How did a squadron of U.S. bombers change the rules of the sea which was to cost the lives of tens of thousands of Allied seamen? Few things illustrate the half-lie better than Allied propaganda relating to the Laconia Order. This was Hitler’s instruction that forbade German shipping from picking up distressed survivors at sea.
The Laconia Order is constantly reused to show the Germans in a bad light but why was the order given? On September 12 1942, the British troopship Laconia, in accordance with the rules of engagement, was sunk off the West African coast by the German U-boat U-156.
Under the command of Werner Hartenstein, the U-Boat crew immediately set about rescuing survivors of the sinking. As it carried out its caring tasks the U-Boat commander relayed a rescue signal on an open channel. He U-boat’s skipper requested ships in the vicinity to assist in saving seamen in lifeboats.
The crew of the U-156 was soon joined by another German U-boat. As the German U-boats on the surface were rescuing seamen the two vessels were bombed by a squadron of American aircraft that had picked up the rescue signals.
As a consequence, 1,792 of the Laconia’s passengers and crewmen lost their lives. Many were Italian prisoners-of-war. As a consequence, Hitler issued the Laconia Order forbidding all German vessels, irrespective of type or size to pick up allied survivors. The outcome was that tens of thousands of Allied sailors and passengers who might have been saved lost their lives.
The Laconia incident was one of many that examples of the Allied contempt for the Laws of the Sea and the Rules of Engagement.
On November 18, 1944, two British Beaufighter warplanes attacked the 4,820-tonne German hospital ship Tubingen in the Adriatic near Pola. The attacks were repeated nine times despite the vessel displaying international insignia that revealed it as a hospital ship.
The weather was clear and the sea calm. Lifeboats were launched from the stricken vessel thus saving most of the crew and medical personnel. However, six crew members lost their lives. Westminster apologised and claimed the attack had been carried out in error. The pilots responsible were never court-martialled although under the terms of the Geneva and other conventions they were clearly war criminals.
The British Royal Navy undoubtedly had its moments of glory but a number of atrocities brought shame on the so-called Senior Service. One of the Royal Navy’s most shameful atrocities followed the sinking of a Greek cacique by the British submarine, HMS Torbay.
As the small vessel sank, members of an Alpine Regiment stationed on a nearby island were left floundering in the sea. Whilst attempting to swim away, the distressed servicemen were machine-gunned.
The order was given by HMS Torbay’s Commander Meir. Official reports never mentioned that the helpless sailors were slaughtered in cold blood; only that ‘they perished.’
Royal Navy sources claim that Commander Meir’s logbook admits that the crew did machine-gun survivors. This incident is believed to have caused near mutiny among the crew of HMS Torbay. Yet, there were several caciques and their crews slaughtered in the same casual manner by Royal Navy crews.
The outcome of this dreadful act was that the 38-year-old Commander Anthony Meir’s was later awarded the Victoria Cross in ‘recognition of his services.’ He died in July 1985 at the age of 78.
If there was any good at all that resulted from this infamy it was the outrage expressed by Captain Stephen Roskill, the Royal Navy’s official war historian. He broke ranks and spoke of the machine-gunning of prisoners in the Mediterranean off Crete as ‘disgraceful.’
There was a similar incident in April 1940 which followed the sinking of the German destroyer Erich Giese in Norway. A number of German survivors were shot out of hand. Interviews with German survivors, including the captain of the destroyer, Commander Karl Schmidt, and inspection of British and German logbooks relating to the incident revealed that an unspecified number of Germans were killed instead of being made prisoners of war.
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