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The Laconia: Sinking an ocean-liner onscreen

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Knut Loewe Knut Loewe | 11:32 UK time, Thursday, 6 January 2011

I was working as a production designer on a show in Lithuania when Nico Hoffman, the producer of The Sinking Of The Laconia, came to visit.

He told me about the idea for a new TV drama: the true story of the WWII English ocean-liner, RMS Laconia being bombed by a German submarine 600 miles off the West African coast.

Ken Duken as German U-boat commander, Werner Hartenstein

Once Werner Hartenstein, the commander of the German U-boat realised that the Laconia was carrying British civilians as well as Allied soldiers and Italian prisoners of war, he went against orders to organise the rescue of as many passengers as possible.

You can imagine that my imagination immediately went all over the place. Even though I was standing in the middle of 300 extras and some 100 horse-drawn carriages near the Baltic Sea, I said "Yes, yes, when do we start?"

When I first thought about design aspects on Laconia, nobody really had any idea how to do this.

I mean, in the beginning it seemed like Pearl Harbor meets Titanic with Das Boot as the icing on the cake.

The only difference was, we had much less money - a fraction of what those big American movies had.

Morven Christie as Laura Ferguson with Franka Potente as Hilda Smith, holding baby Ella

The entire project was a challenge. Just imagine, we needed to sink a 600-foot ocean-liner on screen and both the interior and exterior of a 200-foot submarine needed to be constructed from scratch as our primary filming location.

The exterior submarine used in the movie Das Boot no longer exists. The interior sits prettily in Munich as part of the Bavaria Film studio tour.

No way we would ever be able to shoot anything there, and besides, it was way too small.

The submarine required for this show was a type IX-C, which was the biggest German submarine at the time. I would say our biggest challenge was to be historically as accurate as possible.

The interior submarine set

The set I'm most proud of would be the Laconia exterior. Since it wasn't feasible to work with an existing ship, the producers asked me to come up with a proposal.

I took the script apart and allocated each scene to a specific area on board.

Then I proposed that we build at least five different sets for the Laconia exterior and make it look like one: The first class deck, the bridge, the aft deck, the straight hull in the harbour, a tilted hull for the sinking and a second class promenade for the sinking.

To build all these would cost less in the end than the towing of a real ship without mooring and insurance costs.

Only then did I get my budget approved for construction in South Africa. Please note that was four years after I started to think about possibilities! (Yes, I worked on other films in the meantime.)

The sinking hull section of the set

Over these four years I went through so many stages of the design as the script changed, as locations were found and debated and rejected.

I did feasibility studies - can you believe - for England, Germany, Malta, Spain, Australia and South Africa.

Truthfully, I have almost lost track of which design approach I liked best.

Once we'd decided to shoot everything in South Africa, I pretty much started from scratch. So what you see in the finished film are the designs I did in Cape Town at the beginning of 2009.

I had so many favourite moments making this film. The most exciting one of course, was the launch of the steel submarine we had constructed ourselves for the open-water scenes.

Other great moments are always when the actors appear on set for the first time in their period costumes (by costume designer Monika Jacobs).

It makes my heart beat faster to see Lindsay Duncan with her great outfits, along with the first class promenade we constructed with that horrible rust and patina.

Knut Loewe is the production designer on The Sinking Of The Laconia.

The Sinking Of The Laconia is on BBC Two at 9pm on Thursday, 6 January. It's repeated on BBC HD at 9pm on Thursday, 12 January.

For further programme times, please see the upcoming episodes page.


  • Comment number 1.

    Looking forward to this it looks fantastic, but it's a shame it's not being aired on HD at the same time. The BBC need to put more into their HD channels as this is the future...

  • Comment number 2.

    My grand father and uncle were both killed when the Laconia was torpedoed so the film is an impetnat part of our family history.
    Sadly the sacrfices of the merchant seaman killed were never recognised with a medal unlike those serving in the armed forces even though their bravery and contribution matched those of their military counterparts.

  • Comment number 3.

    It would have been nice BBC to give some credit to the excellent book the play was based on

  • Comment number 4.

    My Father survived the sinking of the Laconia. He never told me much about the sinking, but did express his respect for Werner Von Hartenstein. It is thanks to the humanity of Hartenstein I am able to post this comment today. I hope the BBC show the Drama on BBC America.

  • Comment number 5.

    Looking forward to watching this. True stories are so much more interesting.
    Wish it was in HD.

  • Comment number 6.

    My grandads' brother was killed when the Laconia was torpedoed. His brother was also supposed to be on board but due to sickness a few days earlier, he was not on board at the time. It is such a shame that even with the many links to Liverpool, there is no memorial in the city. The ship is however commemorated in the Tower Hill memorial in London. I am so pleased to finally have the Laconias' amazing story shown on screen.

  • Comment number 7.

    Gripping drama. The characterisation is so convincing and Franke Potente's performance particularly moving. It is so refreshing to have characters speak their native language and actors drawn from across Europe. The old stereotypical representations of Germans are I hope going to gradually fade as more sensitive portrayals of people from all nations become the norm. A fascinating story of humanity.I hope there will be more productions made of this kind, penned by good writers of drama. Thankyou Alan Bleasedale!

  • Comment number 8.

    A tragic story indeed but remarkably well adapted by the BBC and a genuine masterpiece of free to air viewing. Setting aside for a moment the truly harrowing nature of this highly regrettable event, drama like this on the BBC is the reason why I shell out for a TV License. This is the second quality war drama aired by the BBC in the last 12 months, you may remember the first .i.e. "First Light" the Story of the Spitfire Ace Sir Geoffrey Wellum..... Keep it up BBC, very well done indeed!! We're looking forward to Part 2!

  • Comment number 9.

    This production was completely ruined for me by the ridiculous mistakes made in the uniforms. The Captain wore four rings on his epaulettes, and a merchant service cap, fair enough. His second in command wore Royal Navy two and a half rings and a merchant service cap, and poor old Andrew Buchan wore something that would disgrace a fancy dress. He had sergeants best dress chevrons on his epaulettes, Royal Navy Petty Officer No 2 uniform crossed anchors on his left arm, and Royal Navy Chief Petty Officers buttons on his cuffs!

