South Atlantic Ocean
September 12, 1942
Korvettenkapitän Werner Hartenstein was both a top German World War II U-boat commander and a holder of the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. But it was not his prowess at sinking Allied ships for which he is remembered. His reputation for valor rests on his mid-ocean rescue of survivors from the British liner RMS Laconia—a ship he himself sent to the bottom.
Hartenstein was a torpedo boat captain when war erupted in 1939. In 1941 he transferred to U-boats, and by the next spring he had already been awarded two Iron Crosses and the German Cross in Gold. In early September 1942 Hartenstein was commanding U-156 on patrol off the coast of West Africa. On the night of the 12th he fired two torpedoes at the 21-year-old Cunard liner Laconia, which the British Admiralty had requisitioned as an armed merchant cruiser—a duty that made the vessel a legitimate target. Hartenstein didn’t know, however, that in addition to its 136-man crew the vessel also bore 80 civilians, 268 British soldiers, 160 Free Polish troops and 1,800 Italian prisoners of war. Shocked by the sight of civilians and his Italian allies thrashing in the water after the ship had gone down, Hartenstein immediately began rescue operations. Soon U-156 was crammed above and below with 200 survivors— civilians, soldiers and POWs. Another 200 were in tow aboard four lifeboats.
Unable to dive without drowning the survivors on deck and in the boats, Hartenstein knew his sub was a sitting duck. His only hope was to radio for help.
Two German subs—U-506 and U-507—and the Italian submarine Cappellini responded, arriving on September 15 to pick up survivors. The four submarines, with lifeboats in tow and their decks awash with people, then headed for a rendezvous with Vichy French ships. The subs became separated at night, and the next morning a U.S. Army Air Forces B-24 Liberator from Ascension Island spotted U-156. Its pilot saw a Red Cross flag draped across the sub’s gun deck, and Hartenstein signaled the plane in English he had “British shipwrecked” on board.
The pilot veered off and radioed his situation officer on Ascension, who— suspecting subterfuge—ordered the bomber to attack.
Thirty minutes later the Liberator dropped bombs and depth charges that damaged both U-156 and the lifeboats, killing survivors. Fulfilling his obligation to his own men, Hartenstein ordered the towropes cut and all survivors into the sea, then U-156 submerged.
“The most short-sighted of pilots could not have failed to appreciate the facts,” Laconia seaman Tony Large wrote of the attack. “A U-boat with a big improvised Red Cross flag spread out on the deck, her crew a long way from her guns, the survivors all round the conning tower.” The B-24 later attacked U-506, which crash-dived, casting adrift more bewildered Laconia survivors. Despite the attacks, the Vichy French vessels managed to pick up several hundred survivors the next day.
In the aftermath of the abortive rescue, Admiral Karl Dönitz, commander of Germany’s U-boat force, issued the “Laconia Order,” which read in part, “No attempt of any kind must be made at rescuing members of ships sunk.” At the 1946 Nuremberg Trials, prosecutors charged Dönitz over the order, but U.S. Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz testified that the U.S. Navy had followed the same general policy in its submarine operations in the Pacific. The tribunal did not sentence Dönitz on that charge.
Three days after the Liberator attack, U-156 sank the British ship Quebec City off Africa. Hartenstein reportedly ensured that survivors had water and provisions and that Quebec City’s captain had his exact coordinates. A crewman later recalled that Hartenstein also voiced a wish to tow the survivors at least partway to shore, then explained he could not, as he had been attacked during a recent rescue attempt.
Hartenstein’s humanitarian act came to light after the war, but he and his crew did not survive the conflict. On March 8, 1943—six months after the Laconia incident—a U.S. aircraft sank U-156 off Barbados with all hands.
Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.