A busy day coming up and I’ve got to resort to this this a.m. But I can tell you I love you and miss you even more these days that seem to bring the end of the war nearer. It’s going to be damn tough waiting from here in – but I guess I can stick it out if the others can. How the Med. Corps will be treated – if at all differently – I don’t’ know, darling – and there’s no one over here either – that knows any more about it. The news of the end of the Italian campaign was excellent. There are a lot of veterans there – and the sooner they get home the quicker we will.
Got three letters form you yesterday, Sweetheart, latest as of 22 April. Was sorry to read you were having trouble with your stomach. You sounded all tired out after your trip – but that’s the usual way. Hope you’re feeling much better now, dear, and taking care of yourself. Will write more tomorrow, I hope. For now, so long, love to the folks – and
The 27,571 register ton Cap Arcona was the most beautiful of the Hamburg-Süd fleet of liners. It was a slender, twin propeller, three funneled luxury liner. On 25 August 1939 she was commandeered for war service. Following the invasion of Poland she was docked at the Gdynia, Poland quay from 1939 to early 1945 as floating accommodation. In the face of advancing Russian troops she was used to transport civilians, Nazi personnel and soldiers from Gdynia to Copenhagen until her turbines became worn out. Her engines were overhauled in Copenhagen enabling her to return to Germany. When she dropped anchor in Lübeck Bay on 14 April 1945 she was no longer maneuverable. No longer useful to the German navy, she was returned to the Hamburg-Süd line.
Two other ships, the freighter Theibek and the Athen were also moved to the industrial harbor in Lübeck, being damaged but able to sail.
The Germans had concentrated ships in the Baltic Sea as transport for the defeated German army fleeing westward from the advancing Russians army. The Cap Arcona and Thielbek were anchored in Lübeck Bay offshore west of Neustadt. They had been commandeered to take concentration camp prisoners on board with the intention of sinking the ships and murdering the prisoners. The Athen was fortunately in Neustadt Harbour. The prisoners were from Neuengamme concentration camp, Stutthof concentration camp and Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp. There were 4,500 prisoners on board the Cap Arcona, 2,800 prisoners on board the Thielbek, and 1,998 prisoners on board the Athen when they were attacked and sunk by the British RAF on 3 May 1945. This is that story.
Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler had issued the secret order to all concentration camp commanders that surrender was unacceptable, that concentration camps were to be immediately evacuated and no prisoner was to fall into the hands of the enemy alive. Himmler intended that all prisoners were to be killed. In the Neuengammer concentration camp the order was received by SS-Obersturmführer Karl Totzauer, adjutant to the commander Max Pauly. This order started the death marches from Neuengamme, the largest concentration camp in Germany, with its 96 satellite camps, of which more than 20 were women's camps. As the death marches advanced northwards Hamburg, regional commander Karl Kaufmann sought ships in which to put the concentration camp prisoners to sea. Being informed about the Cap Arcona he ordered the prisoner transports from Neuengamme concentration camp and its satellite camps to be directed to Lübeck. 11,000 prisoners arrived at Lübeck quayside. They arrived by train in cattle-wagons at Lübeck harbor between 19 and 26 April. Roughly 50 percent of all prisoners did not survive the journey.
On the 18th April, SS men had boarded the Thielbek. Captain John Jacobsen of the Thielbek and Captain Bertram of the Cap Arcona had been called to a conference and were ordered to take concentration camp prisoners on board. Both captains had refused. The following day Jacobsen lost command of his ship. Provisional toilets were installed on the deck of the Thielbek and embarkation started on 20 April. The Swedish Red Cross was present and all concentration camp prisoners except the Russian prisoners received a food parcel which, with the combination of malnutrition and thirst, caused terrible suffering. The water supplied from the ship's tank was totally insufficient. Twenty to thirty prisoners died daily and were removed by lorry. All prisoners, except the political prisoners, remained one or two days on board before being transferred to the Cap Arcona by the Athen.
Captain Nobmann of the Athen had been ordered to take 2,300 prisoners and 280 SS guards on board and to ferry them to the Cap Arcona. He initially refused but obeyed when threatened with being shot following a drumhead court martial. The SS and Kapos drove the prisoners on board the Athen with yells and blows. They had to climb down rope ladders into the deep holds of the ship. In the haste many prisoners fell and were seriously injured. There was hardly room to move in the dark, cold and damp holds. There were no toilets or water. After some hours the fully laden ship left the harbor for the Cap Arcona anchored off Neustadt. Captain Bertram refused to take the prisoners on board the Cap Arcona even after the SS came aboard. The Athen remained off Neustadt overnight and returned to Lübeck next morning, 21 April, the prisoners having been given nothing to eat or drink.
