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The Loss of the Cunard Ship Laconiaicon for Recommended story

by Norman Date

Contributed by 
Norman Date
People in story: 
Norman Date
Background to story: 
Why NO Merchant Navy
Article ID: 
A1945316
Contributed on: 
01 November 2003

The story below was written by Albert Goode (MN) and has been posted with his permission by Norman Date, Hon Secretary of the Merchant Navy Association, Bristol, UK:

Naval Sea Cadet

I was born in Bristol, at Horfield in the year 1926 and was about 10 years old when I became the first boy to join the newly formed Bristol Sea Cadets. In December, 1941, aged 15, I joined the Cunard ship Laconia and on my first trip spent my 16th birthday in Capetown.

My second trip was very different. We sailed from Liverpool on the 28 May 1942, joining a big convoy containing the famous liners, Britannic, Aquitania, Mauretania, Orcades, Oranto, Viceroy of India and the Empress of Canada protected by the battleships HMS Nelson and HMS Renown together with three destroyer escorts.

The outward-bound trip was uneventful and we departed Port Tewfik, homeward bound, on the 29 July, 1942, calling at Aden, Mombassa, Durban and Capetown. When we left Capetown on the 1 September, 1942, we had a total of 2,732 people on board, made up of 463 crew, 286 military personnel, 87 civilians (mainly women and children), 1,793 Italian prisoners of war and 103 Polish guards.

Hit by Torpedo

At about 20:10 on 12 September and with darkness having just fallen, the first torpedo hit us followed a few seconds later by the second. The smell of cordite became very strong and the ship listed to starboard. Myself and a shipmate tried to make our way to a companionway, but we were unable to proceed as our way was blocked by the Italian prisoners who had escaped and were being fired at by the guards.

We then went below deck making for our quarters to retrieve our lifejackets, passing on the way three dead bodies. They'd been killed by rivets from the hull, which must have come out with the force of a rifle bullet when the ship was struck. Having got my lifejacket I then headed for the boat deck and now alone I found that all the lifeboats were gone except two, which were hanging useless, supported by one fall.

Then I spotted lifelines hanging down the side of the ship, I took a run and jumped for one but missed, and flew out into space, hitting the water and for a moment thinking that I was never going to come up again. Luck was with me though and when I surfaced I was near a Carley Float, which I grabbed hold of.

Doomed ship

There were terrible cries and screams from the people in the water as I drifted away from the doomed ship, and it was not long before she stood almost vertical in the water, then slid below the surface, bow first. A few seconds later we heard an underwater detonation as her boilers or the depth charges, which we carried, exploded. After all of this there was no sound in the pitch darkness and it was an eerie lonely feeling until dawn broke and I saw that I was not far away from a lifeboat, which was very full.

I let go of the float and swam to the lifeboat. I was pulled aboard and then for the first time saw sharks and shivered - whilst I was in the water the last thing I had thought about was fish.

In a lifeboate

In the lifeboat we had a daily ration in the morning of one Horlicks tablet - in the late afternoon one teaspoonful of Bovril Pemmican and at nightfall one dip of rusty water. On the 15 September we saw something on the horizon and thought that rescue was near, then it became clear that the vessel was in fact a U-boat and was towing three lifeboats. he U-boat crew gave us some water and then released the lifeboats and told us to stay together as they had used their radio to inform a rescue ship of our position. This U-boat was later identified as U-156, the one which had sunk us and was commanded by Captain Hartenstein.

The submarine left us and headed off with a lot of survivors on the deck as all the lifeboats were full. We saw the U-boat again later that day, now towing a further two lifeboats but this was some distance away. We learnt subsequently that the U-boat Captain had sent a plain message in English to the effect that 'If any ships will assist the shipwrecked crew of the Laconia I will not attack her, providing that I am not attacked by ships or aircraft. I have 193 survivors on board.'

Rescue Operation

On 16 September U-506 and U-507, together with the Italian submarine Cappellini joined in the rescue operation. The U-156 had 260 men, plus those in the three lifeboats she was now towing, and a white sheet painted with the red cross was also displayed. Despite this US aircraft came over and bombed the submarine, killing some of the survivors. U-156 then cut the tow and submerged slowly to give those still on the deck a chance to get into the water. Later on we heard that U-507 had also been bombed and the captain put as many of the 142 survivors into lifeboats as he could.

The Gloire approaches

On 17 September a ship approached. She turned out to be the Vichy French cruiser Gloire; manned by German officers and ccompanied by two other ships - Annamite and Dumont d`Urville. At last we were picked up, taken to Casablanca and there handed over to the Germans as prisoners of war.

POWs in transportation, but not for long

Taken then to a place called Mediouna, we awaited transport to a prison camp in Germany. Luckily for us the Allied invasion of North Africa was mounted and we were liberated and then taken aboard the invasion ship Anton, bound for the United States, from where I returned to the UK.I worked as an Able Seaman aboard the Dutch ship Westernland (owned by the Holland-America Line).

The saying that 'truth is stranger than fiction' has often struck me when thinking about the 1,600, who perished by explosion, sharks and drowning, together with the four U-boats, three enemy warships searching for survivors while our own allies bombed us!

Footnotes

Commander of U-156
The commander of U-156, Werner Hartenstein was in command of this boat from September 1941 until 8 March 1943 when she was sunk with the loss of all 53 crew by depth charges dropped by a US Catalina aircraft east of Barbados. During his service Hartenstein sank 19 ships for a total of 92,000 tons and was awarded the Knights' Cross.

Captain of the Laconia
Captain Sharp, who was lost with this ship, was also the Master of the Lancastria which was sunk in June 1940 with the loss of over 3,000 servicemen and crew. She was bombed off Saint-Nazaire while evacuating troops from France.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - Mediouna

Posted on: 29 August 2004 by victor-sanchez

Norman, my Grandfather was interned at Mediouna in late 1940 can Albert tell me anything about this internment camp. My e mail address is chesterpotts@reivers5.freeserve.co.uk

Many Thanks

Chester

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