SS Cap Arcona (1927)

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Cap Arcona 1.JPG
The Cap Arcona, on 1 January 1927.
Career (Germany)
Name: Cap Arcona
Operator: Hamburg-Südamerikanische Dampfschiffahrtsgesellschaft
Builder: Blohm & Voss shipyard, Hamburg
Laid down: 21 July 1926
Launched: 14 May 1927
In service: 29 October 1927 (maiden voyage)
Homeport: Hamburg, Germany
Nickname: The Queen of the South Atlantic
Fate: Requisitioned into the Kriegsmarine in 1940.
Career (Germany)
Name: Cap Arcona
Operator: Kriegsmarine
Acquired: 1940
Out of service: 1940–14 April 1945
Fate: Sunk on 3 May 1945. Wreck dismantled in 1949.
Notes: Used as floating barracks until the vessel returned to active service ferrying civilians and military personnel as part of Operation Hannibal
General characteristics
Tonnage: 27,561 GRT, 15,011 net
Displacement: 11,500 long tons (12,880 US tons)
Length: 205.9 meters (675.52 ft)
196.2 m (floating)
Beam: 25.8 m (84.6 ft)
Draught: 12.8 m (8.7 m)
Propulsion: Two steam turbines, two propellers. 17,500 kW
Speed: Service: 20 knots[note 1]
Capacity: 1,315 (1927) (575 1st Classe, 275 2nd Classe, 465 in dormitories (until 1937), total 1315, from 1937 : 850)
Complement: 475
Scale model of the Cap Arcona (1927).

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 Nazi Germany's Kriegsmarine.

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.


Plans of the Cap Arcona.

The 27,561 gross ton Cap Arcona, named after Cape Arkona on the island of Rügen, was launched in 1927. She was considered one of the most beautiful ships of the time, was the largest German ship on the South American run, and carried upper-class travelers and steerage-class emigrants, mostly to South America.[1]

Naval service[edit]

In 1940, the Cap Arcona was taken over by the Kriegsmarine (the German navy), painted overall grey and used in the Baltic Sea as an accommodation ship in Gotenhafen (formerly Gdynia, Poland). During 1942, SS Cap Arcona was used as a stand-in for RMS Titanic, to supply exterior locations for the filming of the Nazi film version of the disaster in the harbour of Gotenhafen. The production was completed, although the first director, Herbert Selpin, was arrested for disparaging remarks he made about Kriegsmarine sailors. His later self-destructive interrogation at the hands of Goebbels sealed Selpin's fate. He was found the next day hanged in his cell by his suspenders,[2]

On 31 January 1945, the Kriegsmarine reactivated her for Operation Hannibal, where she was used to transport 25,795 German soldiers and civilians from East Prussia to safer areas in western Germany.[3][4] By now these trips were made very dangerous by mines and Soviet submarines. On 30 January, MV Wilhelm Gustloff, carrying a total of 10,582 passengers and crew, was torpedoed by the Soviet submarine S-13 and sank in forty minutes. An estimated 9,400 people died. Early on the morning of 11 February, the same submarine torpedoed the 14,666-ton SS General von Steuben on its way to Copenhagen with military and civilian passengers; this time 3,500 lives were lost. On 20 February, the Cap Arcona's captain, Johannes Gertz, shot himself in his cabin while berthed in Copenhagen rather than face another trip back to Gotenhafen.[5]

On 30 March 1945, the Cap Arcona finished her third and last trip between Gdynia and Copenhagen, carrying 9,000 soldiers and refugees. However, her turbines were completely worn out. They could only be partially repaired and her days of long-distance travel were over. She was decommissioned, returned to her owners Hamburg-Süd and ordered out of Copenhagen Harbor to Neustadt Bay.[6]

As a prison ship[edit]

Towards the end of April 1945, the Kriegsmarine 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 SS Athen. Since the steering motors were out of use in Thielbek and the turbines were out of use in Cap Arcona, Athen was used to transfer prisoners from Lübeck to the larger ships and between ships.[7] 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".[8] It has been suggested that the ships were to be scuttled with the prisoners still aboard.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11]

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. Among them was Michel Hollard, a member of the French Resistance, who had been 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 Wismar. No. 6 Commando, 1st 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.[12][13]


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.[14]
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 Squadron, No. 193 Squadron, No. 263 Squadron, No. 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 2] 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.[15]

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.[8]

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."[16]

Severely damaged and set on fire, the Cap Arcona eventually capsized. The death toll was estimated at 5,000.[17] Photos of the burning ships, listed as Deutschland, Thielbek, 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 by F-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.[18]

