The Sinking of the Laconia and the U-Boat War: Disaster in the Mid-Atlantic Hardcover – 14 May 2009
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"Duffy is an author and military historian, and he documents the controversial 1942 sinking of the British liner Laconia and the rescue operations that were initiated by the same German U-Boat that fired the torpedoes. Written for military and history buffs, this book details the moral and procedural complexities of confrontations between military and merchant forces, especially in regards to ships such as the Laconia that were transporting POWs and operating under the flags of the Red Cross. The consequences of the sinking, which resulted in indictments at the Nuremburg Trials, are also analyzed." - Reference & Research Book News
About the Author
James P. Duffy is a writer who specializes in military history. His published works include Praeger's Target: America: Hitler's Plan to Attack the United States and Hitler's Secret Pirate Fleet: The Deadliest Ships of World War II .
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Laconia has become a bye word for all that was wasteful in the Battle of the Atlantic , there were many "Laconias" - she was but one.
The failed rescue attempt , the order to attack , the failure of communications , the needless loss of lives - the far reaching effect of the order issued by Donitz.
Hindsight does create problems when looking back but the utter waste of life is what stays with me , amid an awful war the potential for some good was there and was lost.
That the Germans U-Boat Commanders and their crews were not all monsters is evident from what took place - this event proves that behind uniforms and orders the men were not the stereotypes which propaganda and national interests required them to be.
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.
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
'The sinking of the British liner Laconia, with 2,500 souls aboard, including some 1,800 Italian prisoners-of-war, marked a turning point in the Battle of the Atlantic. Hitherto, U-boats had usually tried to make some provision for survivors of ships they had sunk. But when U-156 attempted a rescue of the hundreds of survivors, even radioing nearby ships for help, Allied aircraft intervened to attack her. U-156 abandoned the rescue, and upwards of 1,600 people perished. The incident prompted the German Navy to issue orders that there were to be no further attempts at rescuing survivors. Duffy, who has written several works on the war, examines this incident within the context of the overall Battle of the Atlantic, drawing memoirs, diaries, interviews, and other sources. In the process of telling the grim story of the Laconia, he gives us a look at the 1914-1918 submarine campaign in the Atlantic and the opening rounds of the 1939-1945 war, noting that outright atrocities were rare, filmdom notwithstanding. An excellent look at the history of the U-boat war, this will prove reward reading for anyone interested in the Second World War or submarine operations.'
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