Cap Arcona

The Cap Arcona was a large German luxury ocean liner, formerly of the Hamburg-South America line. It transported passengers between Germany and South America until 1940 when it was taken over by the German Navy.

Late in the war, the steamer was used to evacuate German soldiers and civilians from East Prussia before the advance of the Soviet Army. While heavily-laden with prisoners from Nazi concentration camps, she was sunk in May 1945 by the Royal Air Force. About 5,000 people died. The sinking of the Cap Arcona was one of the biggest single-incident maritime losses of life during the war and also one of the largest maritime losses of life in history.

Towards the end of April 1945, the German Navy assembled a small fleet of ships in the Bay of Lübeck, consisting of the liners Cap Arcona and SS Deutschland, and the smaller vessels Thielbek and Athen. Since the steering motors were out of use in the Thielbek and the turbines were out of use in the Cap Arcona, the Athen was used to transfer prisoners fromLübeck to the larger ships and between ships. [6] By the end of the month, these ships held more than 10,000 prisoners from the Neuengamme concentration camp and its subcamps, and two barges brought more from Stutthof and Mittelbau-Dora camps.

The order to transfer the prisoners to the prison ships came from Gauleiter Karl Kaufmann in Hamburg, who was himself acting on orders from Berlin.

Later, during a war crimes tribunal, Kaufmann claimed the prisoners were going to be sent to Sweden. However, Georg-Henning Graf von Bassewitz-Behr, Hamburg’s last Higher SS and Police Leader (HSSPF), testified at the same trial that the prisoners were in fact to be killed “in compliance with Himmler‘s orders”.[7] It has been suggested that the ships were to be scuttled with the prisoners still aboard.[8] Kurt Rickert, who had worked for Bassewitz-Behr, testified at the Hamburg War Crimes Trial that he believed the ships were to be sunk by U-boats or Luftwaffe aircraft.[9] Eva Neurath, who was present in Neustadt, and whose husband survived the disaster, said she was told by a police officer that the ships held convicts and were going to be blown up.[10]

On 30 April 1945, two Swedish ships, the Magdalena and Lillie Matthiessen, sailed from Lübeck, the first with 223 western European prisoners, for the most part French-speaking,[note 2] He was transferred from the Thielbek to the Magdalena. The Lillie Matthiesen carried 225 women from Ravensbrück for transportation to hospitals in Sweden.

On 2 May 1945, the British Second Army reached the towns of Lübeck and WismarNo. 6 Commando1st Special Service Brigade commanded by Brigadier Derek Mills-Roberts, and 11th Armoured Division, commanded by Major-General George P. B. Roberts, entered Lübeck without resistance. Mr. De Blonay of the International Committee of the Red Cross informed Major-General Roberts that 7,000-8,000 prisoners were aboard ships in the Bay of Lübeck.[11][12]


Loading 60lb RP-3 rockets onto a Typhoon

Bay of Lübeck, three kilometers from Neustadt (left at the top): Position of the sinking of Cap Arcona.[13]

The burning Cap Arcona shortly after the attacks.

On 3 May 1945, three days after Hitler‘s suicide and only one day before the unconditional surrender of the German troops in northwestern Germany at Lüneburg Heath to Field Marshal Montgomery, the Cap Arcona, the Thielbek, and the passenger liner Deutschland were attacked as part of general strikes on shipping in the Baltic Sea by RAF Typhoons of 83 Group of the 2nd Tactical Air Force.

The aircraft were from No. 184 SquadronNo. 193 SquadronNo. 263 SquadronNo. 197 Squadron RAF, and No. 198 Squadron. Besides four 20 mm cannon, these Hawker Typhoon Mark 1B fighter-bombers carried either eight HE High Explosive “60 lb” RP-3 unguided rockets or two 500 lb (230 kg) bombs.

