconia’s captain, alerted to the presence of U‑boats in the vicinity, had orders to keep well away from the African coast; under the rules of maritime warfare, as a troopship armed with eight six-inch guns, the Laconia was a legitimate target.
As darkness fell, crewmen extinguished every visible light aboard the ship and secured the companionways to the upper decks. The night was balmily tropical and the atmosphere on board was calm as the 601-foot former Cunard liner steamed smoothly through a light sea.
A few minutes after 8 p.m. a violent explosion shuddered through the Laconia—the first of two torpedoes Hartenstein and crew had fired in quick succession.
A young mother, Janet Walker, was putting her small daughter, Doreen, to bed when she heard a “loud crash.” Walker opened the door of her cabin to find “water was pouring down the corridor and there were people running everywhere, crying hysterically.”
With people all around screaming, Walker, “numb with shock,” clung to her child as she made her way to a rope ladder. A crewman there offered to hold the little girl while Walker climbed down into a lifeboat. “I’ll hand her down to you,” he promised, taking Doreen in his arms. Walker did as asked, but when she looked up, neither the sailor nor her child was there. When Walker tried to reboard the Laconia an RAF officer volunteered to do so in her stead. The man returned a few moments later saying that the sailor must have taken her daughter to another lifeboat.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “You’ll see her in the morning.”
Elsewhere, a missionary nurse, Doris Hawkins, was carrying her 14-month-old charge, Sally. Their overcrowded, half-flooded lifeboat capsized. Hawkins landed in the water. In the ensuing melee, she dropped the baby.
“I lost her,” Hawkins wrote later. “I did not hear her cry…. I am sure God took her immediately to Himself without suffering. I never saw her again.”
One torpedo had exploded in the pen holding the Italian prisoners, killing many instantaneously. Frank Holding—a merchant seaman who two years earlier had survived the sinking of the cargo steamer SS Beatus—heard the surviving prisoners, who were “nailed down below” under armed guard, “panicking, crying—it’s a terrible thing, men crying.” Holding made his way to the port side and slid down a rope into a lifeboat, watching as Italians leaped into the sea, yelling for help. Fearing the POWs might try to get into their boat, a man crammed in beside Holding told him, “If any of them hang onto the side, call out and I’ll give you a hatchet so you can chop their fingers off.”
An hour and 15 minutes after the first torpedo struck, the liner’s bow rose out of the water and the Laconia sank. As Doris Hawkins struggled against the ship’s downward pull, the doomed vessel’s boilers burst with an explosion that was so violent Hawkins felt “a sickening pain” in her back.
Gasping and gulping a foul mix of oil and seawater, Hawkins was saved when a small raft drifted her way and its occupants hauled her aboard. They meandered into the night through the detritus of the tragedy. “We occasionally met other rafts, carrying men and women,” Hawkins recalled.
“We passed doors, orange‑boxes, oars, pieces of wood…with men clinging on desperately and crying for help.”
Seeing so many bodies—alive and dead—in the water, and hearing the Italian POWs’ pleas, U-boat commander Hartenstein did what he could to pluck the living to safety. Soon after midnight, now fully aware of the scale of the disaster, he radioed Admiral Dönitz for further instructions. Under the prevailing rules of maritime warfare, the Kriegsmarine commander in chief had authority to instruct Hartenstein to leave the scene and proceed toward Cape Town. Instead—evidently influenced by the large number of Italians among the U‑boat’s victims—Dönitz ordered the three U‑boats that had been heading south with Hartenstein to join U‑156’s rescue operation. Hitler concurred, with the proviso that the Führer “did not wish to see the Cape Town operations adversely affected and that in any case the boats were to run no risks to themselves during the rescue work.” Dönitz instructed two additional U‑boats, the U‑506 and U‑507, which were prowling off Freetown, to join the rescue.
By the early hours of September 13, Hartenstein’s crew had pulled more than 190 survivors from the water. His U-boat had four lifeboats in tow, holding another 200 men, women, and children. Overwhelmed by such numbers and aware that scores more still had to be in the water, Hartenstein summoned assistance. “If any ship will assist the shipwrecked Laconia crew, I will not attack her provided I am not attacked by ship or air forces,” the submariner radioed at 4 a.m., in effect offering to declare the surrounding seas a temporary “no fire” zone so that vessels of any nationality could rescue the victims of his attack.
Hartenstein’s display of initiative startled Dönitz but he did not remonstrate. Instead, concerned that his U‑boats were risking enemy attack, the admiral ordered them to take on board only “such numbers as will ensure that boats still remain fully operational when submerged.”
