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Ship Cap Arcona – Grave for thousands of prisoners

The passenger ship Cap Arcona, with a displacement of 11,500 tons, was one of the pride of German shipping in the 1920s and 1930s and was one of its largest vessels. However, around 5,000 people found their deaths in the bowels of this steamer.

Two hundred and five metres long with a capacity of 1,315 passengers, the ship was built at the Blohm & Woss shipyard in Hamburg. Cap Arcona’s keel was laid in 1926, she was first afloat a year later and entered service a few months after that. She was mainly deployed on routes from Hamburg to ports in South America, hence her nickname Queen of the South Atlantic. The voyages usually lasted two weeks, and Cap Arcona’s luxurious furnishings made the journey more comfortable for the passengers. A special feature was that she had a relatively small draft for her size, this was so that she could navigate the shallow waters of La Plata Bay in South America.

Cap Arcona

In the 1920s and 1930s, it ran regular routes, but also transported tens of thousands of German emigrants to South America. In the years just before the outbreak of war, however, the shipping of people on luxury liners waned considerably and there was little use for Cap Arcon. However, the war was directly responsible for her future fate. In 1940 she was taken over by the German Kriegsmarine, which assigned her to the Baltic transport fleet, and she made her way to the port of Gdynia. There she was painted grey and turned into a sailors‘ quarters.

For a few months in 1942, she was rescued from this ignominious role by the making of a German blockbuster film about the Titanic’s destruction, which was to become one of the masterpieces of Goebbels’s state monopoly on film. It is said that the filming of the movie was tedious and problematic, so much so that director Herbert Selpin complained several times about the sailors who were to star in the film. They were more interested in the actresses, alcohol and entertainment than in the work of the filmmakers, until Selpin couldn’t stand it and Goebbels had him arrested after several angry outbursts against the navy commanders. Immediately afterwards, the director was found hanged in his cell, but how he got into the noose is still unknown, but what is certain is that he became uncomfortable.

The highlight, however, was the fact that the film, which was supposed to show the moral decline of both the British and the Americans and the greatness of the German spirit in the face of disaster, was never shown in Germany under Nazi rule. Goebbels realised in the middle of the war, when everything was no longer going according to Nazi plans, that the disaster film was not the most appropriate entertainment for war-stressed Germans.

A write-off actress

After an „acting“ intermezzo, when she played the role of Titanic, Cap Arcona returned to Gdynia and to her fate as a floating and permanently moored barracks. In January 1945, however, she was snapped out of her idleness by Operation Hannibal. During this operation, several former civilian passenger liners were used to evacuate German sailors, soldiers and civilians from the former East Prussia and Poland from the advancing Red Army.

Among them was the infamous steamer Wilhelm Gustloff, originally also used as a barracks in Gdynia, which was sunk by a Soviet submarine at the end of January 1945, killing over 9,000 people on board and below deck. No one knew at the time that for years, ships had been moored side by side in Gdynia, witnessing the biggest maritime disaster and, in the latter case, the fourth biggest maritime disaster in history in terms of casualties.

First the refugees, then the prisoners

The evacuation voyages from Gdynia to the western ports in Germany were extremely dangerous precisely because of the Soviet submarines. It was not surprising, then, that Johannes Gertz, the captain of the Cap Arcona docked in Copenhagen, shot himself on 20 February when he learned that his ship was to set sail again for Gdynia to pick up more refugees.

Cap Arcona made three voyages from Germany to Gdynia and back between January and the end of March 1945, and survived unscathed. She had transported thousands of refugees, but her propulsion system was a wreck. Partial repairs were carried out, but it was clear that she would not make any more long voyages, so the Navy returned her to her original owner. Cap Arcona was then moved from Copenhagen harbour to Lübeck Bay, where she was moored near Neustadt.

A few days later, on 26 April, more than 6,500 prisoners from the Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg and about four hundred survivors of the death march from the Fürstengrube concentration camp moved into the ship’s bowels. At that time, the Germans gathered a small fleet of ships in Lübeck Bay, which they turned into floating prisons and into which they crammed prisoners from the camps they had cleared before the Allied advance.

