Leamington soldiers
Laconia sinking

19/07 Updated: 04/01 08:27

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The Laconia. (s)

MOLESWORTH, John Henry, P/JX191371;

Leading Signalman (SS Laconia) 12th September 1942, Aged: 20.

Lost at sea on Saturday 12th October 1942


"An Inconvenient Truth"


British Cunard Line luxury liner (19,695 tons) converted to a transport ship.

Sunk by enemy action: 12th September 1942

Departed the Suez on 30th July bound for the UK;

Arr: Aden, 3rd August.

Dep: Aden 4th August.

Arr: Mombassa 10th August.

Dep: Mombassa 14th August.

Arr: Durban 20 August.

Dep: Durban 29th August.

Arr: Cape Town 1st September: picked up 268 British Military and Civilian personal including 80 women and children, 1,800 Italian prisoners of war along with their 160 Polish Guards, in all 2,700(approx) were on board.

The Prisoners, Guards and Civilian personnel were moved from North Africa to South Africa during 1941 as the threat to Cairo was its most critical.

Dep: Cape Town 4th September.

At 22.07 hrs on the 12th September 1942 the Laconia was at position 05.05S, 11.38W in the South Atlantic when she was hit by one torpedo fired by German U-Boat 156 commanded by Captain Werner Hartenstein.

"There was pandemonium as families, POW's and crew members rushed to get up the stairs"(SS).

The first torpedo struck the hull instantly killing 500 POW's who were in the prison holds and leaving the Laconia listing badly.

Then the second torpedo struck "All the lights went out"(SS).


A Radio message was sent from the Laconia (it is still unclear if John Molesworth was on duty in the Radio Room at the time);

"SSS SSS0434 South /1125 West Laconia torpedoed".

(600 Metres Frequency)

With most of those on board now either in Life Boats or struggling in the Sea at 23.23 hrs; The Laconia sank.

At 01.25 hrs, 13th September: U-156 Radioed to BdU;

"Sunk by Hartenstein British Laconia, Grid: FF 7721 310 degrees Unfortunately with 1,500 Italian POW's Till now 90 fished, 157 cubic meters (oil) 19 eels, trade wind 3, ask for orders".

U-156 began rescue operations radioing for assistance with the rescue from nearby submarines as well as any vessels in the area promising to cease hostilities;

06.00 hrs;

"If any ship will assist the ship wrecked Laconia-crew, i will not attack providing i am not attacked by ship or air force, i picked up 193 men: position: 4, 53 South, 11, 26 West-German submarine".

During the following days U-156 saved 400 survivors, 200 on board and another 200 in Life Boats which were tied to the submarine.

At 11.30 hrs on the 15th: U-506 commanded by Captain Erich Wurdemann arrived on the scene and began to pick up further survivors, followed by U-507 commanded by Harro Schacht along with the Italian submarine Cappellini.

With the Life Boats in tow and other survivors in or on the submarines, they headed for shore.

At 11.25 hrs on the 16th: an American B-24 Liberator Bomber of USAF 343 Squadron operating out of the Ascension Island flew over, seeing this a 6ft square Red Cross flag was draped over the deck of U-156.

An (unidentified) RAF Officer on board U-156 sent a radio message to the aircraft explaining the situation.

(At this point an operation between the Vichy French and British in Freetown South Africa was being planned to meet the German submarines to pick up the survivors from them, and that the Liberator was asked to provide air cover during this operation).

After about 10 minutes the Liberator flew off only for another (it is unclear weather the second aircraft was a different aircraft or the first returning) to return 30 minutes later and attacked the submarines (the attack order coming from a Captain Richardson of the 1st US Composite Group).

On the first attack run two bombs were dropped both missing U-156, causing the crew to cut loose the Life Boats.

The second attack run one bomb hit and destroyed one Life Boat and overturned a second Life Boat, the second bomb missed.

On the third and last attack run U-156 was damaged before the Liberator flew away.

U-156 unloaded 110 POW and other survivors onto the now loose Life Boats before making repairs and sailing off in a Westerly direction, never to return.

The survivors (1,083 approx) were eventually picked up by 3 Vichy ships; Gloire, Annamite and the Dumont D'urville (confirming that an operation had been organized and was being implemented when the USAF Liberator attacked)

The British survivors were taken first to Dakar Senegal, then on to a Prison Camp in Casablanca.

After their liberation they were taken to Gibraltar for a medical check up before finally continuing on to Liverpool.

It is still unclear (so far) at what point during this tragedy John Henry Molesworth lost his life.

A total of 1,649 lives were lost including the Laconia's Captain: Rudolf Sharpe.

One of the results of the sinking of the Laconia was that the German Admiralty issued the "Laconia Order" this order signed by Grand Admiral Doenitz to all U-Boat commanders forbid them from picking up survivors.

After the war during the Nuremburg Trails he was acquitted of charges of war crimes for signing the order.

There are still many questions that need answering relating to the sinking of the Laconia, the first and most important in my opinion is why was she sailing alone in the middle of the Atlantic in 1942, no escort , not part of a convey?

She departed the Suez on the 30th July 1942, from where did she come, was she in convey when she arrived, and for what purpose did she come to the Suez, was it just to pick up the passengers she took on board before departing?

Why did the USAF ignore not only the Red Cross flag on the deck of U-156 but also the RAF Officers explanation to the pilot of the first Liberator Bomber of the circumstances of the situation and still attacked?

Why weren't the details of the operation organized between the Vichy French and the British in Freetown, SA to pick up the survivors replayed to the USAF, or where they?

Unfortunately with tragedies and stories such as the sinking of the Laconia as with the Titanic story you will always get the so called "Dramatists" clouding the waters, making ridiculous claims of "Massacres" on board, but always missing out the inconvenient truth!

In Memory of John, the Children of the Stanbridge and De Luc Families for their loss, and all of those lost on the Laconia.

The Portsmouth Memorial where John is commemorated. (s)

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