On September 12, 1942 the British armed troopship RMS Laconia was attacked by the German submarine U-156 under Lt. Commander Werner Hartenstein. The ship carried 3,254 people going from Suez to England by the Cape of Good Hope. Of these people the largest number were 1,800 Italian prisoners of war from the north African front. Even before the ship was sunk, the journey had been a particularly cruel ones for the Italian soldiers. Stuffed into wire cages in the very bottom of the ship, always damp and cut off from sunlight the Italian prisoners were guarded by Polish soldiers who were particularly cruel and brutalized them at every opportunity, even offending some of the British by their conduct. When the ship was hit by the German torpedoes and began to sink, the guards refused to unlock the cages of the prisoners to allow them to at least try to save themselves. Of course the men panicked as the ship began to fill with water and some managed to force open some of the cages in their frenized desperation to save their lives. Yet, even then, the Polish guards actually began firing into them as they tried to climb out, away from the rapidly rising water. Only when the Polish troops fled to save their own lives were any of the Italians able to escape.
That was still not the end of the torment for the Italian troops, many of whom were attacked with bayonets by their guards when they tried to climb into the lifeboats floating around the rapidly sinking ship. There had also been several hundred British troops on board and a large number of civilians, including of course many women and children. Fortunately, U-Boat captain Hartenstein took pity on this scene and began picking up survivors. He soon had every bit of his already crowded submarine packed from end to end with rescued survivors. The Italians were quick to report on how they had been treated at the hands of their common enemies, in total violation of the Geneva Convention for the treatment of prisoners. Hartenstein sympathized but, of course, could do nothing about it at the time. At the very least, free of their tormentors and in the hands of their allies, at least their suffering seemed to be over. Unfortunately, it was not -though this time everyone would share in the misfortune. The German High Command was already very nervous about the situation Hartenstein had placed himself in. The interior of his submarine and the whole deck was packed with people, making it impossible to use the deck guns or to submerge in case of any danger. A submarine, stuck on the surface, is an extremely vulnerable target indeed.
U-156 carrying survivors
Of course, Hartenstein called for assistance and even broadcast his position to the Allies, making the promise that he would attack no ships that came to help with this humanitarian effort (he couldn't have attacked them if he had wanted to). No Allied assistance showed up but 2 more German U-Boats, 2 French warships of the Vichy government and an Italian submarine, the Cappellini, were quickly sent to help. The first to arrive were U-506 and U-507 which took off some of the people from Hartenstein, allowing him in U-156 to look for more survivors and keep them together until the bigger French ships arrived. However, four days after the sinking, an American B-24 Liberator bomber arrived and, ignoring the large Red Cross flag displayed across his deck and the signals explaining that he was engaged in rescue operations, attacked the submarine still carrying survivors from the late Laconia. A rescued RAF officer even took over the signal light to tell the American plane that there were women and children aboard. It made no difference and the bombs came down anyway, killing several of the survivors.
Air attack on U-156
This would have been tragedy enough, but that was still not the end of it. The B-24 returned to base, reloaded and still returned to attack the submarine again. More survivors were killed and the U-Boat was further damaged. Captain Hartenstein finally had no choice but to return the survivors to their lifeboats and abandon them so that he could submerge his boat to escape the Allied air attack. We know for a fact that the pilot of that B-24 had seen and understood the messages being flashed to him from the U-156 but he had been ordered to attack anyway because his superiors had decided that eliminating the danger of the submarine was more important than saving the lives of the people being rescued. It was a terrible affair and because of that the war in the Atlantic became even more cruel as the German Naval High Command ordered all their submarines that they were never again to risk themselves by trying to help survivors.
Regia Marina submarine Cappellini
The central role of the Italians in this incident has not always been well explained. The brutal treatment they endured prior to the attack is not always mentioned in most histories. Also, were it not for the presence of the Italian troops none of the survivors would have been saved. Hartenstein reported that it was his discovery of so many Italian prisoners of war that prompted him to engage in rescue operations. He feared a rift might develop between Rome and Berlin if it became known that so many Italian soldiers had been left to their fate by a German attack (which is not to say of course that he did not also have compassion for the other people). It is also often forgotten that the other two German U-Boats and the Italian submarine Comandante Cappellini under the command of Captain Marco Revedin were with the U-156, also carrying survivors and were also attacked by the American aircraft and forced to abandon the effort and escape as well. Of course the Royal Italian Navy made every effort to at least save the lives of their own men. Thankfully, most of those not killed in the American air attack were later picked up by the French navy and transported to Africa. It is also worth remembering that Hitler would have preferred to have let all of the survivors die so as not to endanger his military operations against Cape Town. Second to that he preferred to have rescued only the Italians and no one else but letting them all die would have been his first choice. Thankfully, Hartenstein did not wait for instructions and began the rescue effort on his own.