The Sinking of the Laconia: Tommy’s Story

Apologies to those of you who don’t know what happened to the Laconia and are looking forward to the programme – this article might be a bit of a spoiler! But I wanted to share with you all why its of such interest to me and my family.

Leading Stoker Thomas Daly

Leading Stoker Thomas Daly

As you probably guess from my surname, the male line of my family came from Ireland. We believe that my great-great-grandfather came over from Ireland some time in the late 19th Century, no doubt due to lack of work and famines that blighted Ireland throughout the century. Unfortunately due to a lack of records (burnt during the Easter rising in 1916) we have no idea where Daniel Daly came from, but the surname itself is very populous in Country Cork.

My Great-Grandfather, Thomas Daly, was born in Birkenhead near Liverpool in 1895. In June 1914- at the age of 19 – he joined the Royal Navy (he had previously worked as an electro-plater). He served as a Stoker, onboard Battleships and then onboard the early ubmarines. He settled in Portsmouth, and married my great-grandmother Lillian Maud Ross at St Agathas Church in Portsmouth in 1917.

Their eldest Children – Janet and Thomas (known as Tommy) – were born in 1919, followed by Iris in 1923, Pat in 1927, Ken (My Grandad) in 1928 and Terry in 1934. Notice the long gaps in between some of their births – this was almost certainly down to my Great-Grandad being away at sea for years at a time.

Tommy worked at a Mattress Maker’s before the war. He tried to join the Navy three times, but was each time rejected. When war broke out in 1939, h0wever, the Navy was desparate for men to crew re-activated ships, so he was accepted in early 1940. After a period of training ashore in Portsmouth he was drafted to the light cruiser HMS Enterprise as a stoker.

HMS Enterprise

HMS Enterprise

The work of a stoker was hard, dirty, smelly, noisy and hot. Originally tasked with shovelling coal into the ships boilers, in oil fuelled ships the stokers job was to maintain and keep the boilers operating. Most ships boilers had spray bars fitted that sprayed fuel oil into them.

 HMS Enterprise was an Emerald class cruiser of 9,435 tons, built at the end of the First World War. There were only two ships in the class, HMS Enterprise and HMS Emerald. They were the fastest ships in the Navy at the time, with a top speed of 33 knots.

 In June 1940, after the fall of France, HMS Enterprise was despatched to the Mediterranean as part of Force H. This naval task force was given the unpleasant but necessary task of ensuring that the French fleet did not fall into the hands of the Germans. HMS Enterprise took part in the destruction of the French ships at Mers-el-kebir in July.

 HMS Enterprise was then sent south to Cape Town, mainly taking part in convoy escorts and interception duties. In December 1940 she unsuccessfully hunted for the German auxiliary cruiser Thor, which had been menacing merchant shipping in the South Atlantic.

 In early 1941, she was sent to the Indian Ocean, where as part of a large fleet she took part in the search for the German cruiser Admiral Scheer. After the search was abandoned she then resumed escort duties, before going to Basra in May to support the suppressing of a pro-German revolt in Iraq.

 In November HMS Enterprise was refitted in Colombo, Sri Lanka. This refit was finished by December, when war broke out with Japan. In April 1942 she rescued some of the survivors from sinking of HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire, which had been sunk by the Japanese on their Easter Sunday raid on Sri Lanka.

 In December 1942, HMS Enterprise finally returned home to the Clyde after almost 18 months away from home. But my great-uncle was not onboard. Sometime before HMS Enterprise returned home, it appears that he had injured his hand onboard ship, and spent some time in the Naval Hospital in Colombo. It was either this, or the fact that he was promoted to Leading Stoker, that led to him being sent home onboard the SS Laconia, a Cunard Liner requisitioned as a troopship.

The Laconia

The Laconia

 The Laconia sailed from Cape Town in August 1942, carrying Italian prisoners of war, serviceman returning home and civilians. Somewhere north of Ascencion Island in the South Atlantic, she was hit by torpedoes fired from U-156 at 8pm on 12 September. By 9.11pm the ship had sank, with many still onboard. Even those who survived faced grim prospects, as sharks were numerous in the tropical waters.

 However, shortly after the Laconia sank, the U-Boat surfaced unexpectedly. Remarkably, the U-boat then attempted to rescue survivors, something that was not official German policy at the time. When Werner Hartenstein, the Commander of U-156, realised that POW’s and civilians were onboard, he broadcast over the radio requesting assistance. Several more U-Boats arrived to assist in the rescue. Unfortunately a flight of US B-24 Liberator bombers was not aware of what was going on, and attacked the U-boats. The U-boats then dived, leading to more loss of life. In total, 3,254 people died. The commander of the German Navy, Admiral Karl Donitz, gave his infamous Laconia order, that in future U-boats were not to rescue survivors. This order was part of the case against Donitz at the Nuremberg war crime trials.

