SS Cap Arcona (1927)

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Cap Arcona 1.JPG
Cap Arcona in 1927
Career (Germany)
Name: Cap Arcona
Namesake: Cape Arkona
Operator: Hamburg Südamerikanische Dampfschiffahrts-gesellschaft
Route: HamburgBuenos Aires
Builder: Blohm + Voss, Hamburg
Laid down: 21 July 1926
Launched: 14 May 1927
In service: 29 October 1927 (maiden voyage)
Homeport: Hamburg
Identification: Until 1933: code letters RGLP
ICS Romeo.svgICS Golf.svgICS Lima.svgICS Papa.svg
From 1934: call sign DHDL
ICS Delta.svgICS Hotel.svgICS Delta.svgICS Lima.svg
Nickname: Queen of the South Atlantic
Fate: Requisitioned for 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.
General characteristics
Class and type: ocean liner
Tonnage: 27,561 GRT
tonnage under deck 17,665
15,011 NRT
Displacement: 11,500 long tons (12,880 US tons)
Length: 196.2 metres (643.6 ft) p/p
196.2 m (floating)
Beam: 25.8 metres (84.6 ft)
Draught: 12.8 m (8.7 m)
Depth: 12.8 metres (41.9 ft)
Installed power: 17,500 kW
Propulsion: eight steam turbines, two propellers
Speed: Service: 20 knots (37 km/h)[note 1]
Boats and landing
craft carried:
26 lifeboats
Capacity: From 1927: 575 1st class, 275 2nd class, 465 in dormitories; total 1,315
From 1937: total 850
Complement: 475
Sensors and
processing systems:
By 1930: submarine signalling, wireless direction finding
From 1934: as before plus echo sounding device, gyrocompass
Scale model of Cap Arcona

Cap Arcona, named after Cape Arkona on the island of Rügen, was a large German ocean liner built for the Hamburg Südamerikanische Dampfschifffahrts-Gesellschaft ("Hamburg-South America Line"). She carried passengers and cargo between Germany and the east coast of South America, and in her time was the largest and quickest ship on the route.[1]

In 1940 the Kriegsmarine requisitioned her as an accommodation ship. In 1942 she served as the set for a feature film. In 1945 she evacuated almost 26,000 German soldiers and civilians from East Prussia before the advance of the Red Army.

Cap Arcona‍ '​s final use was as a prison ship. In May 1945 she was heavily laden with prisoners from Nazi concentration camps when the Royal Air Force sank her, killing about 5,000 people. This was one of the biggest single-incident maritime losses of life in the Second World War.

Building and equipment[edit]

Plans of Cap Arcona

Blohm + Voss in Hamburg built Cap Arcona, launching and completing her in 1927. She was 27,561 GRT, 196.2 metres (643.6 ft) long between perpendiculars and had a beam of 25.8 metres (84.6 ft).

She was driven by eight steam turbines, single-reduction geared to two propeller shafts.[2] She had three funnels, and her passenger comforts included a full-size tennis court abaft her third funnel.[1]

The ship had at least 26 lifeboats, most of which were mounted in two tiers. (See photo)

Cap Arcona had modern navigation and communication equipment. She was equipped for submarine signalling, which for a time was considered an alternative to radio. She also had wireless direction finding equipment,[2] and from 1934 she had an echo sounding device and a gyrocompass.[3]

Accommodation ship[edit]

In 1940 the Kriegsmarine (German Navy) requisitioned Cap Arcona, had her painted overall grey and used her in the Baltic Sea as an accommodation ship in Gotenhafen (formerly Gdynia, Poland).

