WWII’s Most Unusual Incident & An Incredible Survival Story Featured in Abandon Ship!

In a startling, nearly impossible to imagine scene, hundreds of desperate British soldiers, sailors, women and children are crammed into crowded, leaky lifeboats in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Incredibly, the Uboat that sank the ship started rescuing the survivors. Then an American B-24 bomber flying overhead opens its bomb-bay doors and drops deadly depth charges among them. 

The plane that symbolized hope of rescue and survival after days of exposure in the open boats  inexplicably turned against the shipwreck refugees, causing terrible deaths for many.

The details of this unforgettably tragic event that were suppressed by British and American governments. The American aircraft dropping bombs on and among survivors of the shipwreck is just one of many astonishing and searing scenes of the event, which is little known in the United States. 

It was September 1942, during the height of the war in the Atlantic that saw Germany’s deadly effective submarines terrorizing the seas, including sinking about one ship a day in America’s near-shore waters.  

When German torpedoes found the H.M.S. Laconia more than 500 miles from the African coast, the situation was dire for its nearly 900 British passengers. But the episode would be even worse for others on board, because in the bowels of the Laconia, locked in cages, were about 1,800 Italian prisoners of war. The torpedoes killed many of the Italians outright, and others were trampled by their brothers in the rush against the locked gates. 

The situation only worsened when the passengers found themselves in the ocean. Those lucky enough to find a spot in one of the lifeboats were unlikely to have space to sit as the boats were dangerously overcrowded at twice their capacity. Anyone injured trying to escape the ship was in peril of a shark or barracuda attack due to blood in the water.And many of the lifeboats capsized, spilling their human cargo into the dark sea.

(Survivor Tony Large Pictured on the Left)

As the desperate refugees watched through the darkness, the massive ship they’d fled reared up, its stern in the air with propellers still turning, then disappeared in a noisy, gut-wrenching underwater explosion. Their only hope for survival so far from land would come from the most unlikely source: the submarine that torpedoed the ship.

The story twists and turns: the crew aboard the German U-boat that sank the Laconia stopped long enough to learn the identity of the ship and were mortified to learn about the Italian prisoners of war aboard – allies of Germany. Rather than abandoning the teeming waves of desperate souls in overcrowded lifeboats and others trying to stay afloat by holding onto dead bodies, the U-boat captain ordered his crew to rescue survivors without concern for their nationality. Soon there were 190 people crowding the deck of the submarine and a string of over-full lifeboats being towed behind it.

Captain Werner Hartenstein, the 32-year-old commander of the U-boat, had made a gut-level decision to aid the Italians. Yet there were too many refugees to pull aboard the submarine, so he directed his crew to bring the overcrowded lifeboats alongside to repair, reprovision, and redistribute the number of people among them. 

The survivors from HMS Laconia were traumatized by the torpedoing and sinking of their ship, a former ocean liner-turned-troop transport, three days before the American plane flew over.  American airmen were similarly shocked that their training and dedication did little to stop the carnage wrought by U-boats. The two worlds collided that day, about 600 miles from the African coast, where the shipwreck victims suffering from exposure and dehydration thought the American plane signaled impending rescue. Instead, their German enemies were the ones who offered food, first aid, and the best chance of rescue.

The ordeal didn’t end with the American plane dropping bombs on the shipwreck refugees clinging to lifeboats. Some went on to endure weeks drifting toward Africa in lifeboats.  Abandon Ship follows their incredible survival story – a triumph of the human spirit to overcome all odds!

(Captain Werner Hartenstein Pictured on the Left)

Michael J Tougias

About the Author

Michael J. Tougias is the author and coauthor of twenty-three books, including Rescue of the Bounty (Scribner, 2014), A Storm too Soon (Scribner, 2013), Fatal Forecast (Scribner, 2007), and Ten Hours Until Dawn (St Martin’s Press, 2005). Tougias has written for the New York Times and several other prestigious magazines and newspapers.

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