After spending some time in the water, my great-uncle Tommy was rescued, and eventually handed over by the Germans to the Vichy French, along with many other survivors. They were transported to the French territory in Morrocco, and interned at a prison camp at Mediouna. Although conditions in prisoner of war camps are rarely luxurious, this camp in particular seems to have been atrocious – the prisoners were given old foreign legion uniforms, and one cup of wine and a bowl of soup a day. Dysentery and lice were rife. Red Cross reports on conditions were damming.

 Although they were liberated by the Allied Invasion of North Africa, Operation Torch, many of the men were seriously ill. My great-uncle was evacuated to the Naval Hospital in Gibraltar, and then home to the Military Hospital in Shenley, Hertfordshire. His condition must have been deteriorating, however. On 3 April 1943 a telegram was sent on behalf of the senior officer at the Hospital to my great-grandparents, informing them that their son Thomas Daly was seriously ill, and they were advised to visit him as soon as possible.

 Sadly, however his condition did not improve, and he passed away in Hospital on 27 April 1943. His Death Certificate gave Toxaemia – blood poisoning – and ulceration of the throat as the cause of death, both likely caused by suffering from Dysentery and malnutrition. No doubt this wasn’t helped by the trauma of being torpedoed in the South Atlantic and having to be rescued from the sea.

Tommy's Grave in Kingston Cemetery

Tommy's Grave in Kingston Cemetery

 He was buried at home in Portsmouth’s Kingston Cemetery. Its quite interesting really, we think of war graves as being something that we might see at Ypres, or Normandy. But in terms of the Second World War, more Portsmouth servicemen died in Britain than died abroad in action. If we think about it, the majority of men and also a lot of women were in uniform. For every man on a ship or on the front line, there were probably about the same number serving in the support services at home. And given the privations of the time, sadly its not surprising that many of them died. There were also a lot of older servicemen who were called up to train new recruits or to work in shore bases. 

It’s incredible to think that those dramatic events – that seem like a ‘Second World War Titanic’, happened when my 82-year-old Grandad was 15. And I have to say, it makes you think: how must it feel to lose your older brother when you’re 15? Not just killed in the war, but dying at home of illness after such a traumatic experience.

So if you watch ‘The Sinking of the Laconia’, please remember – these are real events that happened to real people, and some people still live with the effects to this day.

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37 Comments

Filed under Family History, merchant navy, Navy, On TV, World War Two

37 responses to “The Sinking of the Laconia: Tommy’s Story

  1. x

    When I spent that weekend in Shieldhall player stoker there was a guy who had been a stoker in the RN in the 70s. He had been in the Ark Royal during her second to last commission. I was a bit in awe of this fact. Only to be told that a watch in a carrier lasted as long as watch in destroyer. Knocked the gilt right of my gingerbread.

    Now when you say great-granddad was a stoker in submarines do you mean the infamous (but fantastic) K-boats?

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  3. James Daly

    Thank to RN service records c/o the NA, I know what ships he was on and when:

    Dolphin – Dec 1916
    Maidstone – Dec 1916 to Sept 1919
    Dolphin – Sept 1919 to Aug 1923
    Lucia – Aug 1923 to Oct 1923
    L52 – Oct 1923 to Jun 1925

    As you probably know in the early days of subs the depot ship (eg Maidstone, Lucia etc) was the commissioned entity, and the subs themselves had pennant numbers (such as L52). This system survived until WW2 when some RN subs still had numbers.

    Prior to going to Dolphin he was at Victory (shore base), then on Royal Sovereign (B) and Liverpool (C). Then after leaving subs he was on Assistance (laundry ship), Champion (C), Despatch (C), and Iron Duke (B).

    • x

      Yes it can be tricky reading submarine histories until you realise about names and numbers. I think it is the good naval historian who pushes the name to the fore.

      • James Daly

        the easiest service records are the ones that have a name and then the number afterwards in brackets. Almost like you might write 2 Para (C Coy). Helps the historian out a great deal!

        Historians have an interesting role with ship names… somebody told me once about how having the shore base at Pompey called HMS Victory caused no end of problems (god knows whos bright idea that was) so when the old HMS Nelson decomissioned somebody pushed for it to be renamed Nelson.