In addition to Cap Arcona, the once luxurious Deutschland and the smaller vessels Thielbek and Athen ended up as dungeons. The latter functioned primarily to transport prisoners from the mainland to other ships or between them. At the end of April 1945, over 10,000 people were in the water dungeons.

A question that has not been satisfactorily answered to this day is what the Germans intended to do with the prisoners and why they placed them on these ships, which had been damaged and rendered incapable by the long inactivity and difficult Operation Hannibal. During the Nuremberg trials, officials of the Nazi regime, already dealing with the concentration camps, contradicted themselves with their testimony. Some claimed that the prisoners should have gone to neutral Sweden, while others testified that the ships should have been sent down on the high seas by German U-boats and planes with the prisoners on board, directly on Himmler’s orders. However, the intention to sink the ships could never be proved.

The evidence against this was that the ships had only a minimum of fuel in their tanks, and both Cap Arcona and Thielbek were incapable of prolonged navigation and manoeuvre. But the fact is that at the end of April two Swedish ships took several hundred imprisoned men and women from the floating prisons in Lübeck Bay to Swedish hospitals and sanatoriums.

However, the destruction of Cap Arcona and the death of thousands of prisoners was brought on its wings not by German but by British aircraft. As early as 2 May, British 2nd Army troops had reached Lübeck and Wismar, and their commanders learned from Red Cross representatives that thousands of prisoners were on board ships anchored in Lübeck Bay. All the more strange and incomprehensible was the course of events that followed.

Already the next day over the bay appeared the british fighter attack aircraft Hawker Typhoon Mk.1B from the tactical air force. They were part of a large-scale operation against Kriegsmarine vessels and were sent over the waters of the Baltic by five RAF squadrons from the 2nd Tactical Air Wing. Each of the Typhoons was armed with eight unguided rockets with high explosive warheads and two 230kg bombs, which together with the four on-board 20mm guns in the wings represented a lethal payload.

Typhoons are attacking!

The pilots, seeing the ships anchored in the bay, rushed them and sent everything their Typhoons were carrying down. But they had no idea that in the bowels of the ships were prisoners who had survived the concentration camps.

To this day, there is speculation as to how the British planes could have attacked the prison ships. Later, theories emerged that perhaps communications between officers of the British forces on the ground and the air command in the British Isles had become jammed, and information about the prisoners on board the ships was not delivered in time. The RAF command is said to have given the order to attack the ships, believing that hundreds of SS personnel were trying to escape from Germany to the still occupied Norway.

How ironic that it was most of the SS men guarding the prisoners on the ships who escaped. Moreover, they are said to have shot many of the prisoners who were trying to get off the sinking ships into the cold water of the Baltic, which was then only 7 degrees.

There was no escape from hell.

Immediately after the attack, rescue trawlers arrived at the ships and picked up over 400 SS men. All prisoners who tried to get on board the trawlers were mercilessly knocked back into the water by the SS. Those who swam ashore were immediately shot by the German patrols. What’s more, 20mm projectiles from the muzzles of British Typhoon guns rained down from the sky on the drowning wretches.

There was no escape from hell. Cap Arcona, Deutschland and Thielbek all took direct hits. Cap Arcona caught fire and soon capsized. She buried nearly 5,000 prisoners, only about 300 of whom survived the inferno in Lübeck Bay.

Shortly after the attack, a photographic plane from the American 161st Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron took pictures of the scene of the tragedy. The burning ships and the many drowning and massacred prisoners were not a pleasant sight. The day after the attack, a British reconnaissance plane also appeared over the site and took pictures in the shallow water of the sunken Cap Arcona and Thielbeck. The capsized Cap Arcona was then carried by the current to the shore where it rested for several years. For weeks after the massacre, the sea washed ashore dead and often mutilated by cannon fire. It was not until 1971 that the last human remains were released by the sea.

Prisoner E. F. Burian was lucky

The victims were successively buried in mass graves in Neustadt, Scharbeutz and Timmendorfer Strand, where there are also memorials dedicated to the dead prisoners, who came from thirty countries, including Czechoslovakia. Interestingly, the famous Czech theatre director and musician Emil František Burian (better known as E. F. Burian) was also imprisoned at Cap Arcona. He survived the May inferno and returned to his homeland after the war. The wreck of the Cap Arcona lay on the coast until 1949, when it was cut up and sent to the smelters.


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