In 1942 Cap Arcona was used as a stand-in for RMS Titanic, to supply outside 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 and his later self-destructive interrogation at the hands of Goebbels and it all but sealed Herbert Selpin's life. He was found the next day hanged in his cell by his suspenders.[4] after he had complained about German military personnel molesting the actresses and made disparaging remarks about the German war effort.[5]

Evacuation of East Prussia[edit]

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.[6][7] By now these trips were made very dangerous by mines and Soviet Navy submarines. On 30 January Wilhelm Gustloff, carrying a total of 10,582 passengers and crew, was torpedoed by the Soviet submarine S-13 and sank in 40 minutes. An estimated 9,400 people were killed. Early on the morning of 11 February, the same submarine torpedoed the 14,666 GRT General von Steuben on its way to Copenhagen with military and civilian passengers, killing 3,500 people. On 20 February, Cap Arcona‍ '​s captain, Johannes Gertz, shot himself in his cabin while berthed in Copenhagen rather than face another trip back to Gotenhafen.[8]

On 30 March 1945 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 Harbour to Neustadt Bay.[9]

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 Deutschland, and the smaller vessels Thielbek and 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.[10] 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, at 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".[11][citation needed] It has been suggested that the ships were to be scuttled with the prisoners still aboard.[12] 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.[13] 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.[14][citation needed]

On 30 April 1945, two Swedish ships, 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 Thielbek to Magdalena. Lillie Matthiesen carried 225 women from Ravensbrück for transportation to hospitals in Sweden.[citation needed]

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.[15][16]


Loading 60lb RP-3 rockets onto a Typhoon
Bay of Lübeck, 3 kilometres (2 mi) from Neustadt in Holstein (left at the top): position of the sinking of Cap Arcona.[17]
Cap Arcona burning 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, Cap Arcona, 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.[18][19]

Equipped with lifejackets from locked storage compartments, most of the SS guards managed to jump overboard from 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 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 Cap Arcona survived.[11]

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."[20]

Severely damaged and set on fire, Cap Arcona eventually capsized. The death toll was estimated at 5,000.[21] 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.[22]

On 4 May 1945, a British reconnaissance plane took photos of the two wrecks, Thielbek and Cap Arcona,[23] the Bay of Neustadt being shallow. The capsized hulk of 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.[24] Parts of skeletons washed ashore over the next 30 years, with the last find in 1971.[25]

Monument to victims of Cap Arcona and Thielbek victims at Neustadt in Holstein
Monument in the Waldfriedhof at Timmendorfer Strand to 810 victims of Cap Arcona
Jewish cemetery in Neustadt in Holstein for 100 Jewish victims of Cap Arcona
Monument to 91 victims of Cap Arcona in the cemetery of St Nicolas' church in Grömitz
Memorial plaque in the "honour cemetery" near Haffkrug
Cemetery and monument in Grevesmühlen for 407 victims of Cap Arcona
Monument in the cemetery of Niendorf in Timmendorfer Strand to 113 victims of Cap Arcona
Monument to victims of Cap Arcona in Klütz
Monument to victims of Cap Arcona on Poel Island
Monument to victims of Cap Arcona at Groß Schwansee near Kalkhorst

The prisoners aboard the ships were of at least 30 nationalities: Belarusian, Belgian, Canadian, Czechoslovakian, Danish, Dutch, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Luxembourger, Norwegian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Swiss, Ukrainian, US, Serbian and possibly others.[25]

Notable survivors[edit]

  • Francis Akos (born 1922), born Weinman Akos Ferencz in Budapest, Hungary; Chicago Symphony Orchestra violinist
  • Heinrich Bertram, captain of 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 in the attacks
  • Heinz Lord, German-American surgeon
  • André Migdal (1924–2007), French resistant, holocaust speaker and author, poet, survivor of Athen
  • Sam Pivnik, art dealer and lecturer on the Holocaust
  • Gustaaf Van Essche (1923–1979), Belgian politician


Documentaries, TV movie[edit]

