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Page last updated at 14:38 GMT, Thursday, 6 January 2011
Laconia survivor praises Alan Bleasdale film
Jo Pratchett

The survivor of a German U-Boat attack on a British ship during World War II has described a drama about the episode as "brilliant".

Jo Pratchett, 82, now lives at Aldwincle, near Oundle.

In 1942 she and her parents and younger brother had escaped from Singapore after the Japanese invasion.

They were onboard The Laconia, sailing towards England. After sinking the vessel, the U-Boat commander ordered a rescue operation.

The Laconia - an old cruiser which had been turned into a troop ship - was taking the family from South Africa back to England.

'Dumb struck'

Other civilian refugees were also on board, along with about 1,800 Italian prisoners of war and their Polish guards.

When the first of two German U-Boat torpedoes struck The Laconia, Mrs Pratchett and her family were in their cabin.

"We were dumb struck. The ship lurched violently. The noise was horrendous and then the second [torpedo] struck," recalled Mrs Pratchett, who was 14 at the time.

Lifeboat

Jo Pratchett looks at a photo of herself and her brother
Jo and her brother Alex shared the wartime drama

After a struggle, the family managed to board a lifeboat and get away from the ship before it sank.

"We somehow got through the night, " said Mrs Pratchett.

"All the time you could hear cries from people in the water but they gradually died away.

"When dawn broke we'd got two people hanging onto the side of the boat pleading to get in. There just wasn't room. It was awful."

They were stranded on the lifeboat for four days. Mrs Pratchett said that around 60 people were on board the boat, which was designed to hold 30.

Daily rations included one sip of water in the morning and another at night, two Horlicks tablets, part of a ships' biscuit and a portion of dried meat.

Rescue

The BBC two-part drama written by Alan Bleasdale focuses on the rescue operation which was ordered by the German U-Boat commander who had sunk the ship.

When Werner Hartenstein saw women and children in the water, he ordered the rescue and called other submarines to help out.

"They gave us food and we slept the night on the officers bunks," said Mrs Pratchett.

"But the next morning, the captain announced he had to put us back in the lifeboats because they'd been bombed by an American plane.

"Things like that happen in war. Mistakes are made."

Mrs Pratchett is full of praise for Commander Hartenstein.

"I couldn't believe it at the time because we were supposed to be at war," she said.

Tougher

A Vichy French cruiser finally rescued Jo and her family and took them to Dakar, West Africa. An outbreak of Yellow Fever meant the family were sent Northwards to Casablanca in Morocco and then taken overland to a desert internment camp.

Nearly 70 years on, Mrs Pratchett reflected that the events may have "made me tougher."

She added with a laugh: "I don't do cruises now. I'd rather stick pins in my eyes!"

The Sinking of the Laconia is on BBC Two on 6 and 7 January at 2100 GMT.




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