- Contributed by
- Norman Date
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 31 March 2004
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 and 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, beginning when we sailed from Liverpool on the 28th 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 29th July, 1942, calling at Aden, Mombassa, Durban and Capetown . When we left Capetown on the 1st 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. At about 2010 on 12th 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 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 in order to retrieve our life jackets, passing on the way three dead bodies , 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 life jacket 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 life lines 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.
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 and then slid below the surface, bow first followed a few seconds later by 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 when I saw that I was not far away from a lifeboat which was very full, but I let go of the float and swam to the lifeboat where I was pulled aboard and then for the first time saw sharks and shivered that whilst I was in the water the last thing I had thought about was fish.
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 15th 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, the 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 then 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”. On the 16th 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 but despite this U.S aircraft came over and bombed the submarine killing some of the survivors, U-156 then cut the tow and submerged slowly in order 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.
On the 17th September a ship approached which turned out to be the Vichy French cruiser “Gloire” manned by German officers and accompanied by two other ships, “Annamite” and “Dumont– d`Urville” and at last we were picked up, taken to Casablanca and there handed over to the Germans as prisoners of war.
Taken then to a place called Mediouna we awaited transport to a prison camp in Germany but 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 U.K working as a 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 this shipwreck when I think of the 1600 who perished by explosion, sharks and drowning together with the four U-boats, three enemy warships which were searching for survivors and our own allies bombing us!.
Commander of U-156
The commander of U-156, Werner Hartenstein was in command of this boat from September 1941 until the 8th March, 1943 when she was sunk with the loss of all 53 crew by depth charges dropped by a U.S 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 when she was bombed off Saint-Nazaire whilst evacuating troops from France.
By Albert Goode MN
From: Norman Date / Hon Secretary/ Merchant Navy Association Bristol UK
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