Cap Arcona

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The Cap Arcona, on January 1, 1927.
Career (Germany) Weimar Republic Merchant Marine
Builder: Blohm & Voss shipyard, Hamburg for Hamburg-Südamerikanische Dampfschiffahrtsgesellschaft (HSDG)
Laid down: July 21, 1926
Launched: May 14, 1927
In service: October 29, 1927 (maiden voyage)
Homeport: Hamburg, Germany
Fate: Requisitioned into the Kriegsmarine in 1940.
Career (Germany) 50px
Name: Cap Arcona
Operator: Kriegsmarine
Acquired: 1940
Out of service: 1940–14 April 1945
Fate: Sunk on May 3, 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 BRT, 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, Hamburg-Buenos Aires in 15 days
Capacity: 1,315 (1927)
Complement: 475

The Cap Arcona was a large German luxury ocean liner, formerly of the Hamburg-South America line. While heavily-laden with prisoners from Nazi concentration camps, she was sunk in 1945 by the Royal Air Force, with the loss of many lives.


File:Cap Arcona.JPG
Plans of the Cap Arcona.

The 27,561 gross ton Cap Arcona, named after Cape Arkona on the island of Rügen in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, 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]

In 1940, the Cap Arcona was taken over by the Kriegsmarine (German Navy) and used in the Baltic Sea as an accommodation ship. In 1942, she was used as a stand-in for the doomed Titanic in the German film version of the disaster. In early 1945, the Kriegsmarine reactivated her for Operation Hannibal, and she was used to transport 25,795 German soldiers and civilians from East Prussia to western Germany.[2][3]

As a prison ship

File:KZ Neuengamme - Luftbild - 1945.jpg
Aerial shot of the Neuengamme concentration camp taken by British aviation on April 16, 1945.

Towards the end of April 1945, the Nazis assembled a small fleet of ships in the Bay of Lübeck, comprising the liners Cap Arcona and SS Deutschland, and the smaller vessels Thielbek and Athen. The Athen was used to transfer prisoners from Lübeck to the larger ships and from ship to ship. By the end of the month, these ships held more than 10,000 prisoners from Neuengamme and its subcamps, and two barges came from Stutthof and Mittelbau-Dora. The order to transfer the prisoners from the camps to the prison ships came from Hamburg Gauleiter Karl Kaufmann, who was himself acting on orders from Berlin. Kaufmann later claimed during a War Crimes Tribunal that the prisoners were destined for Sweden, however, at the same trial Bassewitz-Behr, the head of the Hamburg Gestapo, said that the prisoners were in fact slated to be killed in compliance with Himmler's orders[4], and it has been suggested that the plan called for scuttling the ships with the live prisoners still aboard.[5]

On April 30, 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 the French resistant Michel Hollard), who were transferred from the Thielbek to the Magdalena, and the second with 225 women from Ravensbrück on board for transportation to hospitals in Sweden.

On May 2, 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. The International Red Cross informed Major-General Roberts that 7,000-8,000 prisoners were aboard ships in the Bay of Lübeck.[6][7]


File:Cap Arcona 10.86422E 54.04183N.jpg
Bay of Lübeck, three kilometers from Neustadt (left at the top): Position of the sinking of Cap Arcona.[8]

On May 3, 1945, four days after Hitler's suicide, but four days before the unconditional surrender of Germany, the Cap Arcona, the Thielbek, and the passenger liner Deutschland (possibly converted to a hospital ship but not marked as such), were attacked as part of general attacks on shipping in the Baltic by RAF Typhoons of 83 Group of the 2nd Tactical Air Force, commanded by Sir Arthur Coningham.

The attacks were by No. 184 Squadron, based at RAF Hustedt, led by Squadron Leader Derek L. Stevenson, by No. 193 Squadron, based in Ahlhorn (Großenkneten), led by Squadron Leader D. M. Taylor, by No. 263 Squadron, based in RAF Ahlhorn, led by Squadron Leader Martin Trevor Scott Rumbold, by No. 197 Squadron RAF, led by Squadron Leader K. J. Harding also at Ahlhorn, and by No. 198 Squadron based at Plantlünne led by Group Captain Johnny Baldwin. These Hawker Typhoon Mark 1B fighter-bombers used High Explosive 60 lb rocket projectiles, bombs, and 20 mm cannons.

