On this date in 1942, the RMS Laconia was struck by a pair of German torpedoes off the coast of West Africa. Within hours, the ship — which had been carrying civilians, British sailors and Italian war prisoners — drifted to the bottom of the sea, carrying with hundreds of passengers who were either already or soon to be dead. Meantime, roughly two thousand survivors struggled aboard  the lifeboats that had not been splintered by the torpedo blasts; others swam helplessly or clung to floating debris, hoping not to be gnawed by the sharks that lived nearby.

As it happened, the German U-boat that scuttled the Laconia soon picked up most of the survivors.  They were assisted by several other submarines, ordered to join the effort by Kreigsmarine commander Karl Donitz. After a two-day rescue operation, the Germans had managed to pack hundreds of survivors into the ships — above deck as well as below — while roping lifeboats behind them to tow hundreds more. The German submarines then lumbered slowly toward the African coast, draped in flags of the International Red Cross. Although the U-boat commanders alerted other forces in the region that they were carrying survivors from the Laconia, the fleet was struck by bombs and depth charges from an American B-24 several days later on September 16. Hundreds of survivors perished as the U-boats submerged and US bombs obliterated several lifeboats. None of the U-boats was destroyed, and roughly 1500 passengers of the doomed Laconia survived the ordeal.

Although it could be — and has been — argued that the US attack on the German boats constituted a war crime, there is little legal ambiguity about the German response. In the wake of the attacks, Commander Donitz issued a notorious order that would later help to secure his conviction during the Nuremberg trials. The “Laconia Order,” as it became known, insisted that German U-boats — which were already carrying out unrestricted naval warfare — were no longer to assist survivors of their attacks:

All efforts to save survivors of sunken ships, such as the fishing out of swimming men and putting them on board lifeboats, the righting of overturned lifeboats, or the handing over of food and water, must stop. Rescue contradicts the most basic demands of the war: the destruction of hostile ships and their crews.. . . . Stay firm. Remember that the enemy has no regard for women and children when bombing German cities!

The Laconia Order — like so many other aspects of the Second World War — openly violated the protocols of international law, specifically Section 10 of the 1907 Hague Convention.

Nearly three years after the Laconia episode, Karl Donitz succeeded Adolf Hitler as the German head of state. It was his government, which lasted all of three weeks during May 1945, that ultimately surrendered to the Allies. Following the war, Donitz served a decade in Spandau Prison, the infamous West Berlin facility that also housed Albert Speer and neo-nazi icon Rudolph Hess. Donitz’ prosecution was made all the easier because he refused to order that his naval archives be destroyed. As he explained to Guther Hessler — a U-boat commander who also happened to be his son-in-law — “we have a clear conscience.”