HMS Laconia (RMS-1922, AMC-1939)


Back to Commonwealth Ships List

Copied from Wikipaedia:

On 4 September 1939, Laconia was requisitioned by the Admiralty and converted into an armed merchant cruiser. By January 1940 she had been fitted with eight six-inch guns and two three-inch high-angle guns. After trials off the Isle of Wight, she embarked gold bullion and sailed for Portland, Maine and Halifax, Nova Scotia on 23 January. She spent the next few months escorting convoys to Bermuda and to points in the mid-Atlantic, where they would join up with other convoys.

On 9 June, she ran aground in the Bedford Basin at Halifax, suffering considerable damage, and repairs were not completed till the end of July. In October her passenger accommodation was dismantled and some areas filled with oil drums to provide extra buoyancy so that she would stay afloat longer if torpedoed.

During the period June–August 1941 Laconia returned to St John, New Brunswick and was refitted, then returned to Liverpool to be used as a troop transport for the rest of the war. On 12 September 1941, she arrived at Bidston Dock, Birkenhead and was taken over by Cammell Laird and Company to be converted. By early 1942 the work was complete, and for the next six months she made trooping voyages to the Middle East. On one such voyage the ship was used to carry prisoners of war, mainly Italian. She travelled to Cape Town and then set a course for Freetown, following a zigzag course and undertaking evasive steering during the night.

On 12 September 1942, at 8:10 pm, 130 miles (210 km) north-northeast of Ascension Island, Laconia was hit on the starboard side by a torpedo fired by U-boat U-156. There was an explosion in the hold and many of the Italian prisoners aboard were killed instantly. The vessel immediately took a list to starboard and settled heavily by the stern. Captain Rudolph Sharp, who had also commanded another Cunard liner, RMS Lancastria when she was sunk by enemy action, was gaining control over the situation when a second torpedo hit Number Two hold. At the time of the attack, the Laconia was carrying 268 British soldiers, 160 Polish soldiers (who were on guard), 80 civilians, and 1,800 Italian prisoners of war.

Captain Sharp ordered the ship abandoned and the women, children and injured taken into the lifeboats first. By this time, the ship's stern deck was awash. Some of the 32 lifeboats had been destroyed by the explosions and some surviving Italian prisoners tried to rush the lowering of the ones that remained. The efforts of the Polish guards were instrumental in controlling the chaotic situation on board and saved many lives. According to Italian survivors, many of the POWs were left locked in the holds, and those who escaped and tried to board lifeboats and liferafts were shot or bayoneted by British and Polish soldiers.
While most British and Polish troops and crew survived, only 415 Italians were rescued, out of 1,809 who had been onboard.

Laconia in happier times.

At 9:11 pm Laconia sank, stern first, her bow rising to be vertical, with Sharp himself and many of the 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 rescue.

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.

When Kapitänleutnant Werner Hartenstein, commanding officer of U-156, realized civilians and prisoners of war were on board, he surfaced to rescue survivors,
and asked BdU (the U-Boat Command in Germany) for help. Several U-Boats were dispatched; all flew Red Cross flags, and signalled by radio that a rescue operation was underway.

The next morning, a U.S. B-24 Liberator plane sighted the rescue efforts.
Hartenstein signaled the pilot for assistance, who then notified the American base on Ascension Island of the situation. The senior officer on duty there, Robert C. Richardson III, unaware  of the Germans' radio message, ordered that the U-boats be attacked. Despite the Red Cross flags, the survivors crowded on the submarines' decks and the towed lifeboats, the B-24 then started making attack runs on U-156. The Germans ordered their submarines to dive, abandoning many survivors. After the incident, Admiral Karl Dönitz issued the Laconia Order, henceforth ordering his commanders not to rescue survivors after attacks. Vichy French ships rescued 1,083 persons from the lifeboats and took aboard those picked up by the four submarines, and in all around 1,500 survived the sinking. Other sources state that only 1,083 survived and an estimated 1,658 persons died (98 crew members, 133 passengers, 33 Polish guards and 1,394 Italian prisoners).

Amongst the French ships involved in the rescue were Annamite, Dumont-d'Urville and Gloire.

Many more AMC's than just Laconia were used by the Royal Navy during World War Two, but the Laconia Incident made the ship one of the most famous.

Displacement 20,000 tons standard, 24,200 tons full load
Length 601 ft
Breadth 74 ft
Draught 32 ft
Machinery 2shaft , steam turbines, 20,000shp
Speed 16 knots
Range 6000 miles at 14 knots, 3,500 @ 20 knots
Armour 1" gun shields
Armament 8 x 6" (8x1)
3 x 4.7" (3x1)
6 x 20mm (6x1)
Complement 520 as AMC
Australian troops man one of the 6" guns mounted on Laconia.


Name Comment
Andania Lost, 16 June 1940, sunk by UA.
Arawa Decommissioned 25 July 1941, converted to troopship, survived the War.
Carinthia Lost, 6 June 1940, sunk by U-46 west of Ireland.
Carnarvon Castle  
Casanare Sunk 3 November 1940 along with HMS Patroclus and HMS Laurentic by U-99.
Comorin Lost on 6 April 1941. Her burnt out wreck was sunk by HMS Broke.
Duchess of Richmond  
Duchess of York  
Dunnottar Castle  
Dunvegan Castle Lost on 27 August 1940, sunk by U-46 west of Ireland.
Empress of Asia Lost on 5 February 1942.
Empress of Australia  
Empress of Britain Lost on 28 October 1940.
Empress of Canada  
Empress of Japan  
Empress of Russia  
Empress of Scotland  
Esperance Bay  
Forfar sunk by U-99 on 2 December 1940.
Hector Was decommissioned when lost on 5 April 1942 during the Japanese Indian Ocean raid.
Jervis Bay Lost on 5 November 1940 in an engagement against the German cruiser Admiral Scheer. Her commander, Captain Fegen, was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
Kanimbla Transferred to the Royal Australian Navy as a Landing Ship Infantry in 1943
Laconia Sunk
Laurentic Lost on 3 November 1940, sunk by U-99 west of Ireland.
Moreton Bay  
Patroclus Lost on 4 November 1940, sunk by U-99 west of Ireland.
Pretoria Castle Converted into an escort carrier as HMS Pretoria Castle.
Queen of Bermuda  
Rajputana Lost on 13 April 1941, sunk by U-108 west of Ireland.
Ranpura Launched in 1924, commissioned as AMC in December 1939
Rawalpindi Lost on 23 June 1940, sunk by Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Her commander, Captain Edward Coverley Kennedy, was posthumously Mentioned in Dispatches.
Salopian Lost on 13 May 1941, sunk by U-98, North Atlantic.
Scotstoun Lost on 13 June 1940, sunk by U-25 north-west of Ireland.
Transylvania Lost on 10 August 1940, sunk by U-56 north-west of Malin Head.
Voltaire Lost on 4 April 1941, sunk by German auxiliary cruiser Thor.
Worcestershire Damaged by U-74 on 3 April 1941
Royal Australian Navy
Royal New Zealand Navy
Royal Canadian Navy

French auxiliary cruisers were armed with 138 mm, 152 mm or 150 mm guns, 75 mm and 37 mm AA guns and 13.2 mm or 8 mm AA HMG

Back to Commonwealth Ships List