As Hartenstein had hoped, British authorities in Freetown picked up his message. But, wary that it was a trap, they sent none of the few Royal Navy ships on patrol in that part of the South Atlantic to the rescue. Vichy authorities ordered two French warships to rendezvous with the German submarines and take on board their passengers.
IN THE LONG NIGHT following the sinking, multiple rogue waves upended the raft that had rescued Doris Hawkins. Some of the men aboard, exhausted by the effort of keeping afloat, silently released their grip, fell back into the sea, and disappeared. U‑156 at last spotted the raft and lifted aboard the survivors, their legs so swollen and stiff from sunburn that they could hardly stand.
Hartenstein and his crew treated Hawkins and companions with “great kindness and respect,” she recalled. As one of four women among 260 or more survivors who were occupying almost every surface above and below decks, she was plied with food and drink, and given eau de cologne and cold cream for her blisters. Hartenstein, the nurse wrote, was “particularly charming and helpful: he could scarcely have done more if he was entertaining us in peacetime.”
Frank Holding—who had not found it necessary to chop off any Italian fingers after all—received a similarly comforting welcome when Hartenstein’s submarine came alongside. The British officer who had assumed command of the lifeboat had set a course for the coast of Africa, which he estimated to be some 900 miles away. According to Holding, Hartenstein “said we’d got no chance—it was too far, and we shouldn’t move out of the area. We didn’t believe him—you know, just a German telling lies.”
The refugees’ attitude toward Hartenstein changed when the U‑boat commander invited anyone who had been injured to come aboard his sub for treatment. Holding, who had rubbed his hands raw sliding down that rope into the lifeboat, accepted gratefully. After his wounds had been dressed, he asked a U-boat crewman for a cigarette and was astonished to be offered a fistful of smokes.
On the morning of September 15, submarines U‑506 and U‑507, which Dönitz had diverted from Freetown, arrived to join the rescue. U‑507, under the command of Harro Schacht, picked up Janet Walker, who was frantic with worry about her daughter. Schacht sympathized. With lifeboats and rafts scattered across the horizon, he went out of his way to look for Doreen, frequently summoning the missing child’s mother to the conning tower and lending her his binoculars to see if she could pick out her daughter. She couldn’t
Schacht also came alongside the lifeboat to which Holding had returned with the cigarettes from Hartenstein’s crew. Holding recalled that Schacht gave the boat’s occupants canned bread, soup, and a bottle of wine. Echoing Hartenstein’s advice, the sub captain urged them to stay put. “We had no choice but to take his word for it,” Holding noted.
It was a wise decision.
ON THE MORNING of September 16, a bomber with American markings approached. Hartenstein ordered that a Red Cross flag, four yards square, be displayed on the U‑boat’s bridge in the plane’s flight path, “as proof of my peaceful intentions.” When the plane was overhead, Hartenstein signaled the pilot in Morse code, apparently hoping to ask if any ships were in sight. Almost simultaneously the American plane challenged the U‑boat to show its national flag. Neither side seemed to understand what the other was trying to say before the plane, a B‑24D Liberator, flew off over the horizon.
The bomber pilot, Lieutenant James D. Harden—who, like his crew, was on his first mission—radioed their base on Ascension Island in the south Atlantic for instructions. The reply was swift and terse: “Sink sub.”
Harden flew over U‑156 at 250 feet, quickly dropping three bombs that all fell wide. As the pilot turned for a second pass, Hartenstein’s crew made frantic efforts to cut their craft free of the lifeboats under tow so the submarine could dive to safety without dragging down the Laconia survivors. The B-24 dropped another two bombs. One exploded directly under the U-boat’s control room, which, along with the bow compartment, began taking on water. The conning tower, Hartenstein noted, “vanished in a tower of black water.”
Instructing the Laconia survivors who were crowding U‑156’s deck to pull on lifejackets and jump into the sea, Hartenstein put the submarine into a steep dive. “The sub rolled over and was last seen bottom up,” the B‑24’s young and inexperienced pilot reported. “Crew had abandoned sub and taken to surrounding lifeboats.”
WHEN NEWS OF the B‑24 attack on Hartenstein’s submarine reached Admiral Dönitz later that evening, he was incensed. Immediately he signaled Hartenstein: “You are in no circumstances to risk the safety of your boat,” Dönitz ordered. “All measures to ensure safety, including abandonment of rescue operations, to be ruthlessly taken. Do not rely on enemy showing slightest consideration.” Schacht, in U‑507, was carrying 91 survivors, including 15 women and 16 children; Erich Würdemann, captain of U‑506, had aboard 151, including nine women and children.