Pilots of the attacking force stated that they were unaware that the ships were laden with prisoners who had survived the camps. However, some sources suggest elements of British command knew of the occupants, but failed to pass the information on.[9]

File:Cap Arcona burning.jpg
The burning Cap Arcona shortly after the attacks.

The RAF commanders ordering the strike reportedly thought that the ships carried escaping SS officers, possibly fleeing to German-controlled Norway.

Equipped with lifejackets from locked storage compartments, most of the SS guards were able to jump overboard from the Cap Arcona, and 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 of the prisoners who tried to board the trawlers were beaten back, while those who reached shore were shot down. Only 350 of the 4,500 former consentration camp inmates who had been aboard the Cap Arcona survived.[10].

RAF Pilot Allan Wyse of No. 193 Squadron later recalled, "We used our cannon fire at the chaps in the water . . . we shot them up with 20mm cannons in the water. Horrible thing, but we were told to do it and we did it. That's war."[11]

Severely damaged and set on fire, the Cap Arcona eventually capsized. The death toll was estimated at 5,000 people.[12]


Photos of the burning ships, listed as Deutschland, Thielbek, and Cap Arcona, and of emaciated survivors swimming in the very cold Baltic Sea (seven degrees Celsius), were taken on a reconnaissance mission over the Bay of Lübeck by F-6 aircraft of the USAAF's 161st Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron around 5:00 pm, shortly after the attack.[13]

On May 4, 1945, a British reconnaissance plane shot photos of the two laid wrecks : Thielbek, Cap Arcona.[14].

The capsized hulk of the Cap Arcona later drifted ashore, and the beached wreck was broken up in 1949. It was the second worst seafaring incident in history.

For weeks after the attack, the bodies of victims washed ashore, where they were collected and buried in mass graves at Neustadt in Holstein, Scharbeutz and Timmendorfer Strand.[15] Parts of skeletons washed ashore over the next thirty years, until the last find in 1971.[16]

The prisoners were mostly Jews from 28 different 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 others.[16]

Notable survivors

  • Erwin Geschonneck, who later became a notable German actor, and whose story was made into a film in 1982.
  • Emil František Burian, a musician and theatrical director, founder of Theater D, a leading avant-garde theater in interwar Europe.


See also

File:Mahnmal Poel.JPG
Memorial of the Cap Arcona in the Poel Island.


  2. Williams, David, Wartime Disasters at Sea, Patrick Stephens Ltd., Nr Yeovil, Somerset, UK, 1997, pp.235-36.
  3. Koberger, Jr., Charles W., Steel Ships, Iron Crosses, and Refugees, Praeger, NY, 1989, p. 87.
  4. 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 1574887734. 
  5. Bond, D. G. (1993). German history and German identity: Uwe Johnson's Jahrestage. Rodopi. pp. 150–151. ISBN 9051834594. 
  6. Noel Till, Report on Investigations, WO 309/1592
  7. Arthur, Max (October 16, 2000). "RAF pilots tricked into killing 10,000 camp survivors at end of war - Home News, UK". London: The Independent. Retrieved 2009-02-25. 
  8. "Die Tragödie in der Neustädter Bucht". Retrieved 2009-02-25. 
  9. 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."
  10. 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 1574887734. 
  11. China Daily, 2000-03-07.
  12. Isherwood, J.L. (May 1976). "Steamers of the Past: The Hamburg-South American Liner Cap Arcona". Sea Breezes. 
  13. ""The Sinking of the Thielbek"". Retrieved 2009-02-25. 
  14. No. 19 German magazine Schiffe Menschen Schicksale, Schnelldampfer "Cap Arcona", p. 37.
  15. Flemish Belgian Web site. [1] (Dutch)
  16. 16.0 16.1 Günther Schwarberg: Angriffsziel "Cap Arcona", Steidl Verlag, 1998 Göttingen.
  17. "Ehrenfriedhof für die Toten der Cap Arcona- und Thielbek-Katastrophe – Wikipedia" (in (German)). 2008-03-11. Retrieved 2009-02-25. 


Books in English

  • 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 0813190126, 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 1574887734

Books in German

  • 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 Wirklichkeit - Eine "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

External links

Documentaries, TV movie

  • Typhoons' Last Storm, Lawrence Bond, 2000.
  • The Cap Arcona case, Günther Klaucke, Karl Hermann, 1995.
  • Der Mann von der Cap Arcona, GDR TV movie, the Erwin Geschonneck's story by the theme of the sinking of the Cap Arcona, 1981/82.




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