Book Review: The Sinking of the Laconia and the U-Boat War: Disaster in the Mid-Atlantic

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by James P. Duffy

Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013. Pp. x, 130. . Illus., biblio., index. $18.95 paper. ISBN: 0803245408

A Pivotal Event in the Battle of the Atlantic

Carrying some 2,500 souls, mostly Italian prisoners-of-war bound for internment in India, the British liner Laconia was torpedoed in the South Atlantic on September 12, 1942, an incident that marked a significant turning point in the Battle of the Atlantic.  Hitherto, U-boats had often tried to make some provision for survivors of ships they had sunk.  But when U-156 attempted a rescue of the hundreds of survivors from the Laconia, even radioing U-boats and ships for help, Allied aircraft intervened to attack her.  U-156  abandoned the rescue, and although nearby ships came to the rescue, there was great loss of life; perhaps 1,600 people perished, among the highest loss of life of any ship torpedoed in the Atlantic during the Second World War. 

The incident prompted the German Navy to issue orders that there were to be no further attempts at rescuing survivors.  Duffy, who has written on a variety of subjects, including several works on World War II, such as Hitler’s Secret Pirate Fleet and Target America, examines this incident within the context of the overall Battle of the Atlantic, drawing upon many memoirs, diaries, and interviews, as well as original documents and published works. 

In the process of telling the grim story of the Laconia, Duffy also gives us an overview of the 1914-1918 submarine campaign in the Atlantic and of the opening rounds of the 1939-1945 war.  He notes that that outright atrocities were rare, filmdom notwithstanding, though there was always loss of life. 

An excellent look at the history of the U-boat war, The Sinking of the Laconia will prove reward reading for anyone interested in the Second World War or submarine operations.

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Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   


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