Laconia incident

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The Laconia incident was an abortive naval rescue attempt in the Atlantic Ocean during World War II. On 12 September 1942, RMS Laconia, carrying some 80 civilians, 268 British Army soldiers, about 1,800 Italian prisoners of war, and 160 Polish soldiers (on guard), was struck and sunk by a torpedo from Kriegsmarine submarine U-156 off the coast of west Africa. The U-boat commander, Kapitänleutnant Werner Hartenstein and his crew immediately commenced rescue operations and were joined by the crews of other U-boats in the area. Heading to a rendezvous with Vichy French ships under Red Cross banners, the U-boats were attacked by a U.S. Army B-24 Liberator bomber.

This event profoundly affected the operations of the German fleet, which abandoned the practice of attempting rescue of civilian survivors under the "Laconia Order" of Admiral Karl Dönitz, which set the precedent for the subsequent unrestricted submarine warfare for not only the German Navy, but also for the United States Navy. The on-going controversy over the incident concerns the level of required assistance and protection that military forces must afford non-combatants at sea during wartime. One international bestseller and numerous articles on the subject have been published about the incident.

Contents

Summary of incident

In late 1942, a German U-boat sunk the British troopship Laconia carrying 1,800 Italian POWs off the coast of West Africa. Then realising who the passengers were, the U-boat started rescue operations while flying the Red Cross flag. A US Army Air Corps bomber flying out of a secret South Atlantic airbase on Ascension Island attacked the U-boat. The U-boat abandoned the rescue effort and left the survivors to drift to Africa. Over half the survivors died. This incident led to German Admiral Dönitz to issue the Triton Null signal on 17 September 1942, which came to be known as the "Laconia Order"; the signal expressly forbade submarine commanders to rescue survivors from torpedoed ships. The US Navy used that order as justification for a similar order in the Pacific.[citation needed]

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