Book Review – ‘The Sinking of the Laconia and the U-boat War: Disaster in the mid-Atlantic’ by Marc Milner

By Marc Milner, published November 2020


On 12 September 1942 U-156 torpedoed and sank the 20,000 ton British liner Laconia 900 miles south of Sierra Leone, spilling 2,732 passengers and crew – including 1,793 Italian PoWs – into the sea. When Korvettenkapitain Werner Hartenstein realized the scope of the disaster, he called for help, broadcast his position in clear, raised a Red Cross flag on his U-boat and began rescuing survivors. The commander of U-boats, Admiral Karl Dönitz, diverted several of his subs (including an Italian one) to help, while the Vichy French in Dakar despatched rescue ships. The Allies thought it was a ruse, and three days later Hartenstein’s U-boat – still flying the Red Cross, burdened by 200 survivors and towing lifeboats – was attacked by an American aircraft. Only 1,100 people were eventually saved, with most of the Italian PoWs (over 1,400) perishing. The events led to Dönitz expressly ordering his U-Boat captains never to pick up survivors again.

Duffy’s purpose in this book is not to recount the incident again (although he does). Rather, his intent is to set the Laconia incident in the context of other humanitarian acts by U-Boat captains.

Duffy does a good job of stitching this all together: he writes well, he tells a good story and the balance is about right …

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Filed under: Atlantic
Subjects include: Lifesaving & Coastguard | Navies | Submarines

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