Thomas Kretschmann. Documentary telling the true story of the sinking of the liner Laconia by a German U-boat in 1942 through the eyes of six survivors.
Alan Bleasdale drama sets the record straight on heroic U-boat captain. One of the unsung heroes of the allied effort in the second world war was a German U-boat commander. This is the unlikely truth to be revealed in a two-part television drama by Alan Bleasdale – his first for a decade. The Sinking of the Laconia. which begins on BBC2 on Thursday, tells of the extraordinary events that took place in the South Atlantic in September 1942. The story has been put together by Bleasdale after five years of research and in the face of opposition from those whose reputations are damaged by his account. The drama is an account of the bravery of Commander Werner Hartenstein, the German submariner who put his own life and the lives of his U-boat crew at risk to save hundreds of passengers on board the RMS Laconia, a requisitioned cruise liner armed and bound for Britain, which had been torpedoed on Hartenstein's orders 600 miles off the coast of west Africa.
"No U-boat captain who would sit on the surface all that time and risk his own life is a bad man," said Commander Geoffrey Greet, an English survivor of the Laconia, recalling the events of 1942 this weekend. "I didn't think much of him at first – after all, he had killed 2,000 of my fellow passengers. But by the end, I admired him. ".
Greet, 91, believes that Bleasdale's drama, filmed on location in the South Atlantic, will set the record straight about one of the most controversial maritime incidents of the war. After firing two torpedoes at the unsuspecting Laconia on the evening of 12 September, Hartenstein realised that many of the 3,000 people on board were civilians, women, children or Italian prisoners of war. In a series of urgent telegrams to Nazi high command, the U-boat commander announced his intention to rescue as many as he could. British naval forces distrusted Hartenstein's pleas for help and later, in a terrible miscalculation, US bombers attempted to sink his submarine, the U-156, even though it was laden with survivors and draped with a red cross. "From time to time I go back over it all in my mind and I think for Hartenstein it was a little bit of 'the brotherhood of the sea'. He was trying to help the women and children and the Italian prisoners," said Greet.
- The Laconia incident refers to the controversial events surrounding the sinking and subsequent aborted rescue attempt of a British troopship in the Atlantic.
- After sinking the Laconia, a U-Boat attempts to save the civilian crew.
- The Laconia incident is one of the great forgotten stories of the Second World War. In the autumn of 1942 the RMS Laconia left Cape Town.
"I can remember his face so clearly. I would describe him as slightly hatchet-faced and very serious all the time. He desperately tried to convince us he was doing something that was for our own good.
Thomas Kretschmann. Documentary telling the true story of the sinking of the liner Laconia by a German U-boat in 1942 through the eyes of six survivors. On this day in History, The Laconia is sunk on Sep 12, 1942. The sub attacked, sinking the troop ship and imperiling the lives of more than 2,200 passengers.
". Hartenstein is played by German actor Ken Duken in Bleasdale's film, while Andrew Buchan, the star of Garrow's Law. plays a British officer, Thomas Mortimer, based on the Laconia survivor Thomas Buckingham. "So many of the nationalities involved in this incident didn't want the story to be told," said Buchan, who met survivors after making the film. "I believe the Americans in particular didn't want the facts to come out. Whether or not the crew of the B-24 bomber did or did not see the red cross remains hazy.
". Greet, who was returning home to England on the Laconia after three years serving on a converted troop ship, clearly remembers the moment the first torpedo struck as he was waiting for his evening meal by his bunk on the fourth deck. "I knew very well what a torpedo sounded like and I knew we would sink because, if not, the U-boat would have fired some more. I had spent three years constantly waiting on being hit and I didn't panic. I showed the soldiers how to put on lifejackets and I was the last one out.
". By the time Greet made his way to the deck the ship was listing heavily to starboard. "It was pandemonium. I could see everyone trying to get boats out.
I was determined not to get too mixed up with all that lot, so I went to the guard rail on the other side. I was going to lower myself down on a rope and then drop in. Then I looked up and I could see a lifeboat sliding down above me. ". Greet and two companions lowered the lifeboat, laboriously pushing it away from the side of the ship as they went. "When we got to the sea it was hard to release the lifeboat from the ship and we had swimmers leaping into the boat from all directions.
We had five Italian prisoners, and Polish soldiers who had been guarding them. None were sailors except me. We were trying to row away because when a big ship like that goes down, it creates a lot of suction. ". Some of Greet's darkest memories are of the scene on the starboard side: "The sea was absolutely dark with dead bodies. We were looking for people who might be alive, but we had 64 in a boat designed for 32.
We fixed up a rope some could hang on to, but they were not there in the morning. That was the longest night of my life.
I remember seeing a young blonde girl with her hair floating around her on the sea and next to her was a woman with her hat on. Both were dead. It was macabre. ".
Many went down in the ship, too injured or shocked to escape. The U-boat surfaced and Hartenstein instructed the survivors in English, taking injured women and children below deck for treatment and serving soup and water to all in strict rotation.
"Hartenstein spoke very good English. He assured me there were boats coming from Dakar. It became obvious he was a much better man than we had thought," said Greet, who was eventually taken aboard a ship from Vichy France and then put in an internment camp in Morocco. "I am pleased this story can be told properly now," he said. Six months after the Laconia incident, Hartenstein's U-boat was sunk with the loss of all hands.
The Sinking of the Laconia, BBC2, 6 and 7 Jan at 9pm.