Tag Archives: Laconia

The Sinking of the Laconia: two old friends reunited

Back in early 2011, I covered a fantastic Docu-Drama entitled The Sinking of the Laconia, the story of a liner-cum-troopship sunk by a German U-Boat in the South Atlantic in 1942. Not only is it a remarkable story, but my great-uncle Leading Stoker Thomas Daly was onboard. He survived the sinking, but later died of Dysentery contracted in captivity in Vichy North Africa.

When I reviewed the TV series, the response was incredible. I had more hits in an hour than I normally have in a week. Even in the 18 months since, I’ve had hundreds of comments and emails regarding the Laconia, it really is a story that has captured the imagination of so many people. I can tell when it has been screened somewhere in the world, as hit ratings for the search term ‘Sinking of the Laconia’ go through the roof!

Yet even as incredible as the story of the Laconia is, it never ceases to amaze me that the incident is still able throw up surprises today. Two of the men who visited my blog in the days after the programme screened were John Royal and Tony Large. Both had been sailors onboard HMS Enterprise – by a huge coincidence, my great-uncle had been on the Enteprise too – and were coming home to Britain onboard the Laconia. They were in the Canteen on the Laconia when the ship was torpedoed. Separated in the chaos, they never saw each other again. They never even knew if the other had survived. Yet having both found my blog, they were reunited some 70 years later, with the assistance of Neil Pendleton who runs the Laconia page on Facebook. Even more remarkably, both had emigrated to Australia, and were living not a million miles from each other down under!

They recently met up, accompanied by many of their respective families. I share this photo with their blessing.

I can’t think of anything that I have done as a historian that has humbled me as much as being able to play a small part in reuniting these two fine gentleman, so long after they were separated by war. As I have often said about the effects of war, my grandad and great-uncle might have suffered terrible, but all of the other people affected by war were also somebody elses grandad or great-uncle, or father or son or brother. To be able to contribute to something  positive, through the history of war, is so inspiring.

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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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‘The Sinking of the Laconia’ to hit our screens soon

The Laconia

The Laconia

I’ve just been watching BBC1, and seen a trailer for their upcoming Dramas. Among them is the two-part story of The Sinking of the Laconia. It stars Brian Cox as Captain Rudolph Sharp.

The Laconia was a Cunard Liner, pressed into service as a troop ship in the Seond World War. She was torpedoed in 1942, in what became one of the most moving stories of the war.

I have a keen interest in this programme, as my great-uncle Leading Stoker Thomas Daly was onboard when she went down. He survived and was rescued by the Vichy French. He was interned in Morrocco, and contracted Dysentry. He was liberated, only to die after returning to England in 1943.

Leading Stoker Thomas Daly

Leading Stoker Thomas Daly

Here’s the blurb from the BBC website:

Andrew Buchan and rising German star Ken Duken are joined by Brian Cox and Lindsay Duncan in The Sinking Of The Laconia, a powerful new two-part drama for BBC Two from acclaimed writer Alan Bleasdale. The drama tells the true story of the amazing heroism shown by ordinary people in the face of extraordinary adversity during the Second World War. Brian Cox plays Captain Sharp, whose armed British vessel, the RMS Laconia, was torpedoed and sunk by German U-boat 156 on 12 September 1942. Also on board was 3rd officer Thomas Mortimer (Buchan), who heroically risked his life to help the passengers reach the lifeboats.
Six hundred miles from the coast of Africa, the mixture of English civilians, Allied soldiers and Italian Prisoners of War faced certain death until U-Boat Commander Werner Hartenstein (Duken) made a decision that went against the orders of Nazi High Command. The U-boat surfaced and Hartenstein instructed his men to save as many of the shipwrecked survivors as they could. Over the next few days the U-156 saved 400 people, with 200 people crammed on board the surface-level submarine and another 200 in lifeboats. Hartenstein gave orders for messages to be sent out to the Allies to organise a rescue of the survivors but, in an unbelievable twist, they were spotted by an American B-24 bomber who moved in to attack. The Sinking Of The Laconia takes a look at the human side of the remarkable events that took place: the friendships that developed, the small acts of heroism,and the triumph of the human spirit in the most incredible of situations. The cast also includes some of Germany’s biggest names, including Matthias Koeberlin, Frederick Lau and Thomas Kretschmann.

No idea of when it will be on yet, but you can be sure as soon as I know you will read it here!

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Sinking of the Laconia

Filming began last week on a new TV Docu-Dama series, based in the sinking of the Cunard Liner SS Laconia in the second world war.

SS Laconia

SS Laconia

On 12 September 1942, at 8:10pm, 130 miles north-northeast of Ascension Island, Laconia was hit by a torpedo on the starboard side, fired by U-boat U-156. There was an explosion in the hold and most of the 450 Italian prisoners the ship was carrying were killed instantly. The vessel immediately took a list to starboard. Captain Sharp, who had also commanded Lancastria when she was torpedoed, was beginning to control the situation when a second torpedo hit.

Captain Sharp ordered the ship abandoned and the women, children and injured taken into the lifeboats first. Some of the 32 lifeboats had been destroyed by the explosions and some surviving Italian prisoners tried to rush those that remained. The efforts of the Polish guards were instrumental in controlling the chaotic situation on board and saved many lives.

At 9:11pm Laconia sank with many Italian prisoners still on board. The prospects for those who escaped the ship were only slightly better; sharks were common in the area and the lifeboats were adrift in the mid-Atlantic with little hope of being rescued.

However, before Laconia went down, U-156 surfaced. The U-boat’s efforts to rescue survivors of its own attack began what came to be known as the Laconia incident. Realising who the passengers were, U-156 started rescue operations flying the Red Cross flag. The Laconia incident had far-reaching consequences. Until then, it was common for U-boats to assist torpedoed survivors with food, water, simple medical care for the wounded, and a compass bearing to the nearest landmass; it was extremely rare for survivors to be brought on board as space on a U-boat was barely enough for its own crew. Now Dönitz prohibited rescues; survivors were to be left in the sea. Even afterwards, U-boats would still occasionally provide aid for survivors. At the Nuremberg Trials held in 1946, Dönitz was indicted for war crimes, including the issuance of the “Laconia order”:

Although hardly known, more people perished when the Laconia was sunk than died on the Titanic. For such a far-reaching and destructive incident, it plays almost no part in the history of the second world war, or in peoples awareness.

Of course, I await the Sinking of the Laconia reaching the screen with interest, as my great-uncle Leading Stoker Thomas Daly was onboard the Laconia when she went down. He was transferring home after being promoted to Leading Stoker onboard HMS Enterprise. He died later in 1943 from illness he suffered while in French captivity in Morrocco, after being picked up by Vichy French Warships.

Leading Stoker Thomas Daly

Leading Stoker Thomas Daly

Brian Cox (Sharpe, Troy) will star as the Laconias Captain, Rudolph Sharp.

Click here for more on The Sinking of the Laconia

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