The 27,561 gross ton SS 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.
In 1940, the Cap Arcona was taken over by the Kriegsmarine (the German Navy), painted overall gray and used in the Baltic Sea as an accommodation ship in Gdynia, Poland. In 1942, she was used as a stand-in for the doomed Titanic in the German film version of the disaster. 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 western Germany.
These trips were made very dangerous by mines and Soviet submarines. On 30 January, the 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 died. In the early morning of February 11, the same submarine S-13 torpedoed the 14,666-ton SS General von Steuben on its way to Copenhagen with military and civilian passengers. 3,500 were lost.
On 20 February, the Cap Arcona’s captain Johannes Gertz shot himself in his cabin in Copenhagen rather than face another trip back to Gdynia.
On 30 March 1945, the Cap Arcona finished its third and last trip between Poland and Copenhagen carrying 9,000 soldiers and refugees, but her turbines were completely worn out. They were repaired only partially 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.
Towards the end of April 1945, the Germans 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. Since the steering motors were out in the Thielbek and the turbines were out in the Cap Arcona, the Athen was used to transfer prisoners from Lübeck to the larger ships and between ships.
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 came from Stutthof and Mittelbau-Dora camps. The order to transfer the prisoners from the camps 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 that the prisoners were destined for Sweden. However, at the same trial, Bassewitz-Behr, Hamburg’s last Higher SS and Police Leader (HSSPF), said that the prisoners were in fact slated to be killed “in compliance with Himmler’s orders”.
It has been suggested that the plan called for scuttling the ships with the prisoners alive and aboard, while Kurt Rickert, who had worked for Bassewitz-Behr, testified at the Hamburg War Crimes Trial that he believed that the vessels were to be sunk by U-boat or Luftwaffe aircraft.
Eva Neurath, who was present in Neustadt, and whose husband survived the catastrophe, reported that she was told by a police officer that the ships held convicts and were scheduled to be blown up.
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,[note 2] 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 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. On that day 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.
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 (possibly converted to a hospital ship but not marked as such), were attacked as part of general attacks 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 eight HE High Explosive “60 lb” RP-3 unguided rockets or two 500 lb (230 kg) bombs.
Pilots of the attacking force stated that they were unaware that the ships were laden with prisoners who had survived the camps. Some sources suggest elements of British command knew of the occupants, but failed to pass the information on. 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.
Equipped with lifejackets from locked storage compartments, most of the SS guards were able to jump overboard from the Cap Arcona, and there are rumours that despite the water temperature of only 7°C, they were busy shooting 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. The prisoners who managed to swim ashore were mainly gunned down by the SS. Only 350 of the 4,500 former concentration camp inmates who had been aboard the Cap Arcona survived.
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 20 mm cannons in the water. Horrible thing, but we were told to do it and we did it. That’s war.”
Severely damaged and set on fire, the Cap Arcona eventually capsized. The death toll was estimated at 5,000 people. Photos of the burning ships, listed as Deutschland, Thielbek, and Cap Arcona, and of 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.
On 4 May 1945, a British reconnaissance plane took photos of the two laid wrecks, Thielbek and Cap Arcona, the Bay of Neustadt being shallow. The capsized hulk of the Cap Arcona later drifted ashore, and the beached wreck was broken up in 1949. 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. Parts of skeletons were washed ashore over the next thirty years, until the last find in 1971.