During the Second World War, propaganda was a weapon almost as important as guns. On both sides, terrible stories were spread, making it easier to see the people on the Other Side as the enemy.
In the summer of 1942, British newspapers had reported that German uBoats had opened fire on lifeboats. However, in reality there were many stories of humane kindness shown to survivors by ordinary German sailors.
After the sinking of the Richmond Castle, the German UBoat commander, Captain Dierksen, shared rations with the crew in the lifeboats. Survivors were given field dressings, bread, butter and even cigarettes – vital supplies in 1942! Dierksen even promised to send out an SOS on behalf of the survivors, who hadn’t been able to send a message themselves before the Richmond Castle sank.
In September, another submarine crew showed humanity in dreadful circumstances. The Laconia was a converted passenger liner carrying Italian prisoners of war, Polish troops, injured British soldiers and 87 women and children. On 12 September she was sailing off the East Coast of Africa, heading towards Britain.
A little after 8pm, U-156 fired two torpedoes, landing direct hits on the Laconia. In accordance with Birkenhead Drill regulations, women and children were given first access to the lifeboats. But with the ship listing on its side, many lifeboats could not be launched and there were dreadful stories of babies falling into the sea. Others boats were launched so quickly that the bungs were not plugged in and water seeped through the bottom, quickly sinking them.
The UBoat captain, Werner Hartenstein, heard the shouts of the Italian prisoners, German allies, and returned to rescue them. Then he realised there were women and children in the water too. He gave the order to rescue everyone, and his crew quickly began pulling people onto the UBoat. There wasn’t enough room, so uninjured survivors were left in the lifeboats, which were tied to the sides of the submarine. By then end of the rescue, there were nearly 200 survivors onboard the submarine and 1300 in lifeboats.
Hartenstein sent a radio message to the British, requesting help with the rescue. But the message did not get through and an American B52 attacked, dropping bombs that hit the lifeboats, killing dozens. The captain had no choice but to submerge the submarine. The survivors onboard had to swim for the lifeboats.
Most of the survivors were soon picked up by ships from Vichy France, although two were missed and many in those boats died. Of 2725 on board the Laconia, only 1500 survived the sinking.