Survivors of the Laconia on the deck of German submarine U-156
Tri-Service

The Attack That Changed The Rules Of War

On the 12th of September 1942 the RMS Laconia was sunk by a German U-boat sparking a chain of events in which an estimated 1,600 people lost...

Survivors of the Laconia on the deck of German submarine U-156

On the 12th of September 1942 the RMS Laconia was sunk by a German U-boat sparking a chain of events in which an estimated 1,600 people lost their lives.

It was also an incident that changed the rules of war and left a lasting stain on the reputation of the US Military.

Originally built as an ocean liner for Cunard, the Laconia had been requistioned by the Admiralty at the outbreak of the Second World War. Serving first as an armed merchant cruiser before being converted to a troop ship.

In September 1942 she departed from Cape Town setting a evasive zig-zagging course for Sierra Leone's Freetown, her cargo; 463 officers and crew, 80 civilians, 268 British soldiers and 1,800 Italian prisoners of war with 160 Polish soldiers guarding them. 

Cunard Liner R.M.S Laconia Pre-World World II
Cunard Liner R.M.S Laconia Pre-World World II

On the evening of the 12th the ship was some 130 miles (210km) north of Ascension Island when she was spotted by the German submarine U-156.

Two torpedos were fired, both finding their targets and sinking the Laconia within an hour of the first explosion. Her captain and hundreds of Italian prisoners, still locked below decks in the cargo holds, going down with her.

Less than half of the Laconia's lifeboats had been launched before she sank, and only one with POWs onboard, leaving many swimming for their lives or clinging to debris as sharks started to attack.

MORE: German U-Boat Discovered After More Than A Century 

Upon surfacing to see if they could capture any of the Laconia's surviving senior officers the German crew was greeted with the sight of more than 1,000 people in the water. Realising civilians and POWs were among them the U-boat crew immediately launched a rescue mission.

U-boat command in Germany was contacted and several more submarines were dispatched to the scene, all flying the flag of the Red Cross. A radio message was also dispatched informing the Allies of the incident and asking for help.

The next morning an American B-24 Liberator, apparently unaware of the message, spotted the rescue efforts and several hours later was ordered by commanders on Ascension to bomb the U-boats.

WATCH: Ascension - Britain's Atlantic Outpost 

Despite her decks being crammed with almost 200 survivors including women and children, flying the flag of the Red Cross, and radioing the aircraft's crew for help, U-156 was repeatedly attacked with a combination of bombs and depth charges.

Left with little option the German submarines' commanders ordered their boats to dive, casting those who thought they'd found salvation back into the mercy of the shark-filled seas. 

When news of the subsequent US attack reached Admiral Donitz, the commander of the Third Riech's formidable submarine fleet, he issued what became known as the Laconia Order - specifically forbidding the rescue of any survivors from subsequent U-boat attacks. 

Following Germany's surrender in 1945 Donitz was put on trial at Nuremberg with prosecutors citing the Laconia Order as proof of his war crimes. The move back-fired as the full story of the incident emerged, not least that the B-24 pilots had claimed to have sunk U-156 and were awarded medals for their 'bravery'. 

MORE: The Royal Navy Ship That Almost Started A War With America