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The Sinking of the Laconia is a two-part television film, first aired on 6 and 7 January 2011 on BBC Two, about the Laconia incident; the sinking of the British ocean liner RMS Laconia during World War II by a German U-boat, which then, together with three other U-boats and an Italian submarine, rescued the passengers but was in turn attacked by an American bomber.

The Sinking of the Laconia
Sinking of the Laconia.jpg
UK DVD cover
Written byAlan Bleasdale
Directed byUwe Janson
StarringAndrew Buchan
Brian Cox
Ken Duken
Lindsay Duncan
Matthias Koeberlin
Thomas Kretschmann
Frederick Lau
Morven Christie
Franka Potente
Ludovico Fremont
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Original language(s)English & German
No. of episodes2x90 minutes
Running time180 minutes
Original networkBBC2
Das Erste
SWR Fernsehen
Original release6 January (2011-01-06), BBC2, 21:00 [Part 1] –
7 January 2011, BBC2, 21:00 [Part 2]
External links

The film is a British-German co-production, written by Alan Bleasdale, directed by Uwe Janson, and with Andrew Buchan, Brian Cox, Ken Duken, Morven Christie, Lindsay Duncan, Thomas Kretschmann and Franka Potente in the leading roles.



Badge of the 1921 Cunard liner Laconia

In September 1942, six hundred miles from the west coast of Africa, the German U-boat U-156 sinks the British troopship Laconia, which is en route from Cape Town to the United Kingdom.[a]

On realising that there are Italian POWs and civilians amongst the shipwrecked, who face certain death without rescue, U-boat Commander Werner Hartenstein (Duken) makes a decision that goes against the orders of German high command. The U-boat surfaces and Hartenstein instructs his men to save as many survivors as they can.[b] Hartenstein also attempts to dive with all survivors on board and, although this puts the submarine into a crash dive, control is regained and it resurfaces. He also has a Red Cross flag displayed and a message sent to the Allies to organise rescue of the survivors. The Italian prisoners are taken off U-156 by another U-boat and an Italian submarine.[c]

The British requested the Americans to look for Laconia survivors, but did not inform them of the submarine's rescue effort. Soon after the American bomber attack, U-156 resumes her hunting duties, leaving behind the lifeboats with the British survivors to be picked up by a Vichy naval surface ship sent by Admiral Dönitz. While admiring Hartenstein's actions, Dönitz also reluctantly composes the Laconia Order to other U-boat commanders not to rescue survivors in future. The French ship arrives; one lifeboat leaves the others to make for the coast of west Africa, which it eventually reaches. One British merchant officer is injured in the American attack and remains with U-156 until it reaches port, where he is taken prisoner. Dönitz awards Hartenstein the Ritterkreuz and reposts him to a desk job at naval command. Preferring to remain with his men, Hartenstein refuses it and a final on screen message reports U-156's later sinking with no survivors.


The production is a cooperation of the British BBC with the German ARD Degeto and SWR Fernsehen, executed by TalkbackThames and Teamworx.[2][3] The idea to bring the story of the Laconia to screen was conceived in 2004 by Talkback Thames head of drama Johnathan Young.[4]

Full castEdit

RMS LaconiaEdit

  • Andrew Buchan - Junior Third Officer Thomas Mortimer, RMS Laconia
  • Franka Potente - Hilda Smith, passenger, RMS Laconia
  • Lindsay Duncan - Elisabeth Fullwood, passenger, RMS Laconia
  • Brian Cox - Captain Rudolph Sharp, RMS Laconia
  • David Butler - First Officer George Steel, RMS Laconia
  • Morven Christie - Laura Ferguson, passenger, RMS Laconia
  • Jodi Balfour - Sarah Fullwood, passenger, RMS Laconia
  • Nicholas Burns - Captain Benjamin Coutts, British Army
  • Ciarán McMenamin - Declan McDermott, wine steward, RMS Laconia
  • Lenny Wood - Billy Hardacre, trimmer, RMS Laconia
  • Ben Crompton - Harry Townes, acting leading seaman, RMS Laconia
  • Matthew Aubrey - Corporal William Williams, cook, British Army
  • Ludovico Fremont - Vincenzo Di Giovanni, Italian POW
  • Paul Hilton - Henry Bates, passenger, RMS Laconia
  • Louise Barnes - Mary Bates, passenger, RMS Laconia
  • Josef du Plessis - Anthony Bates, passenger, RMS Laconia
  • Rebekah Nathan - Charlotte Bates, passenger, RMS Laconia
  • Richard Firth - Quartermaster John Royle, RMS Laconia
  • Tom Fairfoot - William Donan, wireless operator, RMS Laconia
  • Lawrence Joffe - Sergeant Ludwik Rudziński, jailor, Free Polish Army


Sierra LeoneEdit

U-boat commandEdit

Ascension IslandEdit

  • Jannes Eiselen - Captain Robert C. Richardson III, senior operations officer, USAAF
  • Grant Swanby - Colonel Robert E. Ronin, air base commander, USAAF
  • Darron Meyer - Lieutenant James D. Harrower, pilot, USAAF Liberator
  • Nicholas Pauling - First Sergeant Jerome Perlman, navigator, USAAF Liberator
  • Charlie Keegan - Private Ches Chambers, gunner, USAAF Liberator
  • Justin Shaw - Technician Fourth Grade Buck Bannister, gunner, USAAF Liberator
  • Marius Botha - Private First Class Edgar Coleman, bombardier, USAAF Liberator


Follow-up programmeEdit

On 9 January 2011, BBC Two broadcast a half-hour documentary, The Sinking of the Laconia: Survivors' Stories, featuring testimonies from the actual survivors of the Laconia. Beginning 14 April 2012, Ovation television aired The Sinking of the Laconia in the United States.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Laconia carries 1,800 Italian POWs, 80 British women and children, 103 Free Poles and 268 British soldiers guarding the prisoners, and a 136-man crew; in total 2,700 people.[1]
  2. ^ U-156 crams 200 people on board the surfaced submarine, takes another 200 in tow in four lifeboats, and tries to give relief to the remaining shipwrecked who surround the U-boat in lifeboats and small rafts.[1]
  3. ^ The submarine is correctly called Comandante Cappellini, which actually participated in the rescue operations


External linksEdit