OCEAN LINER HISTORY – 1939 NEW YORK CARIBBEAN CRUISE FOR AMERICANS ABOARD NAZI SHIP – SS COLUMBUS

OCEAN LINER HISTORY – 1939 NEW YORK CARIBBEAN CRUISE FOR AMERICANS ABOARD NAZI SHIP – SS COLUMBUS

(SS Columbus being scuttled) At the outbreak of World War Two, SS Columbus was returning to New York form a cruise in the Caribbean when her captain received orders to put into Havana.

Further orders were received while at Havana to unload the 745 passengers and make a run for Germany.

After a British man-o-war tracked Columbus down on route to Germany, her crew took the decision to scuttle their ship rather than have it fall into the hands of the enemy.

On September 20th 1939, Columbus went down on fire 400 miles off the American coast. The American cruiser Tuscaloosa picked up her crew of 579.

SS Columbus – the fastest German liner

Shore boat of the SS Columbus on her last cruise out of New York – flying the Nazi flag.

Buffet – American passengers being served in 1939 on the last cruise of the SS Columbus

These are views from the last cruise of the SS Columbus before WW 2.

The plans for a German liner to be called “Columbus” had been made as early as 1914 when North German Lloyd had placed orders for two 34,000 ton ships to counter the impressive Hamburg American trio “Imperator”, “Vaterland” and “Bismark”. The North German twins were to be called “Columbus” and “Hindenberg”, but war would postpone their construction by over six years.

Roman Catholic nuns seemed to have no political position regarding the Germans or Nazis in 1939… as they are seen with other American passengers aboard the last cruise

In the aftermath of the Great War, the terms dictated in the Treaty of Versailles were particularly harsh on Germany, and the Germans were ordered to complete the two as of yet unbuilt ships as war reparations. So as the remainder of the surviving German fleet was parceled out to the victorious Allies, workers at the Schichau Shipyards were busily constructing a ship that was to have been their “Columbus”. But the Allies had dictated that the liner–completed in 1922–was to go to the White Star Line, and under the British flag she was renamed “Homeric”. Fortunately for the Germans, the Allied victors decided that the second ship would remain German flagged, and finally workers stated construction on what would become the S.S. “Columbus”.

Dancing lessons for American passengers on the SS Columbus last cruise

Construction of “Columbus” was not without problems. At her launch in 1922, the ship had become stuck on the launch ways, and it took two months to dislodge the great liner. Material shortages further delayed her entry into service, and it was not until April 1924 that she was finally ready to embark on her maiden voyage. When she finally entered service, “Columbus” was the largest and fastest ship in the German fleet.

“Columbus” quickly proved her worth on the North Atlantic and became an extremely popular ship. So profitable was she, that her owners started to consider a duo of express liners for service on the North Atlantic. These would ultimately become the “Bremen” and “Europa”, but it would be a further four years before these record breakers would enter service. “Columbus” had some years left as flagship of the North German Lloyd fleet.
In 1929, “Columbus” was refitted with steam geared turbines that had the effect of increasing her service speed from 18 to 20 knots. Her exterior profile was also altered to more closely fit with the sleek “Bremen” and “Europa”, most notably by the replacement of her tall raked funnels with more streamlined and squat funnels that were more characteristic of the motor liners of the day. When she was displaced as flagship of the North German Lloyd fleet by the faster express liners, “Columbus” still spent some summer months on the Atlantic. However, she spent much of her time cruising to the Caribbean, and indeed, she was in the midst of a Caribbean cruise when World War II started in September 1939.

Before Hitler took over – crew members celebrate Christmas aboard the SS Columbus in 1930

As with the case of most all liners not in home waters at the start of hostilities, great pains were taken to avoid capture by enemy vessels. With the British Navy controlling the seas, German liners were particularly vulnerable to attack. “Columbus” disembarked her passengers at Havana, Cuba, and would spend the next several months making quick dashes between various Central and South American ports amidst much speculation as to her intended use. Rumor was silenced on 20 December 1939 when it was reported the great liner had been scuttled by her crew off Vera Cruz, Mexico to avoid capture by the British Navy. Like many other liners before her, “Columbus” suffered the ignominious distinction of being a wartime casualty, and the career of another great German liner was laid to sea.

Interior spaces onboard “Columbus” were executed by the noted architect Professor Paul Ludwig Troost. Professor Troost took great pains to give connecting rooms a “harmonious whole” feel. The connecting Social Hall, Library and Smoking Room all exhibited a flawless transition from one to the other, and shared a common decorating theme, though each was uniquely arranged. Particular attention was devoted to giving the rooms a spacious feeling, and the Dining Room and Social Hall both extended up through two decks. Noted German artists were employed to provide art work for the ship, with murals by E. R. Weiss and hand carved art work by Joseph Wackerle.
Particular attention was also directed to the manner in which passengers of different classes interacted. Spaces on “Columbus” were ordered much the same as those found on pre-World War I ships. Decks were so arranged that passengers traveling in different classes never came in contact with one another. It was due in no small part to her arrangements and decoration that “Columbus” was a favorite of North Atlantic travelers, and later a favored cruise ship.

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