Pilots in the attacking force were unaware that the ships were laden with prisoners who had survived the camps. Some sources suggest elements of British command knew, but had failed to pass on the information.[note 3] The RAF commanders ordering the strike reportedly thought that the ships carried escaping SS officers, possibly fleeing to German-controlled Norway with a dilapidated wreck.[14]

Equipped with lifejackets from locked storage compartments, most of the SS guards managed to jump overboard from the Cap Arcona, and there are rumours that despite a water temperature of only 7°C, they shot any prisoners who tried to escape. German trawlers sent to rescue the Cap Arcona‘s crew members and guards managed to save 16 sailors, 400 SS men, and 20 SS women. Most prisoners who tried to board the trawlers were shoved back, while those who reached shore were mainly shot by the SS. Only 350 of the 4,500 former concentration camp inmates aboard the Cap Arcona survived.[7]

RAF Pilot Allan Wyse of No. 193 Squadron recalled, “We used our cannon fire at the chaps in the water… we shot them up with 20 mm cannons in the water. Horrible thing, but we were told to do it and we did it. That’s war.”[15]

Severely damaged and set on fire, the Cap Arcona eventually capsized. The death toll was estimated at 5,000.[16]  A memorial commemorates the victims of two ships: the Cap Arcona and the Thielbek, which is where the total of 7,000  Photos of the burning ships, listed as DeutschlandThielbek, and Cap Arcona, and of the emaciated survivors swimming in the very cold Baltic Sea, around 7 °C (44.6 °F), were taken on a reconnaissance mission over the Bay of Lübeck byF-6 Mustang (the photo-reconnaissance version of the P-51) of the USAAF‘s 161st Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron around 5:00 pm, shortly after the attack.[17]

On 4 May 1945, a British reconnaissance plane took photos of the two wrecks, Thielbek and Cap Arcona,[18] the Bay of Neustadt being shallow. The capsized hulk of the Cap Arcona later drifted ashore, and the beached wreck was finally broken up in 1949. For weeks after the attack, bodies of victims washed ashore, where they were collected and buried in mass graves at Neustadt in HolsteinScharbeutz and Timmendorfer Strand.[19] Parts of skeletons washed ashore over the next thirty years, with the last find in 1971.[20]

Memorial to Cap Arcona andThielbek victims at Neustadt in Holstein.

Memorial in the Waldfriedhof Timmendorfer Strand for 810 victims of the Cap Arcona.

Cross of the honour churchyard with a commemorative stone near Haffkrug.

Memorial stone in the cemetery ofNiendorf (Baltic Sea) to remember 113 victims of the Cap Arcona tragedy.

Cenotaph of the Cap Arcona inKlütz.

Memorial of the Cap Arcona in thePoel Island.

The prisoners aboard the ships were of at least 30 nationalities: American, Belarussian, Belgian, Canadian, Czechoslovakian, Danish, Dutch, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Luxembourger, Norwegian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Swiss, Ukrainian, Yugoslavian and possibly others.

The ships were to be taken out into the middle of the Bay of Lübeck and then scuttled with the prisoners locked below decks so as to drown them. This was stated at the war crimes trial of the men responsible and the officer in charge (Max Pauly, ex-Commandant of Neuengamme) along with several others, was hanged. 13:35, 3 May 2005 (UTC)

“the ships were to be taken out into the middle of the Bay of Lübeck and then scuttled with the prisoners locked below decks so as to drown them.”
This claim is unsubstanciated and illogical. Why should they walk the prisoners from Neuengamme to Luebeck, put them on ships and wait for them to be sunk by the British? They killed 55,000+ in Neuengamme, so why wouldn’t they go on and kill 7,000 more? The claim that the ships were to be scuttled is nothing but a lame excuse of the RAF (sinking ships with prisoners was more than a little embarrassment …) 11:17, 3 May 2006 (UTC)
the claim is also impossible as the middle of the bay is not deep enough to sink a ship as big as the Cap Arcona. It would partially be left standing on the bottom sticking out of the water. See here:

Given that the RAF strafed survivors of the sinking to ensure that they did not reach shore alive, and the words of Allan Wyse make clear that this was ordered and that those being strafed were known to be noncombatants, this claim rings more than a bit hollow. —7Kim 14:23, 3 May 2007 (UTC)
However illogical the arugment of them drowning prisoners of wars, if it was stated in the Nuremburg Trials, it should be regarded as fact as many other articles use what went on during the trial as fact, unless someone wishes to contend that part of the Nuremburg was false. Either way, it’s going to need a citation.

