Monday, January 10, 2011

A Samaritan at Sea

In September 1942 a British troopship RMS Laconia was en route from Cape Town to Britain carrying 2,700 people. There were approximately 80 British women and children, 136- man crew, 103 Free Poles and 268 British soldiers guarding 1,800 Italian POWs. It was spotted by a German U- boat and torpedoed and The Laconia sank.

When the U-boat Commander Werner Hartenstein realised there were POWs and civilians on board facing certain death, he went against the order of the Nazi high command and determined to save as many of the survivors as possible. The submarine surfaced and took on board some 200 people and towed another 200 in four life boats – daisy chain fashion, and gave help to about 20 lifeboats and small rafts surrounding the U-boat.

They displayed a makeshift Red Cross flag and sent a message to the Allies to organise a rescue of the survivors. The British Commander in Sierra Leone informed the Americans to look for Laconia survivors but forbore to tell then of the U- boat’s rescue. Three days later they were spotted by a rookie crew of an American Liberator and were attacked.

Reluctantly Hartenstein had to abandon the life-boats and resume the normal activities of a hunting submarine. The German Admiral Doenitz sent a Vichy ship to pick up survivors and issued the Laconia Order to U-boat commanders not to rescue survivors in future. One lifeboat eventually reached the coast of West Africa and a British Merchant seaman injured in the American attack remained with the U-boat until it reached port where he was imprisoned as a POW.

Doenitz awarded Hartenstein an Iron Cross and offered him a desk job but Hartenstein preferred to stay with his men. Later his U- boat U- 156 was sunk with no survivors.

Last week I watched over two nights Alan Bleasdale’s dramatised version of this incident. As the characters came to life there were echoes of The Titanic. The story was told from the point of view of the U-boat’s crew and the passengers on the Laconia. I believe it was an Anglo German production so it was fairly even handed and was well acted by stalwarts such as Brian Cox and Andrew Buchan.

I was held because of the history of it but it was long winded. The camera man lovingly explored every inch of the German Commander’s face and also of the actress who played the mysterious German passenger. On the final night there was a programme interviewing six of the original survivors

‘We were torpedoed at 20.07 hours and sank at 20.45,’ one of them said

‘The Italians didn’t really want to be in the war.’ This was the general impression back in the forties.

Josephine Pratchet said her parents were at a dance on board and she and her brother were playing draughts. After the first torpedo hit there was a deathly silence and all the lights went out. Someone was buying a bar of chocolate and the rating insisted on writing down the details: ‘The accounts have to be right.’

Their father threw life –jackets at them and they ran to the station - they had been well drilled.

The Italians were locked in the hold and as they tried to escape they were fired on by the Polish soldiers.

There was blind panic – the boats were inadequate. One woman put her son in a boat and shouted,

‘Don’t worry I’ll see you later.’ but the rope snapped and the boy didn’t survive.

People in the water tried to get in the overloaded boats and were beaten off with oars.

Some went down with the boat and then when the boilers exploded were blown clear. Some Italians were shot trying to get on the boats.

In the morning there was no ship and hundreds of dead floating n the water. One survivor remembered a dead girl with her long blonde hair floating around her and a dead woman still wearing her hat. They were astonished and frightened when the U-boat appeared with machine guns but the captain spoke to them in perfect English and said all women and children would be rescued. He wore a battered white hat and had a ginger beard. They were given sustenance and the crew were very kind to them giving chocolate to the children.

‘Let’s hope nobody depth charges us whilst we’re on the U-boat,’ said one.

A 100 people were killed by the bombs dropped by the Liberator and when the U-boat resumed its duties-

‘He went down slowly so as not to rock the boats. A very thoughtful German.’

Back in the lifeboats they were rationed to 1 tab of water in the morning and 2 tabs in the evening. Some resorted to drinking their urine and at least one drank sea- water, went berserk and had to be put overboard. People started to die in the boats and they were gently put overboard and a prayer said but eventually they were just put overboard. Gradually they got weaker and just sat gazing into the distance. After 5 ½ days a battle cruiser hove in sight and they cried,

‘We’re going to be rescued.’ A rope ladder was put over the side for them to climb but none of them had the strength and had to be hoisted on board. As they saw the lifeboat drifting away they felt joyful.