    The crew were even worse. The useless gunners wore the insignia of Royal Naval Leading Seaman Gunners, who would be more than competent to operate a 4” gun and twin .50 calibres, besides which they would be merchant Navy men, and of course they had their gunnery badges upside down as did the Royal Navy Stokers, who would also be Merchant seamen. The signal operators would be wearing blue No 2 uniform, No 8 uniform didn’t come in till well after the war.

    When it is so easy to get these things right why did the costume department make such a pig’s ear of it?

  • Comment number 10.

    My father was on the Laconia when it sank. Some inaccurate elements, but well produced story. I'm sorry to tell Martin, none of the service personnel received any medals or commendations for this action. These survivors ended up as POWs in Algeria under the Vichy French after being picked up by the ship Gloire. As Britinoregon, he has nothing but praise for Captain Hartenstein, and he is still alive today at 97.

  • Comment number 11.

    This has been an emotional show for me. My late father was on the Clan MacWhirter which Hartenstein and U-156 sank on 27 August 1942, immediately prior to the sinking of the Laconia. Hartenstein showed his compassion in this case as well as he surfaced and informed those in the lifeboats, my father included, of their co-ordinates and the direction of Madeira. They were in open lifeboats for ten days or more until a Portuguese destroyer picked them up. My father rarely spoke of it but, like britinoregan's father, he had great respect for Hartenstein's humanity. I share that respect; had it not been for Hartenstein's sense of decency I probably wouldn't be here either.

  • Comment number 12.

    I quite enjoyed the drama side of the programme, and it was broadly historically accurate. However, what I found glaringly wrong was that there was no understanding shown of the difference between Royal Navy & Merchant Navy. As a previous post has noted, the only accurate uniform shown was the Master's. A final point being that MN crew don't wear uniform anyway unless they're a steward, or a Passenger Ship's Quartermaster.
    This lack of attention to detail showed, to me, that there was no real interest being shown in the real story. "Naval uniform? That'll do for this, afterall nobody will know the difference". It is evidence of lazy production.
    The other issue is that the relationship between the MN personnel was completely misunderstood. The Senior Radio Officer on the Laconia would have been in Officer's uniform, with 2 or 3 stripes, and would have been on terms of near equality with the "Junior Third Officer". He wouldn't have been a rating, as in the RN, and he certainly wouldn't have called the Junior Third Officer "sir". He might have had 2 assistant radio officers, with 1 or 2 stripes on their officer's uniforms, not a room full of Signals Ratings in RN working dress.
    Why no Engineers? Apart from a couple of Firemen, the Engine Room appeared to be empty.
    This lack of knowledge and understanding shows that even a writer from Liverpool, with it's rich maritime heritage, has no idea of the reality of the Merchant Navy, which is a pity, as this was such a good opportunity to redress the imbalance.

  • Comment number 13.

    Very strange that wet, low quality coal should be blamed for excess smoke on an oil-fired ship!

  • Comment number 14.

    Great, especially the last half hour of the first part. But camera work was too restless.
    Great underwater model of the U-boat. Many Dutch people have seen the program.

  • Comment number 15.

    My Grandad was a survivor on the Laconia a Merchant Sailor, sadly he is no longer with us but his story and bravery lives on in our family. This film may have had its faults but has provoked old memories and emotions and above all respect for all Merchant Seamen, these men where at sea long before war and long after.

  • Comment number 16.

    Yes a great story and some good photography. But I must agree with previous comments regarding the uniforms, lots of mistakes, especially RN badges sewn on upside down. I am now watching the second part and I note now that the Royal Navy Wireless signalman at Sierra Leone RN HQ is also wearing his "sparkers" badge upside down.
    A lot of detail was put into this sad story only to be marred by silly mistakes.
    Saying all that...well done Alan Bleasedale.

  • Comment number 17.

    I do hope that this brilliant adaptation of The Sinking of the Laconia will be repeated for those who missed it on BBC 2. In spite of some inaccurate details I felt that given the financial restraints and in the face of much criticism in going ahead to set records straight this fact-based drama, enhanced by fine acting, deserves to be screened at major cinemas in all countries! Well done Alan Bleasedale!

  • Comment number 18.

    A great programme. The ship and submarine were done very well. Just a pity that some of the uniforms were wrong. You had some of the officers on the Laconia wearing Royal Navy insignia and one very odd uniform jacket the 3rd Officer was wearing with merchant navy officers shoulder epaulettes and a Royal Navy Petty Officers badge on the left sleeve. It looked like something from a fancy dress as did the American Officers hats at the Ascension Island base. Also, one great big gaff... The branch badges worn on the right arms of some of the Laconia crew were actually Royal Naval badges and would not have been worn by merchant seamen but worse than that they were all upside down!!!! I don't suppose that the general public would realise or care, but as I am ex Royal Navy, I did realise and it annoyed me. Who on earth advised you about the uniforms..... I wouldn't use them again

  • Comment number 19.

    As a former member of the Royal Navy I found the misguided use of branch insignia and uniforms a disgrace. I do believe it would have been regarded as bringing the Queens uniform into disrepute by such a display. A punishable offence under the Naval Discipline Act.

  • Comment number 20.

    Excellent series about a little know historical event. I’m surprised at the comments made about uniform inaccuracies. My step father fought in the Battle of the Atlantic and I remembering him mentioning that while at sea, crews wore anything they could get their hands on. Even stripping bodies to get more suitable clothing. Correct dress was for the parade ground.

  • Comment number 21.

    Yes but they did not sew badges on upside down

  • Comment number 22.

    I thought this production was wonderful- beautifully done-gripping to the end- superb in every way. Thank you BBC!

  • Comment number 23.