On 4 May 1945, a British reconnaissance plane took photos of the two wrecks, Thielbek and Cap Arcona,[19] 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 Holstein, Scharbeutz and Timmendorfer Strand.[20] Parts of skeletons washed ashore over the next thirty years, with the last find in 1971.[21]

Memorial to Cap Arcona and Thielbek victims at Neustadt in Holstein.
Memorial in the Waldfriedhof Timmendorfer Strand for 810 victims of the Cap Arcona.
Jewish cemetery in Neustadt in Holstein for 100 Jewish victims of Cap Arcona.
Memorial stone for 91 victims of the Cap Arcona in the cemetery of St Nicolai's church in Grömitz.
Cross of the honour churchyard with a commemorative stone near Haffkrug.
Cemetery/memorial in Grevesmühlen for 407 victims of Cap Arcona.
Memorial stone in the cemetery of Niendorf (Baltic Sea) to remember 113 victims of the Cap Arcona tragedy.
Cenotaph of the Cap Arcona in Klütz.
Memorial of the Cap Arcona in the Poel Island.
Another cross for the dead of Cap Arcona (Baltic Sea).

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.[21]

Notable survivors[edit]

  • Francis Akos (born 1922), born Weinman Akos Ferencz in Budapest, Hungary; Chicago Symphony Orchestra violinist
  • Heinrich Bertram, captain of the Cap Arcona
  • Emil František Burian, musician and theatrical director, founder of Theatre D, a leading avant-garde theatre in inter-war Europe
  • Erwin Geschonneck, who later became a notable German actor, and whose story was made into a film in 1982
  • Ernst Goldenbaum, East German politician
  • Benjamin Jacobs (1919–2004) born Berek Jakubowicz in Dobra, Poland; dentist, holocaust speaker and author
  • Philip Jackson, son of an American surgeon killed during the attacks
  • Heinz Lord, German-American surgeon
  • André Migdal (1924–2007), French resistant, holocaust speaker and author, poet, survivor of the Athen
  • Sam Pivnik, art dealer and lecturer on the Holocaust
  • Gustaaf Van Essche (1923–1979), Belgian politician


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hamburg-Buenos Aires in 15 days
  2. ^ From the Till report of June 1945: "The Intelligence Officer with 83 Group RAF has admitted on two occasions; first to Lt H. F. Ansell of this Team (when it was confirmed by a Wing Commander present), and on a second occasion to the Investigating Officer when he was accompanied by Lt. H. F. Ansell, that a message was received on 2 May 1945 that these ships were loaded with KZ prisoners but that, although there was ample time to warn the pilots of the planes who attacked these ships on the following day, by some oversight the message was never passed on... From the facts and from the statement volunteered by the RAF Intelligence Officer, it appears that the primary responsibility for this great loss of life must fall on the British RAF personnel who failed to pass to the pilots the message they received concerning the presence of KZ prisoners on board these ships." See: Benjamin Jacobs and Eugene Pool, The 100-Year Secret: Britain's Hidden World War II Massacre. The Lyons Press, October 2004. ISBN 1-59228-532-5 and Noel Till, Report on Investigations, WO 309/1592
  1. ^
  2. ^  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  3. ^ Williams, David, Wartime Disasters at Sea, Patrick Stephens Ltd., Yeovil, UK, 1997, pp.235–36.
  4. ^ Koberger, Jr., Charles W., Steel Ships, Iron Crosses, and Refugees, Praeger, NY, 1989, p. 87.
  5. ^ Jacobs, Benjamin & Pool, Eugene, The Hundred Year Secret, The Lyons Press., Guilford, Connecticut, USA, 2004, p.32.
  6. ^ Jacobs, Benjamin & Pool, Eugene, The Hundred Year Secret, The Lyons Press., Guilford, Connecticut, USA, 2004, pp.44–45.
  7. ^ Jacobs, Benjamin & Pool, Eugene, The Hundred Year Secret, The Lyons Press., Guilford, Connecticut, USA, 2004, p.162.
  8. ^ a b Vaughan, Hal (2004). Doctor to the Resistance: The Heroic True Story of an American Surgeon and His Family in Occupied Paris. Brassey's. pp. 154–156. ISBN 1-57488-773-4. 
  9. ^ Bond, D. G. (1993). German history and German identity: Uwe Johnson's Jahrestage. Rodopi. pp. 150–151. ISBN 90-5183-459-4. 
  10. ^ Vaughn, p. 148
  11. ^ Vaughan, pp. 156–157
  12. ^ Noel Till, Report on Investigations, WO 309/1592
  13. ^ Arthur, Max (16 October 2000). "RAF pilots tricked into killing 10,000 camp survivors at end of war – Home News, UK". London: The Independent. Retrieved 25 February 2009. 
  14. ^ "Die Tragödie in der Neustädter Bucht". Retrieved 25 February 2009. 
  15. ^ The 100-YEAR SECRET , inside front cover + [1] Cap Arcona, May 1945.
  16. ^ "British error killed WW2 camp inmates". Shanghai Star. 7 March 2000. 
  17. ^ Isherwood, J.L. (May 1976). "Steamers of the Past: The Hamburg-South American Liner Cap Arcona". Sea Breezes. 
  18. ^ "The Sinking of the Thielbek". Retrieved 25 February 2009. 
  19. ^ No. 19 German magazine Schiffe Menschen Schicksale, Schnelldampfer "Cap Arcona", p. 37.
  20. ^ Raymond Van Pée (1995), Ik was 20 in 1944 (in Dutch) 
  21. ^ a b Günther Schwarberg: Angriffsziel "Cap Arcona", Steidl Verlag, 1998 Göttingen.


