The Cap Arcona, the Thielbek and the Athen.
Der Fall Cap Arcona - The Cap Arcona Case. A Documentary Film.
Grevesmühlen Museum "Cap Arcona" Exhibition
Photographs of the Cap Arcona
Concentration Camp, Death March, Death at Sea at the hands of the Allies.
Contrary to general belief the world's greatest ship disaster did not occur in the Atlantic Ocean and the ship was not the Titanic. The greatest ship disaster occured on 3 May 1945 in Lübeck Bay in the Baltic Sea and the ship was the Cap Arcona. Three ships were involved: the Cap Arcona, the Thielbek and the Athen.
The ships were rocketed and bombed by Royal Air Force Typhoons of 263 squadron from Ahlhorn, 197 squadron from Celle and 198 squadron from Plantlünne. 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. She was built in the Hamburg Blohm and Voss shipyard and launched on 14 May 1927. She had sailed between Hamburg and Rio de Janeiro for a period of twelve years when on 25 August 1939 she was commandeered for war service. Following the invasion of Poland she was docked at the Gdynia quay from 29 November 1939 to 31 January 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. Her turbines became worn out during her last journey from Gdynia to Copenhagen. She was put into a shipyard where her engines were overhauled enabling her to return to Germany. When she dropped anchor in Lübeck Bay on 14 April 1945 she was no longer manoeuvrable. She was no longer of any use to the navy and was returned to the Hamburg-Süd line.
The Thielbek was a 2,815 register ton freighter. She was hit by several bombs during the air-raid on the river Elbe in the summer of 1944. The damage was being repaired in the Lübecker Maschinenbau-Gesellschaft shipyard when she was commandeered by Hamburg Gauleiter, Karl Kaufmann, now additionally Commissionary for Defence of North Germany and Reich Commissionary for Merchant Shipping, and commanded to sail for Lübeck before the repairs were completed. She was taken to the Lübeck industrial harbour. The Athen was also moved to the industrial harbour 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. The Athen was fortunately in Neustadt harbour. They had been commandeered to take concentration camp prisoners on board with the intention of sinking the ships and murdering the prisoners. 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. 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. The British who were seen as potential rescuers by the concentration camp prisoners turned out to be their murderers.
The end of the war for the British.
On the 16th April 1945 Fighter Command had been given domain over the skies of Germany and Coastal Command over the coast. Winston Churchill had given the order following the bombing of Dresden which he had critized as a wilful act of terror and destruction. This decision replacing Bomber Command with Fighter Command had serious consequences that resulted in the bombing of the prison ships. Bomber Command's aerial reconnaissance was best informed regarding events and changes on the ground in Germany. They knew the exact position of concentration camps and so where not to bomb. For example, not one bomb landed on Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg. In fact, planes had flown low over the camp, waggling their wings, giving hope to the prisoners on the parade ground. Headquarters of Second Tactical Air Arm in Süchteln had little knowledge of the transport of concentration camp prisoners northwards. Consequently Operation Order No. 73 on the 3rd May 1945 read: "Destruction of the concentration of enemy shipping in Lübeck Bay west of Poel island and northwards to the border of the security zone". 263 squadron stationed at Ahlhorn under Captain Martin Rumbold with pilots Mark Hamilton, Ronnie Proctor, Dave Morgan, Eric Coles, Mike Luck, Larry Saunders and J.A. Smith attacked the Cap Arcona at 14.30 p.m. on the 3rd May 1945. Each of the eight Typhoons had eight rockets which were fired in salvos. All sixty-four rockets hit their target. 197 squadron stationed at Celle under Lieutenant J. Harding then attacked. Each of the eight Typhoons had two bombs. Fifteen of the sixteen bombs hit their target. The ship was ablaze.