    The production was more riddled with inaccuracies than laughable uniform howlers -although those made it almost impossible to watch. In the scene where the U-Boat officers are walking through a drydock, the drydocked vessel has a bulbous bow - highly improbable in a German or French yard of the era. Additionally, the Laconia's upper paintwork was filthy. While a wartime lack of paint might have accounted for a bit of rust, no master or Chief Officer would have allowed that much dirt to accumulate. Similarly, in a bridge scene, a sextant is casually lying around. These were precision instruments and were usually owned by the officer involved - when not in use they'd have been returned to their cases. Finally, the telegram forms (as handed to the Third Officer by the Captain) were just plain inauthentic. As has already been mentioned, since they were dispensed by implausible naval ratings, one howler probably cancelled the other out.
    But worst of all, the uniforms created for the Naval personnel in Sierra Leone can only be described as 'panto pastiche'. If the BBC was serious about this project, they ought at least to have tried for some authenticity (such as camouflage painting the CGI version of the Laconia). God knows, there are any number of people who'd jump at the chance to help (start at the National Maritime Museum).
    This wouldn't be so galling if one wasn't fairly certain that huge efforts were made to get the period detail spot-on in Upstairs Downstairs.
    The simple truth is that nobody at the BBC much cares about anachronism in drama - or about careful research. Did I hear Alan Bleasdale say that over 90% of merchant seamen in WW2 were from Liverpool? Tosh.

  • Comment number 24.

    Yes, forgot the Naval uniforms in Sierra Leone, They were so bad they were laughable, And then the officers saluted each other with army style salutes, with palm facing outwards. A naval salute the arm is brought straight up and the edge of the hand faces outwards. It really is very bad that there were so many inaccuracies. Come on BBC.... Lets hear what you have got to say about it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Comment number 25.

    I really enjoyed the program, and think it's good to see the subject being brought to a wider audience.
    Looking at some of the comments above I can understand viewers thoughts on the uniforms. The thing is, this type of subject matter does attract viewers (myself included) who have an interest in military history, and will nit pick at every detail. I can't comment on any of the naval uniforms, but some of the flying equipment being worn by the US aircrew was completely wrong. Their flying helmets, I'm still trying to figure out as I've never seen the type before. The goggles are modern copies of the British MkVIII and wouldn't have been available to US forces outside the ETO. And the lifejackets they wore are a postwar type used by the RAF up until the mid 1970's!
    OK, so there's a budget to think of etc, but I'm sure alot of private collectors would be glad to loan correct items...or at least advise. And with the re-enactment scene being so big, I'm sure all the costume mistakes could have been easily avoided.
    I better not dig any further with my research, or I'll have to decide I didn't like it after all....lol
    Mistakes aside, I still found it a very enjoyable drama...and hardly a 'Pearl Harbour' Nice to see Franka Potente in it too.

  • Comment number 26.

    I suppose it was inevitable that some nerds would complain about uniforms and other inaccuracies. However I have to say that the atmosphere and drama were perfect have done a good job.

    The silent majority will appreciate this story. I have to say that I thought the story was fiction until it was made clear that it wasn't. As a result I read more about it.

    This of course is the point of such programmes, to get people thinking and for them to find out more.

  • Comment number 27.

    RMS Laconia being bombed by a German submarine
    Ah come on! Since when could a submarine bomb anything??
    As mentioned above, the 'uniforms' were laughable - verging on cartoon.
    I found the programme called 'Primeval' on the other channel more realistic!
    PS - I'm an ex matelot.

  • Comment number 28.

    Wikipedia clearly seeing:"The efforts of the Polish guards were instrumental in controlling the chaotic situation on board and saved many lives."

    I'm very dissapointed the way, how Polish soldiers are shown in this worthless film. Bad Poles, good Germans, 'm try to imagine next BBC film about II warld war - probabely Poles will be guilty everything and poor Germans completely innocent.

  • Comment number 29.

    I object to being classified as a ‘nerd’ Mr Paulville. I am not insisting that every tiny detail be authentic, but really when it comes to sewing badges upside down, inventing comic uniforms that wouldn’t look out of place in an amateur production of HMS Pinafore, you have to ask yourself if they can get such simple things totally wrong, why should we believe the accuracy of the rest of it? Which kind of spoils all the hard work that has been done.

    There is no excuse for this sloppiness and I can only attribute it to pure laziness.

  • Comment number 30.

    Despite the inaccuracies in uniform, of which I would have been ignorant anyway, I thought the drama itself was superb, beautifully written by Alan Bleasdale, and acted to perfection by all concerned. I was very moved by the story, and also by the documentary shown last night, which gave extra depth to the earlier film. Thank you very much indeed to all connected with these productions. Please ignore the dismissive reviews!

  • Comment number 31.

    My husband was Captain Ben Coutts, played by Nicholas Burns. He was no way from a 'posh family', his father was a Church of Scotland Minister and he left home because he didn't want to be a Vet and failed his exams. He worked as a groom in Sussex before joining up with the Sussex and Surrey Reg. After the war he worked his way up in farming but was never a 'gentleman farmer'. He did write several books about his life 'A Scotsmans's War' covering the sinking of the Laconia. He, I know, would have been very pleased with the film despite some discrepances but he would have been very annoyed with the remarks that he was a bad dancer, he prided himself on dancing well which I can endorse !!! Well done, I was so pleased to see the sinking acknowledge in such a sensitive way

  • Comment number 32.

    Yes, the uniforms of merchant ships' officers were comic opera never mind the RN upside down badges. But ...the core story, the exemplary behaviour of Hartenstein (who was 32 and killed within the year) was splendidly done. There were many other examples of good behaviour shown by U-boat and armed merchant cruiser crews to Allied merchant seamen who were their victims. Many German naval seamen had themselves been merchant seamen pre-war. Solidarity among seafarers was something that all young seafarers quickly learned was part of the 'trade'.

  • Comment number 33.

    I am an ex Merchant Navy officer and would like to confirm everything bobhinton has said and add that it is incredible that so much could be spent on an excellent true to fact production but the uniforms could be so wrong. Even Hartensteins braid was bright gold instead of salt stained green. Where was the second mate? Did he miss the ship? The Lakonia's Captain was poorly cast. A Cunard Captain would be much more of a gentleman and much more in control and certainly not confiding his innermost thoughts to a junior officer .Perhaps he was "Bomb Happy" and needed a rest The actor who played him would make a better bosun. Alan Bleasdale's comment about 90% of Merchant Seamen coming from Liverpool is total rubish. He should check on Cardiff,Newcastle,Glasgow,etc etc ships and crews lost. Over 30,000 in all Merchant Navy sailors plus Army and Navy gunners. Dear BBC. There are still a few of us old Red Dusters out here. We would be delighted to help out with the technical bits. You can make a start by watching James Robertson Justice in Doctor At Sea.