English language
  • Roy Nesbit, Cap Arcona: atrocity or accident?. Aeroplane Monthly, June 1984
  • Benjamin Jacobs and Eugene Pool, The 100-Year Secret: Britain's Hidden World War II Massacre. The Lyons Press, October 2004. ISBN 1-59228-532-5.
  • Benjamin Jacobs, The Dentist of Auschwitz, University Press of Kentucky, Reprinted April 2001, ISBN 0-8131-9012-6, chapters 17, 18.
  • Hal Vaughan, Doctor to the Resistance: The Heroic True Story of an American Surgeon and His Family in Occupied Paris, Potomac Books Inc. 2004, ISBN 1-57488-773-4
  • Maj. Noel O. Till, Report on Investigations, WO 309/1592. (No. 2 War Crimes Investigation Team), Sept. 1945
  • Sam Pivnik, Survivor. Auschwitz, The Death March and My Fight for Freedom. Hodde & Stougthon Ltd., London 2012, ISBN 978-1444758382.
German language
  • Rudi Goguel, Cap Arcona. Report über den Untergang der Häftlingsflotte in der Lübecker Bucht am 3. Mai 1945. Frankfurt/M 1972, ISBN 3-87682-756-6
  • Günther Schwarberg, Angriffsziel "Cap Arcona", Steidl Verlag, Göttingen 1998, ISBN 3-88243-590-9
  • Wilhelm Lange, Cap Arcona, Struves Buchdruckerei u. Verlag, Eutin 1988, ISBN 3-923457-08-1
  • Wilhelm Lange, Mythos und WirklichkeitEine "publikumswirksame" Präsentation der Cap-Arcona-Katastrophe vom 3. Mai 1945 (page 27) 2/2000, in Schiff und Zeit, Panorama maritim N° 52
  • Wilhelm Lange, Neueste Erkenntnisse zur Bombardierung der KZ Schiffe in der Neustädter Bucht am 3. Mai 1945: Vorgeschichte, Verlauf und Verantwortlichkeiten. In: Detlef Garbe: Häftlinge zwischen Vernichtung und Befreiung. Die Auflösung des KZ Neuengamme und seiner Außenlager durch die SS im Frühjahr 1945. Bremen 2005, ISBN 3-86108-799-5
  • Claus Rothe, Deutsche Ozean-Passagierschiffe 1919–1985, VEB Verlag for Verkehrswesen Berlin 1987 transpress
  • Karin Orth, Planungen und Befehle der SS Führung zur Räumung des KZ-Systems. In: Detlef Garbe: Häftlinge zwischen Vernichtung und Befreiung. Die Auflösung des KZ Neuengamme und seiner Außenlager durch die SS im Frühjahr 1945. Bremen 2005, ISBN 3-86108-799-5
  • Herbert Diercks, Michael Grill, Die Evakuierung des KZ Neuengamme und die Katastrophe am 3. Mai 1845 in der Lübecker Bucht. In : Kriegsende und Befreiung. Bremen 1995 ISBN 3-86108-266-7
  • Sven Schiffner, Cap-Arcona-Gedenken in der DDR: Gedenken, Volkssport, Propaganda. In : Detlef Garbe, Carmen Lange : Häftlinge zwischen Vernichtung und Befreiung. Bremen 2005
French language
  • André Migdal, Les plages de sable rouge. La tragédie de Lübeck, 3 mai 1945. NM7 éditions, Paris 2001, ISBN 2-913973-20-5.

Documentaries, TV movie[edit]

External links[edit]