The world’s greatest ship disaster: Not the RMS Titanic but the S.S. Cap Arcona.

Liner and Cruise History: The world’s greatest ship disaster: Not the RMS Titanic but the S.S. Cap Arcona.  Concentration Camp, Death March, Death at Sea by 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 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.

(Left: Cap Arcona after the RAF attack; 4,500 concentration camp victims were killed by the Allies) – There are several versions of what happened and why the RAF sunk the ship: (1) One version of the story is that the boarding of the prisoners with the knowledge that the ships would be attacked by Allied aircraft was a cynical trick by the German police authorities to have the prisoners killed. (2)  Another version is that Count Folke Bernadotte, the Vice President of the International Red Cross had arranged for the transfer of prisoners to Swedish hospitals and that this was the purpose of the Cap Arcona’s last tragic voyage. Such transfers had previously taken place. (3)  To this day, the responsibility of the German and British participants in the tragedy near Neustadt have not been judicially examined since the circumstances are not entirely clear. It is said that Red Cross radio operators attempted to warn the English against attacking the ships and to have notified them of the true situation on board. (4) The last word is that the RAF has sealed all records connected with the attack on the Cap Arcona until 2045.  Why?

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.


About Michael L. Grace

MICHAEL L. GRACE is part of the award winning team that created the internationally performed award winning musical SNOOPY, based on PEANUTS by Charles M. Schultz. SNOOPY continues to be one of the most produced shows (amateur & stock) in America/Worldwide and has had long running productions in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and in London's West End. There are over 100 individual productions every year. He has written movies for TV, including the award-winning thriller LADY KILLER, various pilots and developed screenplays for Kevin Costner and John Travolta. Besides co-writing and co-producing SNOOPY, he wrote and produced the one-man play KENNEDY. He produced P.S. YOUR CAT IS DEAD by pulitzer prize winning author James Kirkwood. He wrote the stage thriller FINAL CUT which had productions in the UK, South Africa and Australia. His one-man play, KENNEDY - THE MAN BEHIND THE MYTH, was developed for HBO and has starred Andrew Stevens, Gregory Harrison and Joseph Bottoms. He has recently been involved in European productions with CLT-UFA, Europe's leading commercial television and radio broadcaster. He wrote MOWs THE DOLL COLLECTION, THE BOTTOM LINE and LAST WITNESS for German television. While in college and graduate school he worked as a foreign correspondent for COMBAT, the famous leftwing Paris daily, and as a travel writer. He visited more than 50 countries. He struggled as an actor, then joined the enemy and entered the training program at William Morris. He became a publicist and worked for Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley's manager, at Paramount and MGM. He followed with a brief stint as a story executive, working in the frantic horror genre period of the early 80s and wrote THE UNSEEN. He went onto write for episodic television and develop series pilots. He was a continuing writer on such series such as LOVE BOAT, PAPER DOLLS, and KNOTS LANDING. He developed screenplays for such major award winning directors as Nicolas Meyers, Tony Richardson and J. Lee Thompson. He has written for all the major networks and studios. He has been hired numerous times as a script doctor, doing many uncredited rewrites on TV movies and features. He is currently writing A PERSON OF INTEREST, a thriller novel, and, IT'S THE LOVE BOAT... AND HOW IT CHANGED CRUISING BY SHIP a non-fiction book dealing with how the hit TV series as a major cultural phenomenon and altered the style of cruising by ship. He was raised in Los Angeles. He attended St. Paul's, USC and the Pasadena Playhouse. He received a B.A from San Francisco State University where he majored in theatre arts and minored in creative writing. He is listed as a SFSU leading alumni. He also apprenticed at ACT - The American Conservatory Theatre. For a brief period he had intentions of becoming an Episcopal(Anglican) priest and attended seminary at Kelham Theological College in the UK. When "the calling" wasn't there, he left seminary and did graduate work at the American University of Beirut. He has guest lectured at USC, UC San Diego, McGill, Univ. of London and the Univ. of Texas on the business aspects of making a living and surviving as a writer, focusing on development hell, in the Hollywood entertainment industry. Grace is a lifetime member of the Writers Guild of America, the Dramatist Guild and former regional chairman of the Steamship Historical Society of America. He resides in Palm Springs.

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