Between the two attacks on the Cap Arcona, 198 squadron stationed at Plantlünne under Captain Johnny Baldwin attacked the Thielbek and Deutschland with nine Typhoons. Five fired their rockets at the Deutschland and four at the Thielbek. The Thielbek was left ablaze with a 30° list starboard and sank twenty minutes after being attacked.
The end of the war for the Germans.
As the death marches advanced northwards Hamburg regional commander Karl Kaufmann sought ships in which to put the concentration camp prisoners to sea. The few remaining ships, including ferries and lighters, were deployed in the East rescuing civilians and retreating German troops fleeing the advancing Russian army. As Commissionary for Defence of North Germany and Reich Commissionary for Merchant Shipping he had the right of disposal of all non-military shipping. Being informed about the Cap Arcona he ordered the prisoner transports from Neuengamme concentration camp and its satellite camps to be directed to Lübeck and the prisoners embarked. 11,000 prisoners arrived at Lübeck quayside. Lübeck had suffered severe bomb damage. The first Neuengamme concentration camp prisoners arrived in cattle-waggons at Lübeck harbour on 19 April 1945. Between the 19th and the 26th April new transports arrived. Roughly 50 percent of all prisoners did not survive the journey.
On the 17th April 1945 the Thielbek was informed that they were to make ready for a special operation. On the 18th April, SS men came aboard and captain John Jacobsen of the Thielbek and Captain Bertram of the Cap Arcona were called to a conference. Captain Jacobsen returned to inform his crew that they had been ordered to take concentration camp prisoners on board. Both he and captain Bertram had refused. The following day Jacobsen returned defeated having lost command of his own ship. Shortly thereafter the first train arrived. Provisional toilets were installed on the deck of the Thielbek and embarkation started on the 20th April. The Swedish Red Cross were present and all concentration camp prisoners except the Russian prisoners received a food parcel which, with the combination of malnutrician 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. The SS personnel were gradually reduced and replaced by 55 to 60 year old territorial army members and marines. There was straw on deck for the holds there being no beds. There were large stocks of provisions under tarpaulin on deck but distribution was disorganized. The sick and the Russian prisoners received little. The latrines were inadequate. Buckets were lowered into the holds and raised when full. The stench was terrible. Gastroenteritis raged.
On the morning of the 20th April 1945 SS-Sturmbannführer Christoph-Heinz Gehrig, head of administration at Neuengamme concentration camp was sent to Lübeck by Commandant Max Pauly. Gehrig had been responsible for the murder of the twenty Jewish children at the Janusz-Korczak-School at 92 Bullenhuser Damm in the Hamburg district of Rothenburgsort. They had been used for tuberculosis experiments in Neuengamme concentration camp. Gehrig was to escort the prisoners to their deaths aboard the Cap Arcona. He ordered captain Nobmann of the Athen to take 2,300 prisoners and 280 SS guards on board and to ferry them to the Cap Arcona. Captain Nobmann initially refused but obeyed when threatened with being shot following a drumhead court martial. The SS and Kapos drove the prisoners on board 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 harbour for the Cap Arcona anchored off Neustadt. Captain Bertram refused to take the prisoners on board even after the SS came aboard. The Athen remained off Neustadt overnight and returned to Lübeck next morning, the 21st April, the prisoners having been given nothing to eat or drink.
SS-Sturmbannführer Gehrig informed camp commander Pauly of captain Bertram's refusal to take prisoners on board and Pauly informed Head of Gestapo Graf Bassewitz-Behr who reported to Gauleiter Kaufmann. On the evening of the 21st April Kaufmann sent his personal advisor SS-Hauptsturmführer Horn to John Eggert, chairman of the board of directors of the Hamburg-Süd shipping line to inform him that Captain Bertram was to follow the SS order to take prisoners on board or be shot. Eggert telephoned Bertram who in turn called Admiral Engelhardt head of naval transport. It was clear to all that the Cap Arcona was to be scuttled with the prisoners on board. Engelhardt sent captain Rössing to Kaufmann to lodge the navy's formal protest against the impounding of the Cap Arcona but he only got as far as SS-Hauptsturmführer Horn who ordered Lieutenant-Commander Lewinski and SS-Sturmbannführer Gehrig to impound the ship with force of arms. In the meantime five days had passed and on the 26th April Lewinski and Gehrig met in Lübeck and travelled to Neustadt together from where they were ferried to the Cap Arcona with a motorboat from the U-boat school, escorted by an armed SS commando. Captain Bertram unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate with Lewinski and Gehrig. He 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 under SS-Untersturmführer Kirstein who removed all life belts and jackets and all benches which could be used as rafts and locked them in the storage room.
