|ss Cap Arcona - (postcard view - author's collection)
|A Neuengamme inmate being used for 'Bomb Disposal' work in Hamburg - August 1943 (Mahnmal St Nikolai)
Whilst Himmler in Berlin had given the order to remove the remaining inmates, the actual execution of the plan fell to others. Karl Kaufmann was the Nazi Gauleiter for Hamburg and it was he that came up with the idea to move the inmates to the Cap Arcona and three other vessels that were anchored and empty in Lubeck Bay. He felt that these vessels would be ideal for the task and perhaps he felt that they could be quietly sunk, with their human cargo onboard and thus removing any evidence to the soon to be arriving British.
It was 26 April 1945 when the first batch of prisoners were brought on board Cap Arcona but unlike the vessel's pre-war passengers who were given only the finest service, these poor unfortunates were herded deeper and deeper into the ship's holds, which never having been designed for this function, were cold, damp and unsanitary. The SS guards took great care to remove all life belts, rafts and anything else that could aid a drowning person. It was the same story aboard the other vessels and although various rumours filtered amongst the prisoners that they were being embarked as a prelude to evacuation to neutral Sweden, something which Gauleiter Kaufmann himself declared after the war at his War Crimes trial, the fact that none of the ships had been declared to the Red Cross, or had been given appropriate markings, it is hard to believe that this was a credible option. It becomes even less believable when one remembers the condition of the Cap Arcona and the other vessels as being barely seaworthy.
On 1 May 1945, the vessels anchored in Lubeck Bay had caught the attention of the RAF when the pilot of a Hawker Typhoon of 83 Group reported that an evacuation fleet was gathering off Lubeck. As the ships hadn't been declared to the Red Cross, the answer to the RAF Intelligence officers was simple - the British Army were closing in and the Germans were seeking to evacuate to Norway in order to continue the fight. The seeds of tragedy had been sewn.
On 2 May 1945, the British reached Lubeck and discovered the now empty Concentration Camp at Neuengamme. Because Lubeck had been used as an evacuation port, it contained an office of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the representative here, Mr De Blonay, informed Major General 'Pip' Roberts of 11th Armoured Division of his understanding that between 7,000 and 8,000 prisoners were detained on board the ships anchored in Lubeck Bay.
On board those ships, hopes amongst the prisoners began to rise; earlier on 2 May, the final prisoners were brought on board by barge, this time from another camp near Danzig and although many of them had died on the voyage due to the appalling conditions on the barges, the survivors were brought on board the Cap Arcona, which now had over 4,500 crammed inside her holds. Captain Bertram, the ship's captain refused to take any more prisoners and vehemently informed the SS Guards as much. Whilst these final prisoners were being loaded, firing could be heard ashore and the SS Guards, were becoming jumpy and visibly scared as perhaps their thoughts turned to what might happen to them once their human cargo was discovered by the advancing British soldiers.
Despite the fact the Major General Roberts had been made aware of the possibility of prisoners being aboard the ships in Lubeck Bay, the war was now moving too fast for information to filter through and RAF operations against shipping in the Baltic had gathered their own momentum and as far as the pilots of 83 Group were concerned, the ships contained elements of the hated SS or important Nazis fleeing either to the new seat of government in Flensburg or trying to escape to neutral Sweden.
|Monument to Cap Arcona victims at Neustadt (Waterproof947)
So it was on the morning of 3 May 1945, Typhoons of 184, 193, 197, 198 and 263 Squadrons dived in to attack the assembled fleet. Each of the renowned ground attack fighters carried four 20 mm cannon and either two 500 lb bombs or eight 60 lb unguided rockets. As the attack began, the SS guards began to abandon ship, unlocking the life preservers that they had saved for themselves and jumping over the side. Some prisoners managed to get themselves on deck and one, Erwin Geschonneck, a German political prisoner, witnessed a man armed with a machette, flailing his way through the crowd and cutting down anyone who impeded him; this was Captain Bertram, who together with his crew and officers, were amongst the first over the side. Geschonneck also witnessed one SS man, armed with two revolvers, firing off his guns until the ammunition was spent, at which point he was overrun and trampled to death by his former prisoners, more and more of whom had managed to break out of the holds and reach the deck.
By now the Cap Arcona was ablaze and those who could not reach the deck and were trapped below were consumed by the flames in appalling scenes. Many of those in the sea fared little better; a small fleet of rescue boats approached the burning ships but any prisoners hoping for rescue were invariably shot as the boats were being sent to rescue SS guards and crewmembers only. Fortunately, some managed to get themselves picked up, whilst others struggled ashore, where they were 'greeted' by German sailors, some of whom were as young as 16 years of age. Fortunately, these sailors looked after the survivors and later that same day, they were liberated by the British.
The few that made it ashore were in a very lucky minority. Of some 8,500 prisoners on board the Cap Arcona, Deutschland and Thielbek, at least 7,500 perished, although the actual number will never be known. It is thought that some thirty nationalities were on board the prison ships and as well as men, women and children from all of the Nazi occupied countries, there were also victims from American, Britain and Canada, as well as Swiss, Spanish and Italians. Victims were washed ashore for weeks after the attacks and are today buried in mass graves at Neustadt, Scharbeutz and Timmerdorfer Strand. Human remains were still being washed up as recently as 1971.
Even 71 years after the end of the war, which came just days after the "Shipping Strike" attack, this remains a little known tragedy, the result of a genuine mistake casued by the fog of war at the end of the European conflict.
Monty's Greatest Victory: The Drive for the Baltic April-May 1945, Charles Whiting, Pen & Sword 2002
197 Squadron Operations Record Book - National Archives Kew AIR 27/1169/53