Günther Schwarberg states in his book “Angriffsziel Cap Arcona” (which is, incidentally, listed as one of the sources for this article) that ‘Cap Arcona’ had effectively been handed back to the Hamburg-Süd line, after the ship’s engine systems had been ruined during her last trip as a refugee-ship. She was then confiscated again, this time by the SS, and the prisoners were brought aboard. The involvement of Graf Bernadotte must, under these circumstances, be seen as pure whitewash: She would not have been able to make any crossing under her own steam. On the other hand, it seems highly probable that she was indeed intended to be sunk with the prisoners aboard; the camps had in fact been dissolved primarily for the purpose of disposing of witnesses- many of whom perished by being marched across Germany, with little food or water. Towing her further out to sea and opening the seacocks would have been quite possible, and would be very much in tune with the usual efficiency of the SS in murdering people. Towing her all the way to Sweden would have been a different thing altogether. However- if she was intended to be scuttled, she would not have been towed to the middle of the Bay of Lübeck, but further out altogether. As for the British military authorities- I wouldn’t be able to say what exactly they did or did not know; but there are some good reasons to assume that they did know quite a few things. They were able to deciphre radio-messages coded with one particular model of the ‘Enigma’-coding-machine to the point were they could translate 75 % of the intercepted messages within 15 minutes after intercdeption, and the remaining 25 % within a few hours. That particular ‘Enigma’-model had originally been in use with the Luftwaffe, but had been replaced by a newer model; the model in question (Enigma-D, I believe) was then primarily used by the SS, the German postal service, and the Reichsbahn.

(Source: “Entschied Ultra den Krieg?”, 1981, ISBN 3-8033-0314-1; Original version of this book: “Ultra goes to war- the secret story” by Ronald Lewin, Hutchinson / London , 1978)

The Wehrmacht was extremely distrusting as far as Radio-communications were concerned; they preferred cable-links such as Telephone and Telegraph for their communications. The result was that the Telephone-system within Germany was constantly overloaded; subsequently the Reichsbahn- charged with organising rail-transportation of troops and materials not only within Germany, but also throughout the occupied territories- had to rely increasingly on using Radio-transmitters for their own communications. These communications were coded with the very Enigma-codes the British were able to de-code as described above. That means they were able to see exactly when a train with prisoners was to leave, what route it would take and where it was destined: It was the Reichsbahn who were responsible for most of the prisoner-transports, including those destined for the death-camps. Many of the ‘Cap Arcona’- prisoners were not transported by train, but some of them were- and, as I said, the SS was using the same Enigma-machines at any rate. That means the British *must* have known- or so logic would dictate. (talk) 22:51, 25 December 2007 (UTC)

“British intelligence” (hopefully not an oxymoron at the time) had concrete knowledge about who was on board the three ships (and nevertheless went on to the sinking & killing of 7,000 people)?

From the French Web site : “Michel Hollard : En février 1944, il est arrêté par la Gestapo à Paris en compagnie de deux de ses subordonnés. Torturé, emprisonné à Fresnes et condamné à mort, il est déporté au camp de concentration de Neuengamme. Il est sauvé miraculeusement du naufrage du Cap Arcona, en baie de Lubeck, que l’ennemi sabordait intentionnellement. Ce sauvetage est dû au Prince Bernadotte qui, informé par l’Intelligence Britannique, envoya une vedette sur place et obtint le salut de quelques prisonniers de langue française.”

About arnulfo

veterano del ciberespacio
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