        Anybody else think the Daring class names are pretty decent? Much better than the road atlas and furry animal themes we’ve had in recent classes…

        • x

          It doesn’t happen often but ship’s name can be a pain.

          Along with Nelson you have HMS Excellent becoming HMS Nelson (Whale Island) then back to HMS Excellent. Confused you will be…

          I do like the Daring names. I follow popular opinion on the T23 names. Do you remember all the mither over that letter in Navy News? I was a subscriber at the time, and me being a simple soul read it and thought nothing of it. There were lots of better choices for T23 names. A selection of emergency flotilla J,K, or Ls perhaps. (Though given the popularity of the girls’ name Kelly makes it one to be avoided!) I don’t think Jack would have thanked Their Lordships for going to sea in a HMS Starling either; though that would have been a nice historic name.

          • James Daly

            The T22′s were one of the strangest in terms of naming – Broadsword, Battleaxe, Brilliant… good stuff. Then we end up with HMS Beaver, a random HMS London simply because the Mayor of London wanted a HMS London, and then the C Class.

            There was a little controversy locally some time ago when some of the veterans of the WW2 HMS Dainty called for one of the Daring’s to be given that name/ There were complaints that the name Dainty was hardly macho, at which point the veterans countered that they were not exactly dainty in spirit.

            There’s also been a lot of toys-out-of-prams around the country in cities offered T45′s to adopt – Sheffield refused, saying that there should be a HMS Sheffield.

            We do tend to steer clear of non-PC names, or names that might offend our allies. the USN has a Bunker Hill, the Germans even have a FGS Lutjens!

            • John Erickson

              James, we would have a USS Hiroshima or a USS Hamburg if the average American could find either on a map! We’re America – it’s our God given right to piss off as many people as possible! (I think it’s around #6 or #7 in our Bill of Rights.) ;)

  4. John Erickson

    Your grandad’s demise was probably assisted by his job. Trust me, having spent a lifetime around internal combustion of one sort or another, ships’ fire rooms were not the healthiest places to be.
    And I have to declare my admiration for your great grandad. I had the … um … “honour” to be in the cab of a steam locomotive and play stoker. I could guarantee and end to crime if each teenager in the world had to stand an hour shift shoveling coal, and being told that awaited his first infraction. I have hand-mixed concrete, and that’s EASY compared to stoking. Busting your back in a 100+ degree (Fahrenheit, sorry) cab, sucking on coal fumes, staring into the blinding flames – I can imagine the delight of a sailor moving from a coal-fueled to an oil-fueled ship!
    And just one side note. Despite the popular portrayal of every German warrior as a filthy Nazi, there were many decent Germans in all services. Many U-boat commanders disliked abandoning civilians, and a number endangered themselves calling in rescue on radio. There were even a couple occurrences of a U-boat calling over open airwaves for rescue ships! Unfortunately, just as in WW1, the decent men were brutalised by the nature of warfare, and fell afoul of orders, becoming the very negative stereotype they had worked so hard to avoid.
    Thanks, James, for the wealth of info on this topic!

  5. James Daly

    John I spent a few months building tennis courts when I was 16. The tarmaccing was an awful job – 30 tons and all by hand. Hot, dirty, nasty fumes. I wouldn’t like to do that full time permanently! The smell still brings it back now.

    I’ve got a copy of the wartime Navy’s stoker’s handbook, and its pretty grim reading. Rather than shovelling coal, their job was keeping watch on the oil fuelled boilers. The worst job must have been having to climb inside to clean out all the slag… not nice at all. And of course, as a stoker down in the depths of the ship, you stand little chance of escaping of the ship comes to grief. Even less so if the boilers go up.

    • John Erickson

      At least one of the first US Medals of Honor went to engine room personnel. The USS Utah (converted, like Iron Duke, to a “training ship”, but still a battlewagon at heart) lost a water tender, one of the guys who maintained and balanced boiler water levels. He kept steam going to power pumps and fire-fighting gear while the ship went down. I think a large number of Oklahoma’s casualties were engineers as well.
      Oh, handling “blacktop” as we call it over here. Fun stuff. If any of you want a comparison, pour a gallon of diesel into a drum, heat it to about 200 degrees (F – God, we’re backwards!), then stick your head in. Sticks to your tools, not to mention you! Only did that once, threatened to pave my father over if he ever decided to do that again. (Only time he agreed with me on a “home-repair” issue, and we never used the stuff again – interesting!) Can’t even imagine cleaning out a firebox for a pure-oil ship – what could the “coal with oil sprayers” have been like? (Shudder!) Don’t tell me, please! :)
      Don’t suppose that stoker’s handbook is small enough to photocopy and post online? Or mail to a friend in America with a promise to repay your costs? (Hint, hint!) ;)

  6. x

    I prefer stoking to engine room work.