When they heard in 1943 that the U-boat with Captain Hartenstein and crew had been attacked with no survivors, one said:

‘I was sorry in a way because he was a very nice man.’

These programmes can be seen on BBC2 iplayer.


R. Sherman said...

At Nuremburg, one of the indictments against Adm. Doenitz was the "Laconia Order." To the shame of the allies, they attempted to cover up K.L. Hartenstein's true actions and humanity in order to obtain a conviction. Fortunately, the U.S. Adm. Nimitz testified on Doenitz' behalf which helped mitigate his sentence.

All in all, a very tragic and disturbing set of circumstances.

The Unbearable Banishment said...

Sweet mother of God I am so glad I never experienced true warfare in my lifetime. How lucky I am to be born when I was and where I was. Charles Bukowski has a great poem about how contemporary American's lack perspective because they've never had bombs rain down on their cities, as they did in London and Europe. Awful stuff.

Pat said...

Randall: I didn't know that and I regret it. In the film Adm. Doenitz was portrayed sympathetically and after the American Liberator bombing was really forced to issue the 'Laconia Order' and did it with regret.
As you say it was a tragic and disturbing set of circumstances but the action of K. L.Hartenstein and his crew was a shining light in the murk of cover-ups and propaganda.
The British officer who didn't explain to the Americans about the U- boat was treated with the contempt he deserved.

Pat said...

UB: I think nine eleven probably brought the horror home in one horrifying day.
On a lighter note we always reckon that if Americans had had food rationing during the war they would be far less wasteful of food. But that's just my generation who feel pain at food left uneaten.

kenju said...

I am thanking God that I've never had to experience anything like that.

Pat, we did have food rationing during the war. I remember my mom going to the butcher with coupons and only being able to buy just a bit of butter each week. I was very young, so I don't remember much of it.

Pat said...

Judy: really? I never knew that. I always had the impression that there were no food shortages in USA. Better do a bit of research.

Pat said...

Judy: I got the following from Google. Who knew?
'In the spring of 1942, the Food Rationing Program was set into motion. Rationing would deeply affect the American way of life for most. The federal government needed to control supply and demand. Rationing was introduced to avoid public anger with shortages and not to allow only the wealthy to purchase commodities.'
We had already been rationed for three years so were really feeling the effects by then.

Scarlet Blue said...

I meant to watch this, hopefully it will be repeated. Thank you for filling me in with the details.

Pat said...

Scarlet: you can watch it on your computer on BBC2 ipod. I think they keep it for a week.

Pat said...

Scarlet: sorry that should be BBC Iplayer.

Scarlet Blue said...

I always forget about iPlayer!

Maggie said...

The Laconia disaster was one of the greatest sea tragedy's ever.

Yes, everything was rationed here. From tires to foods. Fats helped make ammo, and all the housewives saved bacon fat. Pots and pans went away too. Yes, Google it.

Pat said...

Maggie: that's what I love when one learns from blogging.

savannah said...

i'll look for this on bbc america. it will play eventually here, sugar! thanks for the info/history. xoxox

Pat said...

Savannah: I'm going to ask all my contemporaries if they knew that America had rationing. I know some people received food parcels from American relatives.xoxox

Guyana-Gyal said...

I wonder when man's wickedness to man would end? When there's no more hate?

Sheri said...

Thank you for telling this story! My husband and I are history buffs. We watch everything British but BBC America has a lot of rubbish. Unfortunately, I don't think we can get this program on our American computers. Not sure, we'll have to try.

There are still so many poignant stories of WW II surfacing after more than 60 years. I was born after the war (1949) and as a teen, thought the war was ancient history, yet I was so close to it, having four uncles who served in the war. Seeing Winston Churchill's war room in London made it all very real.

As for food rationing in the US: it is true. While cleaning out a drawer for my mother, I ran across some old ration stamps and asked about them. She said they were used to buy sugar, butter and other staples during the war. Amazing.

Pat said...

GG: 'I wonder when man's wickedness to man would end?'
According to the pessimists - never but I believe there are so many examples of goodness that don't get publicised because goodness doesn't sell newspapers.