On the 27th 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 the 30th 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 had learnt that Hitler had committed suicide on the 1st May 1945, that most of Berlin was occupied by Russian troops and that the war was practically over.
War Crimes, courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives.)
On the 2nd May the barges Wolfgang towed by the Adler, and Vaterland towed by the Bussard and several landing craft, bringing a thousand half starved prisoners from the Stutthof concentration camp near Danzig in Poland, arrived in Neustadt. Many had died on the journey and had been thrown overboard. The journey had begun on the 17th April. They received the order via light signal from the U-boat school or from harbour commander Kastenbauer that they were to be towed along-side the Thielbek which had been towed from Lübeck industrial harbour to Lübeck Bay as British tanks had crossed the Herrenbrücke. That evening the SS guards began shooting the prisoners on the barges. The barges, the sea and the shore were full of corpses. Those that managed to reach land were shot by marines from the U-boat school. Around 400 Stutthof prisoners were murdered. The following day the remaining prisoners were led to Neustadt stadium. At 3 p.m. on the 3rd May the prisoners had to form a column and began to leave the stadium when suddenly the Germans disappeared and British tanks appeared in front of them. They were free. The freed Stutthof survivors were then quartered in marine barracks near the stadium.
The end of life for Neuengamme, Mittelbau-Dora and Stutthof concentration camp prisoners.
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 frigate captain Heinrich Schmidt, with his headquarters at the U-boat school, 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 4,500 concentration camp prisoners on board 350 survived. Of the 600 guards, SS personnel, marines, 24 SS women and 70 crew, roughly 490 were rescued, among them captain Bertram and second officer Dommenget.
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. Of the 2,800 concentration camp prisoners on board only 50 survived. Practically all the SS guards and marines were killed. Captain Jacobsen, first officer Andresen and first engineer Lau were killed. Second officer Walter Felgner and third officer Schotmann and three merchant seamen are rescued. The British planes shot at the rescue boats and people in the water.
No acceptance of responsibility or honouring of the dead.
Only Max Pauly, the camp commander, was tried and convicted of war crimes and hanged in Hamelin prison. Not one of the many other Germans guilty of the murder of the concentration camp prisoners on board the Cap Arcona and Thielbek have been sentenced either by British or German courts. Those responsible for the murder of the 400 Stutthof concentration camp prisoners have never been brought to trial.
Four years after her sinking the Thielbek was refloated, repaired and returned to service under the name Reinbek. The remains of the bodies on board were placed in 49 coffins and laid to rest in the "Cap Arcona" cemetery in Neustadt. In 1961 the Knöhr and Burchard shipping company sold the ship which then sailed under the Panama flag with the name Magdelene, and later Old Warrior. In 1974 she was scrapped in Split in Yugoslavia. The Soviet Union acquired the Athen as part of reparations and was renamed the General Brusilow. On 27 May 1947 the ship was presented to Poland. Renamed the Warynski she sailed for many years between Gdingen and Buenos Aires via Hamburg. In 1973 she was taken out of service and today serves as a floating warehouse in Stettin with the designation NP-ZPS8.
Rudi Goguel: "Cap Arcona". Röderberg, Frankfurt/Main, 1972.
G. Klaucke & K. Hermann: Der Fall "Cap Arcona", 1995. Duration 90 minutes.