    What always me amazes me (even though I understand the process) is how small the oil sprayers are even in large boilers.

    That weekend I spent in Shieldhall was in spring and it was hot. We made two runs down Southampton Water. I was imagining what it must have been like in the mail steamer in the Red Sea at the height of summer before oil.

    And having stood watches as a stoker I now find Warrior’s boiler room terrifying.

    • James Daly

      I showed Sarah round Warrior a few months ago… what struck me (and bear in mind I live in Pompey so I’ve been on Warrior, ooh, it must be double figures now) was the amount of man hours and pure muscle that must have gone into shovelling on that brute.

      When my great-uncle was on the Enterprise they spent a few months in the Med and then later a long stretch in the Indian Ocean… must have been sweltering down there.

      • John Erickson

        It’s a rather technical comparison, but to give you an idea of temperature differences, the Dutch always knocked between 1-3 knots off the speed of their interwar and WW2 ships when they served in the Dutch East Indies. The air was so much thinner due to heat, it burned the oil less efficiently and so made less power. Based on the paper ship designs I’ve done (using a neat tool called SpringSharp), 2 knots will cost you between .5 and 1 inch of belt armour on a small cruiser! That’s a HUGE difference!

      • x

        Love Warrior. If I was to win the Lottery (well I would have to do the lottery first) my living room would look like Warrior’s gun deck.

  7. x

    that’s our cadets not out cadets.

  8. Maureen

    I must tell you that I have enjoyed with interest all of your posts. Tonights drama was done with sensitivity. But there appears to be two ships with the same name. The first was also sunk by u-boat in 1917.

    Ship names must be re-used.

    As a historian it really is good when a playright writes a script for tv and uses true narratives to base the filming on.

    I gather the action of the u-boat commander concerned with the sinking of the Laconia in 1942 set a German precedent to not rescue civilians.

    It’s unbelievable that the total of lives lost due to American bombing resulted in thousands, when the countries that did rush to the scene were going to the aid of the Laconia survivors.

    I’m also curious why these stories are coming to light now, as it is bound to encourage anti American feelings towards bases in England.

    • John Erickson

      I will let out noble host James answer to the naval issues such as the order given by Admiral Doenitz not to rescue survivors. I’ll address the US air support, having studied that area quite a bit (and being a Yank myself).
      You have to remember that the US were latecomers to the war. Although we had done some co-operative surface and air patrolling with the Royal Navy and Air Force, America’s official policy of neutrality (until 7 Dec. 1941, obviously) had delayed efforts towards co-operation between the British and US forces. Also, air support was nowhere as “surgical” as it is today. Friendly fire casualties were frequent – we bombed and killed our own one-star General during the breakout from the Normandy beachheads. Finally, our forces, especially the Army Air Corps (as the Air Force was known back then), had been “straining at the leash” to strike at the Axis, especially the forces patrolling against U-boats, as a significant number of US ships were sunk off our coast, in full view of the shore, backlit by the coastal cities (it took us a while to get blackouts organised). As to why these stories are appearing now, many documents were “sealed” and withheld from the public until a set time period, somewhere between 50 and 100 years in the future, to not expose what secret information the Allies had. Once these documents are unsealed, they are not necessarily immediately published – many have to be requested under the US Freedom of Information Act, or whatever equivalent act the British government uses. Once in private hands, they have to be organised, fact checked (you’d be surprised how many errors slipped past original publishing), and finally put into a digestible format for the public. Add in delays to build sets and film something like this show, and decades can go past. And there will always be a bit of foot-dragging on topics like these, where there was friendly fire deaths or other actions that could damage Anglo-American relations.
      I hope I didn’t just bore you to death, Maureen! If you need any more information, I’ll be happy to answer any questions. And as James well knows, if you as him something he doesn’t know, or I don’t know, we have several experts out there who will bail James or myself out of trouble. (X and WEBF, I’m looking at you, gents! :) ). So I’ll turn this over to James, but I’ll be in the wings if you need anything else. Enjoy!

  9. Maureen

    Thank you John for the information. Its very interesting that you have indicated that information was regarded as restricted or secret and had to be requested according to the US freedom of information Act.