It was clear to all that the Cap Arcona was to be scuttled with the prisoners on board. On the evening of 21 April Captain Bertram was given the ultimation: either immediately give permission for the Athen to moor alongside and transfer its prisoners to the Cap Arcona or be shot without a court martial. Bertram capitulated. Before the Athen moored alongside a second time, a launch brought SS men who removed all life belts and jackets and all benches which could be used as rafts and locked them in the storage room. On 27 April the Athen arrived in Neustadt with 2,500 prisoners from Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp who were transferred to the Cap Arcona. For three days the Athen journeyed to and fro between Lübeck harbour and the Cap Arcona. There were finally 6,500 prisoners on board and 600 SS guards. There was hardly anything to eat or drink and prisoners continued to die. A launch brought drinking water and took the dead back to Neustadt daily. The Russians received the worst treatment being locked in the lowest hold without fresh air, light or food. The number of dead grew ever larger. The Athen made its last journey to the Cap Arcona on 30 April but this time to take prisoners off as the Cap Arcona was so over crowded that even the SS could no longer endure the starvation, stench and dead.
The prisoners learned that Hitler had committed suicide on 1 May 1945, that most of Berlin was occupied by Russian troops and that the war was practically over. On the morning of the 3 May a squadron of British planes flew over Lübeck Bay and observed the Cap Arcona. The prisoners waved believing they were saved. The planes flew at 10,000 feet to avoid the flak and there was low cloud so that the prisoners were not seen. At 2:30 p.m. Captain Rumbold returned with his squadron. Visibility had improved. They attacked. The British who were seen as potential rescuers by the concentration camp prisoners turned out to be their unwitting executioners.
The Cap Arcona was ablaze. The safety equipment for flooding and fire was of the highest standard but controlled from the bridge. Captain Bertram had left the bridge, hacking his way through the mass of prisoners with a machete, to abandon his ship. The SS men kept the prisoners below deck with their weapons. Nearly all prisoners below deck were killed. Many of the life boats were holed and the prisoners did not know how to lower them anyway. Only one life boat was lowered. Some prisoners were rescued in a boat despite the order from the garrison commander of Neustadt Heinrich Schmidt not to rescue prisoners. Prisoners were shot in the water. On reaching Neustadt the survivors begged the British troops to urgently send rescue boats. Of the 600 guards, SS personnel, marines, 24 SS women and 70 crew, roughly 490 were rescued, among them captain Bertram and his second officer.
The attack on the Thielbek occurred roughly an hour after the attack on the Cap Arcona. She was flying a white flag. Only a few prisoners were able to escape the holds. The safety-boats were holed. The crew gave help to the prisoners. The ship had a 50 percent list and was near to sinking when Captain Jacobsen told the crew to abandon ship. The British planes shot at the rescue boats and people in the water. Practically all the SS guards and marines were killed. Captain Jacobsen, his first officer his and first engineer were killed. The Second officer, third officer and three merchant seamen are rescued.
There were 4,500 prisoners on board the Cap Arcona, 2,800 prisoners on board the Thielbek, and 1,998 prisoners on board the Athen. 350 were rescued from the Cap Arcona, 50 were rescued from the Thielbek and all the 1,998 prisoners from the Athen survived. A total of 7,500 people were killed in the air-raid.
No British government has ever made reference to the deaths of the 7,500 people in Lübeck Bay. There has never been a wreath laid nor a speech given in their memory. It has been said that Red Cross radio operators attempted to warn the English against attacking the ships and to have notified them of the true situation on board. Mass graves were dug along the beach between Neustadt and Pelzerhaken. Some survivors built a cenotaph from stones and wrote upon it in large black letters:
In eternal memory of the prisoners of Neuengamme concentration camp. They perished with the sinking of the Cap Arcona on the 3rd of May 1945.
Within the memoir of Benjamin Jacobs titled "The Dentist of Auschwitz" there is a powerful chapter in which he tells of surviving the sinking of the Cap Arcona. Below are links to that chapter and to the entire book. Chapter 17 is worth the read.