  • Comment number 34.

    Sadly I and my husband found this dramatised version of the Sinking of the Laconia tedious in the extreme. but were really looking forward to the documenatry on BBC2 because it sparked an interest in an hitherto unknown event. Unfortunately there was a recording clash and although I have tried to download it all afternoon on iplayer my download speeds are not up to it. Any one know, did it add some value to the drama?

  • Comment number 35.

    Tedious, nonsense, it was brilliant.

  • Comment number 36.

    I can understand some of the complaints about specifics re/ uniforms etc, and what bugged me was this inability of modern directors to check British (as opposed to US) saluting routines (ie the British don't salute without a cap/headgear). All that being said, this was a superb production in that it highlighted both sides without glamorising either. The script and the acting were very tight and controlled. I hope this gets awards in Germany in the same way that Das Boot was recognised in Britain.

  • Comment number 37.

    A very moving story on all levels and I appreciate that there would be some discrepancies due to the dramatisation for a two part film.

    I therefore find those who are posting comments about the 'wrong' uniforms rather annoying. The true story was about the tragic loss of life and the show of humanity from an enemy and not a fashion show. These people are the equivalent of the annoying kids in class who always stick their hands up and say "Oh Miss I know the answer Miss, I know I know!"

  • Comment number 38.

    Also inaccurate was the submerged attack, as with minimal speed advantage Hartenstein had to stay on the surface to reach a good launch position. However the biggest problem is the ascribed motive for the rescue happening at all. It was not, at least at first, concern for helpless women and children, but the political impact of potentially killing so many of an Ally's troops. From U-boat archive:Hartenstein transmission: Sunk by Hartenstein British "Laconia". Grid FF 7721 310 degrees. Unfortunately with 1500 Italian POWs. So far 90 fished. 157 cubic meters (of oil). 19 eels [torpedoes], trade wind 3, request orders. Headquarters diary:
    U 156 sank the British "Laconia" (19,695 GRT) at 0110 in FF 7721, course 3100. After torpedoing her, boat discovered that the ship had 1500 Italian prisoners of war on board. Group "Eisbär", including U 459 and U 506 and 507 were ordered to proceed to the scene at once at high speed. An Italian boat in the vicinity was also directed there. It is intended to make for "Bingerville" (French Ivory Coast) in the first place with the survivors. Meanwhile U 93 had taken 193 persons on board, including 21 British. Further orders will be given." Hartenstein picked up 9 times as many Italians as Brits.

  • Comment number 39.

    The inaccuracies, apart from being annoying to those who notice them, are important as evidence that the production team don't care about getting things right. It is absolute evidence of lazy production values. Drama only works when disbelief can be suspended, when things are obviously wrong, disbelief cannot be suspended.

  • Comment number 40.

    Barry C
    I thought the Drama was very good as the intention was to tell the story of the sinking and then the rescue.
    It was not to put the cast to put on a prade ground display.
    My Father was one of those interviewed in the documentry, and he was dissapointed that it gave the impression that after the French picked up most of the surviors that was the end of it.
    His life boat along with another boat decided they did not wish to surrender and wished to continue the fight, as a result they both headed for North Africa which they both reached after in my Fathers case spending a total of 32 days at sea and the second boat spent approx 40 days at sea.
    A lot of surviors died in the attempt to reach the coast not shown.
    My Father Got back to England after a spell in Hospital, then went back to work helping the war effort, he coninued to serve in the RAF untill 1965.
    It is a shame more of this side of the sinking was not shown.

  • Comment number 41.

    I fully endorse what Chouan 93 wrote. People don't seem to want to understand the point that is being made here. It's about taking trouble to get things right so that we can watch a program like this confident that what we are watching is as near the truth as possible,dramatic licence accepted.

  • Comment number 42.

    I don't understand the comment by Barry C. He seems to imply that inaccuracies are acceptable, and then points out that there were inaccuracies in the telling of the tale!

  • Comment number 43.

    In reply to Bob Hinton before you worry about minor things like badges upside down and the salute being wrong, But surely getting the FULL story and the facts correct is far more important.
    The uniforms are secondary, what would you rather have the uniforms and minor details correct or the FULL story told with the uniforms and details good but not perfect.
    I watched and listened to the program for its historical content did you??

  • Comment number 44.

    Some of your readers are obviously not aware that the RN are not the only organisation which wear the curled braid. After the 2nd World War, due to the great loss of ships and personnel, that right was also granted to the Clan Line and other Merchant companies. See also HM Customs and HM Coarguard uniforms.
    Having said that, the fancy dress "Pick and Mix" uniforms depicted were not worthy of Primary School attempts. Other details of the vessels concerned, their crews and their operation were similarly badly researched. A true story spoilt - a great pity - and embarrasing for Alan Bleasdale.

  • Comment number 45.

    There are just too many errors for anyone who knows the Merchant Navy, to take the programme seriously. Apart from the uniforms, there was a ship in drydock with a bulbous bow, 'other ranks' in the same part of the accommodation as officers, engine-room ratings leaning against the rail on passenger decks, engine-room ratings wandering into prisoner areas and being allowed to take a wounded prisoner out, a Tardis-like sub with large internals but tiny exterior..............
    If BarryC considers that the most important thing is to get the FULL story and the facts correct, how can he tell the difference between fact and fiction?

  • Comment number 46.

    On reading Knut Loewe's account of the production and his exitment about Monika Jacobs "costumes" worn by the poor actors I would sugest that the pair of them be relegated to the junior school nativity play on half pay. A great pity that an important part of our history is so badly misrepresented by lazy research and that future generations will not see things as they were.Thank God they didn't work on the Dam Busters, A Bridge too Far,Above Us The Waves. etc.etc.

  • Comment number 47.

