Tag Archives: U-boat

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 – Links, previews and interviews

In readiness for the Docu-dramaThe Sinking of the Laconia, due to hit our screens later this week, here are a few interesting links I have found about the programme, the ship and the incident.

BBC webpage
Wikipedia entry
Internet Movie Database
Guardian interview with writer Alan Bleasdale
Suite101 page
BBC press pack with interviews and more
Interviews with the main characters
Werner Hartenstein (U-Boat Captain)
U-Boat.net page

Hopefully on Tuesday or Wednesday I will give you some insight into my personal connection with the Laconia, by sharing my Great-Uncle Tommy’s story.

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Business in Great Waters: The U-Boat Wars 1916-1945 by John Terraine

John Terraine has long been one of Britain’s heavyweight Military Historians. With extensive writings on the First World War under his belt, and an authoritive volume on the RAF in the Second World, in this book he turns his attention to one of the new aspects of twentieth century naval warfare: the submarine, or in German parlance, the U-Boat.

The conventional wisdom of the Battle of the Atlantic perceives the Germans as starting the war with a huge fleet of advanced submarines, crewed by salty sea dogs, and the big-gun Royal Navy being crewed by amateurs who struggled to counter this new sinister threat, but eventually prevailed.

That the Battle of the Atlantic threatened to strangle Britain – during the Second World War in particular – few would dispute. What does come as a surprise is how threadbare the German U-boat arm was. Often Donitz was down to a handful of vessels, and had to contend with Hitlers constant meddling, based on nothing other than misguided intuition. IF Donitz had been able to deploy more U-Boats, and allowed to focus on the Schwerpunkt of cutting Britain’s lifeline, the second world war may have ran very differently.

Although Britain led in developing anti-submarine technology and weapons: sonar, the hedgehog, as well as the codebreaking work going on at Bletchley Park. The real problem, according to Terraine, seems to have been the attitudes high-up in the Royal Navy, where senior officers – fixated on Battleships – struggled to come to terms with the Submarine as a weapon. Odd, given that the Royal Navy had largely developed it.

This book sees Terraine at his best. Well researched, he pulls out trends, makes convincing conclusions and overturns some lingering myths. This is perhaps not a leisurely read, but it sure is an authoritative one. A lesson of how perilous the risks can be if senior officers struggle to come to terms with new forms of warfare.

Business in Great Waters: The U-Boat Wars 1916-1945 by John Terraine is published by Pen and Sword

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Portsmouth Heroes – Boy 1st Class Gordon Ogden

HMS Royal Oak

HMS Royal Oak

So far, the youngest person I have found who came from Portsmouth and died in the Second World War was Boy 1st Class Gordon Ogden, from Milton. He was aged 16 when the battleship HMS Royal Oak was torpedoed in Scapa Flow on 14 October 1939. The Royal Oak was a Revenge Class battleship, sunk at anchor by U-47, captained by Gunther Prien, who had avoided extensive anti-submarine defences in the area. 833 men died, out of a crew of 1,244. Many of these men came from Portsmouth, as the Royal Oak was manned from Portsmouth. Over 100 of the crew who died were Boy Seamen under the age of 18, the most ever killed in one incident.

The recruiting of Boys into the Royal Navy was nothing new – we have all heard of the Powder Monkeys. But up until the Second World War, when the Navy required a huge pool of manpower to crew the ships required to police the Empire, Boys were recruited to fill various tasks onboard ship. This also provided valuable training for young men who wanted to progress on to be Seamen.

Gordon Ogden would have enlisted with the rank of Boy 2nd Class, suggesting that he had served for some time before being promoted. As Naval service records are only available to next of kin at the time of writing, so we can only guess at how young Ogden would have been when he joined up – but it will almost certainly have been younger than 16. By the second world war the minimum age for joining the Royal Navy as a Boy rating was 15, and had to be approved for a Boys parents. The minimum terms of engagement for a Boy entering the Navy was at least 12 years. A boy had to have served at least 9 months as Boy 2nd Class, show proficiency in seamanship and gain at least one good conduct badge for promotion.

Once a Boy reached 18 he was automatically rated as an Ordinary Seaman and became subject to the Naval Discipline Act.

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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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