This information gave Dönitz second thoughts. After what he described as “a very heated discussion” at his headquarters—in the course of which, he wrote, some of his most senior lieutenants argued that it would be “wholly unjustifiable” to put the U‑boats at further risk by continuing with the rescue—Dönitz nonetheless ordered the subs to remain on station until Vichy warships arrived.
Dönitz told the U-boat captains to offload all passengers except the Italian POWs into lifeboats: “In view of the callous attitude, to say the least of it, adopted by the British authorities [in not sending any rescue ships to the scene] it seemed to me only logical that I, having accepted full responsibility for allowing the U‑boats to continue their work of rescue, should now restrict their hazardous activities to the rescue of our allies, the Italians.”
Dönitz soon felt vindicated. On September 17, U‑506’s lookout saw a plane. Schacht had time to crash‑dive before the B‑24’s bombs hit the water. Although shockwaves rocked the vessel, the sub was not damaged and Schacht made his escape, rejoining U‑507 at a prearranged rendezvous. Like his first, Lieutenant Harden’s second mission had failed.
That afternoon the two Vichy vessels rescued scores of British and Polish survivors and set a course for Dakar and Casablanca. Among those aboard was Janet Walker. She darted through the throng, but found no sign of little Doreen.
Not every survivor had been picked up. Some did not hear or did not heed Hartenstein’s advice, and made for Africa. Doris Hawkins and 67 others were in a leaky lifeboat 600 miles from shore. The boat required constant bailing; it had five oars but no sail and rudder. The passengers had 15 gallons of water, ship’s biscuits, high-calorie food supplements called Horlick’s tablets, chocolate, and bars of pemmican—not enough to sustain them for more than a few days.
“Daily we saw our companions growing weaker, saw they had not long to live, and then sometimes found they were no longer with us,” Hawkins recalled. “Some, despite all warnings, drank salt water and succumbed, and others became delirious. Their cries and rambling speech and often-repeated pleas for water were terrible to hear.”
After 25 days at sea, a Laconia crewman in the boat saw what appeared to be a passing convoy. Those who could roused themselves to watch the shapes, finally realizing the ships must be at anchor. “Our prayers were answered,” Hawkins said, “and our dreams had been realized, that ahead of us was land.” She and 15 others had reached Africa alive.
Washington and London hushed up the Laconia incident to avoid negative headlines, finding it impolitic to draw attention to an episode in which more than 1,600 men, women, and children perished. It would be 20 years before, thanks to two U.S. Air Force historians, Dr. Maurer Maurer and Lawrence J. Paszezk, the truth emerged about the “mystery plane” that had bombed the German mariners trying to rescue the liner’s survivors.
Dönitz admitted his Laconia Order—which was at the core of war crimes charges against him at Nuremberg in 1945—had sprung from cold calculation. “I had realized,” he wrote, “that in no circumstances must I ever again risk the loss of a boat and its crew in an enterprise of a similar nature.”
At Nuremberg, Allied prosecutors sought to prove that the Laconia Order in effect authorized murder, rendering Dönitz guilty of war crimes and deserving of the death penalty. The case deflated when the former commander in chief of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, told Dönitz’s attorneys that after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, his forces had authority to wage “unrestricted warfare” against the Japanese, and were not expected to rescue survivors if it would jeopardize their missions. Dönitz was not convicted of war crimes, but the tribunal did find him guilty on two other categories of charge. Spared the death penalty, the admiral served 10 years at Spandau prison. He died in 1980.
Karl Dönitz ended his 1942 edict with an injunction he left out when he wrote his memoirs in the 1950s: “Be hard. Think of the fact that the enemy in his bombing attacks on German towns and cities has no regard for women and children.”
Werner Hartenstein did not live to see the war end. Credited with sinking 19 ships—97,540 tons—Hartenstein died on March 8, 1943, when a U.S. Navy PBY Catalina seaplane depth-charged and sank U-156 east of Barbados. Spotting 11 men in rough seas, the PBY dropped rations and life-saving gear. A rescue vessel failed to find survivors.
Janet Walker never saw her daughter again. “I thought maybe she’d been taken to some island,” she recalled. “I used to spend money on fortune‑tellers hoping they would give me some clue.” A year later, a fellow survivor told her of seeing a lifeboat’s occupants take on a child fitting Doreen’s description. While being lowered, the boat overturned, hurling all aboard it into the sea. Hearing this, Walker finally accepted that her daughter was dead.
Originally published in the March/April 2016 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.