In a gentleman’s war, one or the more baffling etiquettes is that soldiers are required to offer aid an assistance to the victims that they themselves tried to kill. It is kind of back-asswards, in my opinion, but during World War II there was such a situation, where there was unexpected kindness and generosity from one enemy to another. It is too bad that the story is not more well known.
In 1942, a German U-boat, in stealth mode off the coast of West Africa, spotted an enemy ship that made for a perfect target. Though it was a passenger ship (The Laconia), they were certain that it was transporting soldiers, so the U-Boat stalked and sank its target. But when the U-boat surfaced to survey the debris of the sunken enemy boat full of troops, they instead were shocked and horrified to hear the cries of women and children in the water, clutching to fragments of the ship and floating in crammed lifeboats. Though the captain of the U-boat, Werner Hartenstein (Ken Duken), knew he should have claimed ignorance and left the scene, his crew knew that they were going to stay and help the survivors.
The Sinking of the Laconia is a well-made 2-part BBC television production that plays out the drama of the sinking of a British passenger ship full of civilians and some 1200 Italian prisoners of war. To humanize the story, we meet a German woman (Franka Potente) fleeing under cover as a Brit (with a hard to place accent, in the opinions of the other ladies on the ship), an earnest and kind British officer (Andrew Buchan) who is struggling with losing his young family in the bombings of London, and the German U-boat captain himself, who is intelligent, thoughtful, and kind, even though he himself just ordered the sinking of the ship whose passengers he is now rescuing.
This is a fascinating story, and the DVD includes interviews with some survivors of the sinking, who still remember the German captain very fondly despite the circumstances of the situation. The images of a surfaced U-boat with a Red Cross-painted sheet hanging from its tower, and a bunch of over-packed lifeboats strung in a line behind it would have been unbelievable if it hadn’t actually happened. The Sinking of the Laconia is an incredible war story that shows that humanity and kindness can sometimes emerge from the violence.