    I see that I am not the first to comment on the ludicrous naval uniforms employed in the filming. As a result of having worked on a BBC production, I have recently published 'Rank and Rate Volume I' an illustrated catalogue of Royal Naval officer's insignia which might help any future productions. Volume II will shortly be printed and covers ratings - including Merchant Navy. I also spent 36 years in the Royal Navy and would be happy to advise (freely) to stop the nonsense shown of officers not even knowing how to salute.

  • Comment number 48.

    I thought the story was fascinating but generally the acting was wooden and one real anachronism which shouted out - where did all the cigarettes come from and how can they have all been filter tips as these did not become generally made until the 1950s. It is a pity that so much smoking has to be featured in the many "period" productions both on BBC and other channels - although it does show how far we have come in making smoking a minority habit.

  • Comment number 49.

    The BBC's record on drama/documentaries involving the Merchant Navy is very poor. Their drama series on Dunkirk managed to avoid any reference to the Merchant Navy at all, even though most of those rescued were evacuated on merchant ships. This sad affair just perpetuates that wilful ignorance, even when a merchant ship, the "Laconia" itself, and the Merchant Navy is central to the story. That people think that those disappointed by the lack of respect given to the Merchant and Royal Navies are "nerds" is evidence of the profound ignorance, and lack of interest, that the viewing public have for both Services.
    What faith can the viewer have in the authenticity of the context when the producers can't be bothered to do the most basic research on the people involved.

  • Comment number 50.

    "There were many other examples of good behaviour shown by U-boat and armed merchant cruiser crews to Allied merchant seamen who were their victims. Many German naval seamen had themselves been merchant seamen pre-war. Solidarity among seafarers was something that all young seafarers quickly learned was part of the 'trade'. "

    My father's cousin was Chief Engineer on the "Arabistan", which was sunk by the German auxiliary cruiser "Michel". They pulled him out of the water where he was hanging onto a smashed lifeboat with a 17 year old Cadet. He was the only survivor, as they were both subsequently handed over to the Japanese, and the Cadet died in Japanese captivity.
    The "Arabistan" was hit by 6" shell fire and 20mm cannon fire before being torpedoed, by which time she was in a severely damaged and sinking condition. The "Michel" had been disguised as a Spanish Merchant ship, until at close range, when she revealed her true identity.

    The crew list makes interesting reading:

    AH ON, Carpenter, S.S. Arabistan (London). Merchant Navy. 14th August 1942. Age 47. Husband of Mrs. Ah On (nee Chow), of Kaiping, Kwangtung, China. (Hong Kong War Memorial)
    BARRETT, Master, EDWARD ROBERT, S.S. Arabistan (London). Merchant Navy. 14th August 1942. Age 47. Husband of Jessie A. Barrett, of Irlam o'the Height, Lancashire.
    BROWN, Fifth Engineer Officer, PETER, S.S. Arabistan (London). Merchant Navy. 14th August 1942. Age 21.
    CALDER, Chief Officer, WILLIAM, S.S. Arabistan (London). Merchant Navy. 14th August 1942. Age 35. Son of Charles and Jessie Calder; husband of Jemima Calder, of Dunnet, Caithnessshire.
    CANNELL, First Radio Officer, BRYAN INGLIS, S.S. Arabistan (London). Merchant Navy. 14th August 1942. Age 22. King's Cormnendation for Brave Conduct. Son of Walter Reah Cannell and Jane Susannah Cannell, of Chelsea, London.
    CORBETT, Cadet, BRIAN, S.S. Arabistan (London). Merchant Navy. 14th August 1942. Age 17. Son of John Samuel and Fanny Louisa Corbett, of Tipton, Staffordshire.
    FLOYDD, Second Officer, FRANK, S.S. Arabistan (London). Merchant Navy. 14th August 1942. Age 32. Son of William Frank and Anna Rebecca Floydd; husband of Doris Marguerite Floydd, of Exeter, Devon.
    HARDERN, Cadet, LEONARD MICHAEL, S.S. Arabistan (London). Merchant Navy. 14th August 1942. Age 18. Son of Dorothy G. Hardern, of Flixton, Lancashire.
    JENKINS, Third Engineer Officer, IDRIS, S.S. Arabistan (London). Merchant Navy. 14th August 1942. Age 26. Son of William Henry and Elizabeth Jenkins, of Fleur-de-Lis, Monmouthshire.
    OLDFIELD, Third Radio Officer, WALLACE F., S.S. Arabistan (London). Merchant Navy. 14th August 1942. Age 19.
    PHILLIPS, Second Engineer Officer, THOMAS WILLIAM, S.S. Arabistan (London). Merchant Navy. 14th August 1942. Age 36. Husband of D. Phillips, of Manchester.
    WHITE, Third Officer, JOHN WILLIAM, S.S. Arabistan (London). Merchant Navy. 14th August 1942. Age 35. Son of Frederick and Lucy White.
    DEMS Gunners
    BANKS, Able Seaman, GEORGE, P/JX 228589. H.M.S. President III. Royal Navy. (lost in S.S. Arabistan) 14th August 1942. Son of George and Helen Banks, of Edinburgh.
    CROSS, Able Seaman, STEPHEN JAMES, P/JX 289444. H.M.S. President III. Royal Navy. (lost in S.S. Arabistan). 14th August 1942. Son of James and Dora Louisa Cross, of Northampton.
    DRAKE, Able Seaman, BERTRAM FRANCIS, P/JX 249957. H.M.S. President III. Royal Navy. (lost in S.S. Arabistan). 14th August 1942. Age 30. Son of Frank and Jane Drake; husband of Maud Winnifred Drake, of Millwall, London.
    Naval Staff
    GRANT, Leading Seaman, JOSEPH, C/HD/X 90, S.S. Arabistan., Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. 14 August 1942. Age 34. Son of Joseph and Emily Jane Grant; husband of Catherine Grant, of Hull, Yorkshire.
    Maritime RA
    DAVIES, Gunner, LLOYD ERNEST, 3772748, 5/3 Maritime Regt., Royal Artillery. 14 August 1942. Age 20.
    PYGOTT, Gunner, WILLIAM EDMUND, 4695385, 4/2 Maritime Regt., Royal Artillery. 14 August 1942. Age 27. Son of Roger Gardam Pygott and Frances Pygott; husband of Sarah Emma Pygott, of Cudworth, Yorkshire.
    STYRING, Lance Bombardier, THOMAS LESLIE, 895124, 7/4 Maritime Regt., Royal Artillery. 14 August 1942. Age 20. Son of Henry and Elsie Styring, of Sheffield.
    THOMAS, Gunner, HAROLD, 3652788, 5/3 Maritime Regt., Royal Artillery. formerly, South Lancashire Regiment 14 August 1942. Age 27. Son of John Charles and Margaret Ethel Thomas, of Liverpool.
    THORNTON, Gunner, BERTIE, 4695436, 4/2 Maritime Regt., Royal Artillery. 14 August 1942. Age 28. Son of Joseph and Emily Thornton; husband of Mabel Thornton, of Acomb, Yorkshire.
    WATSON, Lance Bombardier, JOHN A., 2089944, 5/3 Maritime Regt., Royal Artillery. 14 August 1942.
    A further 43 Lascar Seamen are commemorated on Bombay/Chittagong War Memorials.