    For my night time reading I am going to browse the Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower to see what light that throws upon the matters concerning the sinking of the Laconia. As you say publication of some information was not made until some 50 years and maybe even a 100 years later so that could be as late as 2042. Which is a shame as we are trying to peice together a jigsaw with only so many peices.

    Even the publication I own, hit the press in 1970 some 25 years later.

    Official hostilities did not really finish with Germany until 1951, even though the War with Germany ended several years earlier.

  10. Maureen

    Apologies forgot to click on Notify me of follow-up comments via email. So hope this will keep me in the loop.

  11. John Erickson

    Maureen- I’ll give you a quick insight on the issue of U-boats and rescuing survivors, then I’ll let James have his say. Back in WW1, per international treaty, subs were supposed to stop civilian ships, allow the passengers to evacuate, then (and only then) could the sub sink the ship (legally per treaty – the kind of laws that usually went out the window when the shooting started). That bit of civility gradually vanished during WW1, since the sub’s best defense was attacking while unseen (submerged). Many of the early WW2 U-boat captains tried to follow the “stop and announce” concept, and the Kriegsmarine did not issue any orders specifically against this until 1942, when several sinkings, including the Laconia’s, put the U-boats in peril during rescue due to increased Allied (especially American) air cover. Admiral Doenitz finally issued an order that no survivors were to be rescued, so as to keep the U-boats off the surface, and thus (supposedly) safe from attack.
    Oh, and I’m not sure if you were asking about ship names being re-used. Yes, they were. For instance, there was an HMS Swan in WW2. This was the 24th ship to bear that name since its’ first use in 1420. Reusing names was less common in civilian use, but did happen.
    I hope this gives you some useful information, Mareen. Enjoy your reading!

    • James Daly

      Maureen theres been something about the Laconia that has been strangely hidden by history, and I’ve never quite worked out why. When I first found out my great-uncle was on the Laconia I had to hunt high and low for any information about it. Even though there had been a few books published about the affair, it was very little known to the public at large, and even amongst historians. I dont think there was any kind of cover-up or anything, just that it was never given the prominence this incredible story deserved.

      As for the issue of the USAAF attacking the U-Boat, I’m not personally familiar with that side of the story enough to comment with any conviction. But what I do know is that on the one hand unfortunate things do happen in the fog of war, but also on the other hand some people do end up making terrible mistakes.

      John is pretty spot-on about the Laconia Order from Donitz. Aside from international low, it had been the ancient unwritten law of the sea that ‘those in peril’ were to be assisted as much as possible, as after all all sailors were united against the common enemy of the oceans.

    • John Erickson

      James- I know it’s important to you, but there are often stories, incredible, amazing stories, that are unknown among the general populace and even among historians. My pet is the Aleutian campaign that the US fought, with Canada’s help, to expel the Japanese from the islands of Attu and Kiska. I have studied the campaign extensively, but even among my friends in the re-enacting community (who are absolute fiends for all things of military history), few have even heard of those battles, except maybe as a footnote to a history of the Battle Of Midway. With all that happened in 1942, and all the tragedy and loss of life in the Battle of the Atlantic, it is quite possible that your interest in the Laconia, like mine in the Aleutians, has just been buried in history by supposedly more “important” stories. A sad statement, but all too true. That’s why we’re here – to make sure the world doesn’t forget!

  12. Karl Longspring

    Laconia was not an incident !!! the italians have been killed by british and poland soldiers! Bear in mind that The history of II WW has been written by the winners….. but the truth is all another matter.

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  14. Godpower

    it was in incident like the titanic and the icebureg

  15. mature wideboy

    I have written 3 articles about the Laconia , my dad was an Italian POW on the Laconia. His experiences were so bad that he never talked about it.I had to get the story from my mum. I spent about a month researching it , then I wrote the story from an Italian point of view. They were shot with British rifles , shot with officers pistols , bayonetted by Poles when trying to get to the lifeboat stations.Had hands cut off, hit on the head with the blunt side of the axe, when trying to get into lifeboats.Left to drownd in still locked holds.Hit with oars when trying to board lifeboats.Eaten by sharks in the sea. Drownd in the sea because there were not enough life boats, or lifejackets. Blown up by a B24 Liberator when being towed nu a Uboat. Hence 1,943 of them were reduced to 450.

  16. mature wideboy

    So the moral of the story wasin 1942 , if u were an Italian u didn’t have many friends, only the Germans , everybody else including sharks were trying to kill u.The Fog of War is a good term.

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