Contrary to general belief the world’s greatest ship disaster did not occur in the Atlantic Ocean and the ship was not the RMS Titanic. The greatest ship disaster occurred on 3 May 1945 in Lübeck Bay in the Baltic Sea and the ship was the Cap Arcona.
The ships were involved: the Cap Arcona (above), 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 maneuverable. She was no longer of any use to the navy and was returned to the Hamburg-Süd line.
Photos of the S.S. Cap Arcona during the glory days of her liner services – late 1920s through the start of WW2.
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 Commissioner for Defense of North Germany and Reich Commissioner for Merchant Shipping, and commanded to sail for Lübeck before the repairs were completed. She was taken to the Lübeck industrial harbor. The Athen was also moved to the industrial harbor 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.