Until late 1942, it was common for German U-boats to provide torpedoed survivors with food, water, and the direction of the nearest landmass. This ended when a U-boat towing lifeboats and flying the Red Cross flag was attacked by a US bomber.
The Laconia incident refers to the controversial events surrounding the sinking and subsequent aborted rescue attempt of a British troopship in the Atlantic Ocean during World War II. On 12 September 1942, RMS Laconia under the command of Capt. Rudolph Sharp and carrying some 2,732 crew, passengers, soldiers and POWs, was torpedoed and sunk by German U-boat U-156 off the coast of West Africa. Operating partly under the dictates of the old prize rules, the U-boat commander, Korvettenkapitän Werner Hartenstein, immediately commenced rescue operations, broadcasting their humanitarian intent on open radio channels to all Allied forces in the area, and were joined by the crews of other U-boats in the vicinity.
Heading on the surface to a rendezvous with Vichy French ships under Red Cross banners, with their foredeck laden with survivors, U-156 was deliberately attacked by a U.S. Army B-24 Liberator bomber. The bomber, which had confirmed and reported the U-boat’s intentions and the presence of survivors to higher command, was explicitly ordered to attack the ship anyway. The B-24 ended up killing dozens of the Laconia’s survivors with bombs and strafing attacks, forcing U-156 to cast their remaining passengers into the sea and crash dive to avoid being destroyed. The pilots of the B-24 inexplicably reported that they had sunk U-156, and were awarded medals for bravery.
The event seriously chilled the general attitude of Germany’s naval personnel towards rescuing stranded Allied seamen, and the commanders of the Kriegsmarine were shortly issued the “Laconia Order” by Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz which specifically forbade any such attempt, thus helping to usher in unrestricted submarine warfare for the German Navy. Neither the US pilots nor their commander were ever punished or even investigated, and the matter was quietly forgotten by the US military until the Nuremburg Trials, when a prosecutorial attempt to cite the Laconia Order as proof of war crimes by Dönitz and his submariners badly backfired and embarrassed the US when the full story of the incident emerged. One international bestseller and numerous articles on the subject have been published, and a 2011 television film produced about the incident.