    Nice that they had the decency to rescue the survivors, after they'd destroyed the ship, and lifeboats, with close range shell and cannon fire.

  • Comment number 51.

    I've read all the comments on this posting, and I notice there's one perspective that hasn't been included. My paternal grandfather was a navigator on Blenheim fighter-bombers based in Malta during the height of the battle for the island in World War II. The War has always been a special interest of mine, and I have an extensive collection of books, documentaries and films about the subject.

    I live in Cape Town, South Africa and work in the South African movie industry. I worked on the previous British/South African period war docudrama, Murder in the Atlantic about the sinking of the Lusitania in 1914. Having worked on around 70 previous productions, I was experienced in the industry and was quite shocked at how small the budget was for the production, as evidenced by cheap costumes, poor food on set, etc. And yet, when I watched the final product, I was extremely impressed with the overall quality of it.

    Although I didn't actually work on the Laconia production, I knew about it and had researched the incident extensively while it was still in production. I know many people personally who worked on it, and the cast and crew felt that they had worked hard and done their best. It was not an easy shoot, spending all day in the height of a Cape Town summer, both in and on the water. There were also many night shoots, which are extremely hard on everyone concerned.

    I suspect that the Laconia production suffered from the same problems as the Lusitania one did. The local production companies are usually pretty good at their jobs, but the unfortunate rule in movie production, as in anything else in life, is that if you pay peanuts, you'll hire monkeys. And sometimes those monkeys neither know nor care about the correct way of saluting, or which way up a badge is supposed to be sewn on. Which is incredibly sad, especially when a BBC production is spoilt by so many glaring errors. There really is no excuse for it apart from the lack of finances, because there are many resources available for the research needed to get uniforms and other details completely accurate. Anyone who had stopped to think about it for a minute, would have immediately realised that a production about such an obscure wartime incident would attract the interest of experts (both amateur and professional) as well as that of survivors or veterans, and those would be the people to find the errors. So I would like to extend apologies on behalf of the people who are responsible for the errors to everyone who felt they were cheated. If it's any consolation, I am working on an upcoming short about the involvement of South African soldiers in World War II, and we are working hard to make sure it's technically accurate.

    On another point, which from the comments posted here seems to have been down-played or ignored in the series, is that the Laconia incident was the watershed incident in the U-boat war. Hartenstein's attempts at rescue included a message sent in plain language to all Allied vessels in the area, and which was received by the Allies but ignored since they assumed it was ruse. When the incident was finally over, Admiral Dönitz passed the "Laconia Order", which expressly forbade any U-boat commanders from trying to rescue Allied survivors. From that time on, no more warnings were given before a torpedo attack, and many more people died because of being abandoned after a sinking.

  • Comment number 52.

    Whilst the "Laconia Order" is of interest, the reality is that it essentially made no difference to what the U-Boats were already doing. Look at the loss of the Athenia on 3/9/1939, rthe first day of the war, torpedoed, without warning, by U-30. Helping the survivors, if any, was already the exception, not the rule, so the "Laconia Order" merely legally established what most U-Boat commanders were already doing.

  • Comment number 53.

    Following Alan Bleasdales's moving dramatisation of the sinking of RMS Laconia I wonder if the way is now open for a gifted writer and a courageous producer to document the story of an earlier - and little publicised - tragedy, the sinking of SS Arandora Star....

    In July 1940 the Blue Star cruise liner was requisitioned to transport from Liverpool to camps in Canada, without the benefit of escort or Red Cross insignia and with the ship painted in "battleship grey", 1200 men, almost all civilians, identified by the then British Government as "enemy aliens".

    For the most part the internees consigned to locked quarters below the waterline on that fateful day in 1940 were Italians who had been living peacefully and productively in Great Britain for many years and who indeed had seen themselves as citizens of their adopted homeland.

    Although a more sophisticated selection process could have been used to establish the identity of those amongst the Italians living in this country who could reasonably be suspected of being "fifth columnists", Churchill's order to the authorities to "collar the lot" when Mussolini brought Italy into the Second World War in June 1940, meant that Italians of all ages were, with little or no apparent discrimination beyond following through the alphabet of surnames from A to Z, rounded up and taken away from their families following an ominous and unexpected knock on the door.

    The Arandora Star was sunk off the coast of Ireland by the last remaining torpedo from a lone U boat returning from patrol in the Atlantic. 8oo men, most of whom were Italians and who could not or were not permitted to escape from their quarters, were drowned. They included my wife's grandfather, a gentleman whose surname unfortunately began with the letter "A" and who had been living in England since shortly after the end of the Great War. He had met in this country a German lady whom he then married and with whom he brought up his family in north London. He was a court tailor whose modest claim to some fame was that he had had the honour of making the riding britches for a female member of our then Royal Family.

    The sinking of the Arandora Star was, and appears to remain, an incident - some may say a scandal - which has been shrouded in secrecy, much of it seemingly "official". Even now, only a few months following the 70th anniversary of the tragedy, the name "Arandora Star" would probably mean little to most people - but a great deal to those whose families in Great Britain - and Italy - were affected by the loss of a loved one.