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ HamburgBuenos 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: Jacobs and Pool, 2004 and Till, 1945
  1. ^ a b Talbot-Booth 1936, p. 410
  2. ^ a b Lloyd's Register, Steamers & Motorships (PDF). London: Lloyd's Register. 1930. Retrieved 10 January 2015. 
  3. ^ Lloyd's Register, Steamers & Motorships (PDF). London: Lloyd's Register. 1934. Retrieved 10 January 2015. 
  4. ^ Miro, Sergei (2014). Treasure of Sanssouci Park. Lulu Publishing Services. p. 140. ISBN 978-1-4834-1095-1. 
  5. ^ "Titanic on Film". A Life At The Movies. 10 April 2012. Retrieved 9 May 2014. 
  6. ^ Williams, David (1997). Wartime Disasters at Sea. Yeovil: Patrick Stephens Ltd. pp. 235–236. 
  7. ^ Koberger, Jr, Charles W (1989). Steel Ships, Iron Crosses, and Refugees. New York: Praeger. p. 87. 
  8. ^ Jacobs & Pool 2004, p. 32.
  9. ^ Jacobs & Pool 2004, pp. 44–45.
  10. ^ Jacobs & Pool 2004, p. 162.
  11. ^ a b Vaughan 2004, pp. 154–156.
  12. ^ Bond, DG (1993). German history and German identity: Uwe Johnson's Jahrestage. Rodopi. pp. 150–151. ISBN 90-5183-459-4. 
  13. ^ Vaughan 2004, p. 148.
  14. ^ Vaughan 2004, pp. 156–157.
  15. ^ Till 1945.
  16. ^ 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. 
  17. ^ "Die Tragödie in der Neustädter Bucht". Württembergische Landesbibliothek Stuttgart. Retrieved 25 February 2009. 
  18. ^ Jacobs & Pool 2004, inside front cover.
  19. ^ "Cap Arcona, May 1945". Württembergische Landesbibliothek Stuttgart. 
  20. ^ "British error killed WW2 camp inmates". Shanghai Star. 7 March 2000. 
  21. ^ Isherwood, JL (May 1976). "Steamers of the Past: The Hamburg–South American Liner Cap Arcona". Sea Breezes. 
  22. ^ "The Sinking of the Thielbek". Retrieved 25 February 2009. 
  23. ^ No. 19 German magazine Schiffe Menschen Schicksale, Schnelldampfer "Cap Arcona", p. 37.
  24. ^ van Pée, Raymond (1995), Ik was 20 in 1944 (in Dutch) 
  25. ^ a b Schwarberg 1998


English language
  • Jacobs, Benjamin (2001). "17, 18". The Dentist of Auschwitz. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0-8131-9012-6. 
  • Jacobs, Benjamin; Pool, Eugene (2004). The 100-Year Secret: Britain's Hidden World War II Massacre. Guildford, CT: The Lyons Press. ISBN 1-59228-532-5. 
  • Nesbit, Roy (June 1984). "Cap Arcona: atrocity or accident?". Aeroplane Monthly. 
  • Pivnik, Sam (2012). Survivor. Auschwitz, The Death March and My Fight for Freedom. London: Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 978-1444758382. 
  • Talbot-Booth, E.C. (1936). Ships and the Sea (Third ed.). London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co. Ltd. p. 410. 
  • Till, Major Noel O (September 1945). Report on Investigations, WO 309/1592. No. 2 War Crimes Investigation Team. 
  • Vaughan, Hal (2004). Doctor to the Resistance: The Heroic True Story of an American Surgeon and His Family in Occupied Paris. Potomac Books Inc. pp. 154–156. ISBN 1-57488-773-4. 
German language
  • Diercks, Herbert; Grill, Michael, 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
  • Goguel, Rudi, 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
  • Lange, Wilhelm, Cap Arcona, Struves Buchdruckerei u. Verlag, Eutin 1988, ISBN 3-923457-08-1
  • Lange, Wilhelm, 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
  • Lange, Wilhelm, 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
  • Orth, Karin, 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
  • Rothe, Claus, Deutsche Ozean-Passagierschiffe 1919–1985, VEB Verlag for Verkehrswesen Berlin 1987 transpress
  • Schiffner, Sven, Cap-Arcona-Gedenken in der DDR: Gedenken, Volkssport, Propaganda. In: Garbe, Detlef and Lange, Carmen: Häftlinge zwischen Vernichtung und Befreiung. Bremen 2005
French language
  • Migdal, André, Les plages de sable rouge. La tragédie de Lübeck, 3 mai 1945. NM7 éditions, Paris 2001, ISBN 2-913973-20-5.

External links[edit]