Sheri: so glad you found it interesting. I've been wondering if you can get BBCIplayer on American computers. Do please let me know if you can.
I feel shamed I didn't know about the rationing in America.
G.I's were always so generous we never associated them with shortages. {Got any gum chum?)

OldOldLady Of The Hills said...

What a fantastic and inspring story, Pat---And Dreadful, too. As I started to read what you wrote at the beginning, I thought--THIS SHULD BE A MOVIE!!! And of course, there it was. How complicated all the many feelings of all these people---Life truky is stranger than fiction, and so much more dramatic, too!

OldOldLady Of The Hills said...

Just was rerading about the Food rationing in the US..I remember it well. My mother had all these little books with stamps...We had very little meat and many things were rationed like Sugar and Butter and Eggs, etc...And GAS was rationed too, so my mother put our car up on stilts till the war was over. We couldn't really drive anywhere with the amount of gas available....In fact, if mwmory serves---We couldn't get any gas for the car, at all. Only people with Hardship story's were able to get gas. I know it wasn't as bad as England, but it certainly effected our way of life, completely.

Guyana-Gyal said...

Pat, I think good news would sell BUT it's up to the writers to present it in such a way that it feels fresh / exciting. That's the challenge. It's easier to write about horrible stuff because the 'drama' is already there. People want good news, they want humour that's why they go wild for things like the homeless man with the fabulous voice on youtube.

Personally, I think there should be both the good and bad.

Pat said...

Naomi: I think possibly because we are a small island we felt it more. We were very dependent on the Merchant navy. And as for gas/petrol I remember my ex BIL - a naval commander - telling his parents they must NOT use the car because of the 'poor devils on the tankers'.
I do feel very strongly that our depleted diet made for healthier people. And the fact that one walked every where made for an excellent regime. When sweet rationing ended I though I was in Heaven.

Pat said...

GG: you're right of course.
Who is this man? I haven't heard of him.

AndrewM said...

Google 'ted williams golden voice'.

Pat said...

AndrewM; thanks matey!

Sharon Longworth said...

Pat, I don't stop by your blog nearly enough - every time I do there's something to make me think.
I'm really impressed with the way you've captured the story in a way that's succinct but still tugs at the heart strings. Life (and death) for some people just seems so unfair.

Pat said...

Sharon: thank you - that's nice to hear. Don't be a stranger;)

Keith said...

Apparently I had an aunt and a young cousin who died in that incident my Grandma told me, but to my shame I can't remember their names. I never met them, but the significance of it all was wasted on me because I was only five at the time and I didn't understand about war and death.

Eryl said...

I knew nothing about this, and you tell the story so well, Pat, it makes me want to find out much more. Sad that Captain Hartenstein died, it was a very brave thing to do to go against Nazi high command.

Pat said...

Keith: Yes I was only vaguely aware of the name. Remembering all the propaganda we were subjected to, maybe Churchill didn't want to let it be known that there were good Germans - something I discovered for myself in '48-49 when I holidayed with a party of Germans in North Wales at a Christian Fellowship Home Plas y Nant - a magical place.

Pat said...

Eryl: yes the whole incident was a tragedy out of which some goodness came.

rashbre said...

I also watched the original broadcast a few days ago.

Compelling television. I actually thought the slower pace added something to this particular production, although there were also some quite sudden jumps forward.

There was also a separate programme featuring some of the survivors and some contemporary footage. If anything, the real story was even more dramatic. Simply seeing the sheer number of daisy chained lifeboats from the real event and the crowding onto the U-boat deck and back into the boats when they were left again.

BBC rescreened it yesterday (weds) and the second Part 2 is on Saturday on BBC HD. It means it also has an extension on iPlayer.

Guyana-Gyal said...

Have you found the man with the golden voice, Pat? This is when he was found on the street. Listen here.

Pat said...

Rashbre: the pace was fine - it was the long lingering close-ups on the German commander. I think the cameraman was in love with him. Every nook and cranny!
I did see the survivors programme and the end of the post is some of their quotes. Thank you for the info.

GG: yes AndrewM gave me a link. Everyone is in bed now so I'll save your link for tomorrow. Thank you;)