    Tony Tuthill

  • Comment number 54.

    I thought this was absolutely superb - wonderfully written and brilliantly acted. Technically it was also very credible. This is exactly the kind of thing the BBC should do much more of.

  • Comment number 55.

    Fortunately I have no understanding of naval uniform and so the apparently glaring errors did not hinder my enjoyment of this production. I thought it was superb. My favourite topic is true story disasters and how they affected real people and this focused on human emotion and experience. So maybe not all aspects of the incident were documented but it's better to connect with the charcters featured and involve ourselves in their stories. As mentioned already, I thought it was fantastic in that it didn't try and make either side the "good guys" - we saw strengths and weaknesses in those from both the Allied and Axis powers. And it's great to see German actors speaking in German rather than British people putting on stupid accents.

    I was really drawn into the story and it was great to see some great actors I'm familiar with (Brian Cox, Franka Potente and Thomas Kretschmann). I thought the German crew and in particular, Ken Duken who played Hartenstein, especially good. The dynamic, brotherly but sometimes vicious camaraderie of men stuck below the surface for such a long time was conveyed with ease. Duken's sensitivity was amazing and really showed the mental struggle of the conflict of interests he must have faced. I was moved to tears to discover he and his crew were later killed.

    I hope this gets the recognition it deserves and that those angry about production errors can still appreciate the heartfelt performances that were delivered.

  • Comment number 56.

    I believe that for the vast majority of viewers with no personal link to the sinking that the uniforms and technical anomalies were of no consequence. The point was the humanity shown by Hartenstein and his crew, as also testified by survivors in 'Survivor's Stories' most of whom think highly the U-boat captain.

    The constant stereotypical portrayal of Germans in movies like Indianna Jones who deserve everything they get has become a bit tired. As Robyn, above wrote, the death of Hartenstein and 'his humanity' was affecting because 'he was' like you or what you would wish to be - a heroic and decent figure, not how we have become accustomed to think of all Germans during the war with all of the allies as being whiter than white.

    Surely being a good human is at least giving the benefit of the doubt to each other human until proved otherwise. Someone has to be the first.


  • Comment number 57.

    Hello everyone, thanks for your interesting feedback here. Knut has asked me to post this comment in response to you:

    britnoregon #4, Emma #6, Andy C #10, Peter #11 and Vicky #15 - thank you - I am so moved by your comments. I would never have thought that our interpretation of the real event would trigger such family discussions. That after 70 years, stories are being told that never have been told before.

    To keir88 #23 - first of all I would like to thank you for your detailed response. In reply, I would say there is a major difference between documentary and TV drama, like The Sinking Of The Laconia.

    Hilda, for example, is a creation made out of several characters. The same thing applies to the ship itself. Deliberately we told the story of a ship that has not been serviced for several years. The captain says that it is a disgrace to use prisoners of war as ballast and that he would prefer pink Martinis in the sunset. He has given up! That is drama.

    Same thing applies to the guy in Sierra Leone. He is arrogant enough to think of himself to be an ambassador, but he is more interested in girls and alcohol then in military action. Please note the beaten Rolls Royce; he would never get a new, black and chauffeur-driven car.

    As you might have noticed there is an ambivalence in every detail, character and dialogue of this movie. The BBC itself is not doing the research as such. The artistic interpretation is carried out by the people who physically shoot the film such as the director, producer, designer, DOP etc.

    To Chris Power #20 - I could not agree more. I worked with dozens of vintage reference photographs during pre-production. They depict a mix of uniforms that is just unbelievable. The state the Laconia was in, when it arrived in Cape Town in 1942, could easily be described as scrap-ship.

    For me/ the production team, the main point of what the Laconia rule really meant was this: Dönitz was in a terrible situation and in essence ruled that seamen are not allowed to recue shipwrecked seamen.

    camilleclaudelle #7 and Peter-Dean #8, thank you for your appreciation of the programme. I would hope that all of us, including those who have been seamen themselves, recognise this tragedy.

  • Comment number 58.

    Having been a seaman myself, I do, of course "get" the tragedy. It is just a pity that it was so badly done.
    The comment "I worked with dozens of vintage reference photographs during pre-production. They depict a mix of uniforms that is just unbelievable." is curious. Just because you've seen a mix of uniforms doesn't mean that you can mix them all up on one person! Merchant Navy people did not wear Royal Navy uniforms. Not sometimes, or rarely, but never. It was a criminal offence to do so. Different ranks wore different rank badges. They weren't mixed up, or changed. A Master wore 4 stripes, a Mate/Chief Officer wore 3 stripes, not two and a half. A Third Officer wore one stripe. No cuff buttons, no upper arm badges or chevrons. Never, ever. Radio Officers were officers, not RN ratings.
    Saying that the uniforms worn were mixed does not excuse the ridiculous mixture that makes no sense. It looks, to me, like an excuse to explain the fancy dress that was being shown.
    No response to the comments on the lack of understanding of Merchant Navy operations either.
    A disappointing response to some valid comments.

  • Comment number 59.

    Hi Chouan93 #58 - thanks, all comments are welcome on the blog, positive and critical. In fairness to Knut, some of the (very interesting) comments here are about aspects which are outside his particular area of work - which was set design. So I should probably be clear, in posting Knut's response, that the set designer wouldn't be in a position to completely answer some of the points about uniforms etc. I do agree with you that the comments here are most relevant to discussion of the overall programme, so thanks again for posting your feedback.

  • Comment number 60.


    As I pointed out earlier, it is quite clear from Hartenstein's actual signal and his Commander's response that both were more concerned about the political impact on German-Italian relations than pure humanitarian considerations.

    Those who have commented "I thought it was fantastic in that it didn't try and make either side the "good guys" and "constant stereotypical portrayal of Germans" should not lose track of a larger truth. On the very day of Laconia's sinking, German soldiers who took the same personal oath of obedience to Hitler as Hartenstein and his crew did, completed the transport of 265,000 Warsaw Jews to the extermination camps at Treblinka. They had only started on July 22nd.

