Ship History


RETURN TO THE HOMEPAGE                                                                                                                                                                                                                       RMS LACONIA 1921

During the First World War, Cunard Line had lost its entire complement of Intermediate ships to torpedo attacks and sadly many of the losses were almost new ships. Therefore the company launched a major rebuilding programme to replace these losses. Along with replacements for cargo ship casualties, it was the largest order for ships ever placed by a single shipping company up to that time. The first group ordered was a class of five 20,000 ton ships for the "Intermediate" services between Liverpool or Southampton and New York or Boston. The first in the class was Scythia and so the class became known as the "Scythia" class.

Design and Construction (1921 - 1922):

The Laconia was the third of the class and completed the lead batch. She was launched at Swan Hunter on the 9th April 1921 and entered service in 1922. The Laconia and her two sister ships (Scythia and Samaria) from the lead batch of the five sisters were single funnelled, twin screw ships with counter sterns. Their deck structures were not integral but separated into three sections - the bridge structure, the first class accommodation area and public rooms amidships and a stern structure aft of the shelter deck. Passenger accommodation was provided for 350 first class, 350 second class and 1,500 third class. The quality of their public rooms was very high for this kind of ship and introduced standards as yet unheard of on Intermediate services. Their engines were double reduction, geared steam turbines and which gave them a service speed of 16 knots. Then in 1923 the remaining two ships of the "Scythia" class entered service to complete the quintet, these being the Franconia, and Carinthia. By this time all five were operating on the Liverpool to New York service.

Cunard Years (1922 - 1939):

Laconia made her maiden voyage on the 25th May 1922 and inaugurated the Intermediate services out of Southampton. Her debut crossing was to New York but later voyages the destination alternated between New York and Boston and for some voyages the route was extended beyond Southampton to Hamburg.

In her first season the Laconia along with her sister Samaria, inaugurated world cruises. Each voyage lasted through the long winter months from November 1922 to February 1923 starting from New York and taking in calls at Cuba, the US West Coast, Japan, China, Hong Kong, the Philippines, India, Egypt, Italy and the UK. The  Laconia sailed in an eastbound direction. The world cruise took her through both the Panama and Suez Canals and included a variety of shore excursions. Thus Laconia inaugurated the world cruise tradition and her voyages were legendary and appealed to the discerning traveller of that era who had the time and was wealthy enough.  From 1925 all five of the "Scythia" class sailed on off season winter cruises from New York to the West Indies and Bermuda. Between 1930 and 1939 the Laconia was frequently engaged on cruises rather than scheduled voyages.

In September 1934 the Laconia was involved in a collision off the US coast. It was travelling from Boston to New York in dense fog. On 24 September it rammed the port side of the Pan Royal, a US freighter. Both ships suffered serious damage but were able to proceed under their own steam. The Laconia returned to New York and was repaired there.

War Service (1939 - 1942):

A few weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War she was sailing on the Liverpool-New York route. When she arrived in Liverpool, 4th September 1939, she was requisitioned by the Admiralty to serve as an armed merchant cruiser. The Laconia went to Portsmouth to be converted for her new role and was completed in January 1940. She was now 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 and Halifax on the 23th 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 the 9th June she went aground in the Bedford Basin at Halifax. This caused considerable damage and temporary repairs were carried out over the next couple of days. By the end of July the ship had been fully repaired. Further conversion work was carried out in October to make the ship better suited to her role as an armed merchant cruiser. Passenger accommodation was dismantled and some areas were filled with oil drums to provide extra buoyancy.

During the period June-August 1941 the Laconia returned to St. John, New Brunswick and was refitted. After this she returned to Liverpool. From 1941 she was released from naval service and converted into a troopship. On the 12th September 1941 she arrived at Bidston Dock, Birkenhead and was taken over by Cammell Laird & Co. to be converted into a troopship. By early 1942 the work was complete. For the next six months she was employed making trooping voyages to the Middle East.

The Laconia survived as a troopship for just over a year, sadly sucumbing to a torpedo attack launched by U156 on the 12th Sep 1942. At the time of her sinking she was bound for England from Suez via the Cape with a large complement of 3,254 people on board including 1,793 Italian prisoners of war. When about 800 miles southwest of Freetown, in the South Atlantic, the U Boat made its attack, later surfacing after the liner had sunk in order to take prisoners. Discovering the true nature of the Laconia's occupants the commander of the U156 summoned the other nearby U boats to the scene in order to mount a rescue. This exposed his vessel to the risk of air attack. Inevitably this occured as four of the submarines, including the U156, were towing lifeboats on the surface. This was despite the fact that they were flying the flag of the Red Cross. Ultimately, the survivors, about 1000 in total, comprising Allied seamen, guards and PoWs were transhipped to surface ships and conveyed to Casablanca. This event became known as the Laconia Incident and subsequently Admiral Donitz, Commander in Chief of the Kriegsmarine, issued an order instructing U boat commanders to refrain from making rescue attempts in future. However this directive conflicted the natural code of the sea and was later considered to be a war crime. As a result Admiral Donitz was tried for this at the Nuremburg War Crimes Trials in 1946 but was acquitted of the charge.

It was a sad end for the Laconia which had been the ship that had inaugurated Cunard's world cruise traditions.

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