    These are things that happened in the real world. If a backdrop for a Mills & Boon style romance is required, it might be best to stay clear of identifiable events.

  • Comment number 61.

    I just wanted to say thankyou to all of the team involved. This is the most powerful piece of television drama I have ever seen.
    Beautifully made, and a story which really moved and inspired me

  • Comment number 62.

    Also in fairness, this seems to be the only place that the BBC accepted comments on the programme. I did look! If this is the only place where comments can be made, then comments are going to made about areas of production beyond Mr.Loewe's area of expertise.
    However, if he is responsible for set design, then he is also responsible for getting set design wrong. Examples mentioned above include the incongruous bulbous bow, the ridiculous wheelhouse clutter, crew in the wrong area, and the rubbish lying around. Even if a photo showed rubbish, or unidentified things on deck, in port on a ship engaged in working cargo, that material would be removed, and the ship tidied up once it got to sea. Cargo and Cargo/passenger ships ALWAYS look scruffy in port. That doesn't mean that they stay scruffy once they're settled into a voyage. These things were Mr Loewe's responsibility to get right, and he didn't do so.

  • Comment number 63.

    Hello again everyone,
    Hilary Norrish, the producer of The Sinking Of The Laconia wanted to respond to all your feedback here. Hilary's asked me to post this on her behalf:

    Thanks to Chris (3) for drawing attention to Frederick Grossmith’s wonderful book ‘The Sinking of the Laconia’. I have Alan Bleasdale’s copy of it in front of me right now and there are hundreds of yellow sticky markers liberally lettered through the text. It was credited on both parts of our drama but I think you may have missed it on the end roller! Grossmith’s book was one of many that Alan used in researching the story but for anyone who is interested in diving into the background I cannot recommend it highly enough: it’s a detailed, gripping account of the Laconia incident.

    Martin, Britinoregon, Emma, Andy C, Peter, Vicky and Sally at comments 2, 4, 6, 10, 11, 15 and 31 - It’s been wonderful to hear from – and talk to - survivors of the Laconia and their relatives. I’ve been incredibly moved by their understated accounts of enormous courage and endurance. And by the impact that the Laconia incident had on the rest of their lives. All recounted with humility and great good humour. Sally’s husband Captain Ben Coutts was very close to Alan’s heart. Sir Max Hastings wrote a very touching obituary when he died in 2004 that Alan pinned on the wall above his typewriter throughout the five years that he worked on the show – next to a picture of Werner Hartenstein - a constant reminder of people whose lives were profoundly affected by the events of the 12th of September, 1942.

    Now – of course – I have to respond to the criticism over the accuracy of the costumes which has clearly been at best distracting and at worst infuriating to many contributors to this blog. And for this I first must just apologise wholeheartedly. It was our intention to serve this story, one that had become so close to our hearts, with as much accuracy and authenticity as possible. To this end, we consulted a number of experts and used lots of reference books and photographs. There was even, remarkably, a small amount of cine footage shot on German submarine U 156 at the time! We also had a retired Admiral on set while we were shooting. And – of course and crucially – we used eye witness reports and spoke to survivors.

    Certainly, there were details that we knew were not quite right for the period. Keir and I_Claudius have rightly noticed the bulbous bow in the dry dock which is a little anachronistic. We shot this scene in Simonstown - the naval base in South Africa - and that was the ship that was there! In truth, I think we felt that the image of our U Boat Commanders walking through such an arresting location was worth it. But these are always debatable judgement calls.

    And then there were the lifejackets. I asked Josephine Pratchett (one of the survivors featured in the documentary) if she had any comments on the accuracy of our portrayal and the only thing she picked up on were the lifejackets. And she was quite right. But we had a practical problem: we were shooting on the open water in Capetown – the Cape of Good Hope - with hundreds of actors and crew crammed onto the deck of our home made U-156. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 1942 lifejackets just didn’t pass any criteria of Health and Safety in 2009! So we had to compromise. I discovered that the Cape of Good Hope was previously known as the Cape of Storms and during the shoot we all found out why! We decided to keep our company safe – if a little inaccurate.

    But from the very detailed comments from Bobhinton, Chouan93, Jimbo and others it becomes clear that our best efforts at accuracy didn’t cut the mustard. And that there were things that we were unaware of at the time. All I can say is that we were very mindful of the imperative – actually our duty - to get the detail right. We were very aware of the distinction between the Merchant Navy (who made up most of the Laconia’s crew) and the Royal Navy. And we tried to underline these distinctions on screen. Where we failed for some of you I feel I should simply apologise that it distracted from your enjoyment of the drama.

    Finally, I’d just like to thank all of you for your feedback about The Sinking of the Laconia. It has been a labour of love – lasting almost as long as the Second World War itself! But above all, it has been a privilege to work on such a remarkable story of courage and humanity in the fog of war.

  • Comment number 64.

    A pretty comprehensive response. On the other hand, to what extents were these "experts" expert, if so many errors were allowed to be shown and why have a retired Admiral on hand whilst shooting? What could he advise you about the running of a merchant ship?

  • Comment number 65.

    I agree with many of the earlier criticisms about the accuracy of this production but also acknowledge that dramatic licence is necessary and sometimes desirable to present a story within time and budget constraints. So while I have reservations about some aspects of the story-telling, in particular the inter-personal relationships and social attitudes, criticising them on the grounds of accuracy is fruitless because of the counter-argument that these are merely subjective opinions.

    But the producer's response (#63) to the criticisms about uniforms is blood-boilingly patronising. It is simply not good enough to say that these were "things we were unaware of at the time" and then hope to move on: since this is a BBC joint production, it seems reasonable to assume that licence-payers' money was involved in making it, and some of that has clearly not been well spent. Hilary Norrish herself makes the point that the producers had a duty to get the detail right, and says that they consulted experts, including a retired Admiral, in order to do so. On the basis of what was broadcast, it appears as if at least some of these were decidely inexpert so far as the British uniforms are concerned. This raises serious questions of professional competence and of the BBC's quality assurance processes. I think we should be told who these experts were, what advice they gave, and how much they were paid.


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