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Holocaust Survivors Killed by Friendly Fire

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The SS Cap Arcona was a large German passenger liner that was used as a troop ship during the Second World War. Her military use made her a legitimate target for Allied forces. In May 1945, she was attacked by Royal Air Force Typhoons and sunk in Neustadt Bay in the Baltic Sea about 30 km north of Lübeck. Tragically, the vessel was not carrying German forces but prisoners evacuated from a slave labour camp.

The SS Cap Arcona in happier days.

The SS Cap Arcona in happier days.

Nazi Cleansing of Concentration Camps

The Second World War was coming to an end in Europe and Nazi officials were scrambling to cover up their evil deeds. In his last order, in late April 1945, Heinrich Himmler told the people running the Dachau death camp that “No concentration camp prisoner must fall alive into enemy hands.” So, a final orgy of killing took place and death marches were organized.

In the city of Hamburg, officials anticipated Himmler’s cleansing tactics by a few weeks. The Neuengamme prison camp on the outskirts of the city held upwards of 10,000 inmates. Local politicians had a great scam going by hiring out prisoners from the camp for factories to use as slave labour.

Karl Kaufmann was the head of the Nazi Party in Hamburg. By late winter 1945, he could clearly see that the end was near so he decided to scrub the stain of Neuengamme off the city’s landscape. He requisitioned SS Cap Arcona, which was at anchor in Neustadt Bay along with two other ships a freighter called the Thielbek and Athen, a motor launch that was used to ferry people and stores to the other vessels.

In March 1945, Kaufmann started to empty the camp and send the slave labourers to the Cap Arcona, and Thielbek. The prisoners were kept in the same squalid conditions as in the camp while SS guards watched over them. Accounts vary, but the Cap Arcona was carrying the most, probably 6,500 prisoners.

Karl Kaufmann and his cronies could congratulate themselves as the evidence of their venality had been moved to some other place. Someone else could deal with it and they could focus on developing plausible stories about how they were not to blame.

Klaus Kaufmann - see Bonus Factoids below.

Klaus Kaufmann - see Bonus Factoids below.

Allied Advance in 1945

As the winter of 1945 faded, the Allied strategy involved a race to the Baltic Sea. The plan was to stop the Soviet advance from the east before it got to Denmark.

But, the Red Army was racing westwards; this meant the Allies had to cut a few corners to reach their objectives. The result was communications bedlam and units pushing northwards without coherent orders other than to get to the Baltic.

Into this maelstrom of action two pieces of vital intelligence arrived. On May 2nd, 1945, the British liberated Lübeck and on that afternoon the International Committee Red Cross told the victorious commanders that the two ships in Neustadt Bay were full of labour camp survivors. The following morning, the Swedish Red Cross passed along similar information.

But, the Second Tactical Air Force had already received orders for their mission. The pilots were to attack the two ships as they were believed to be military targets. The Allied intelligence suggested those on board the ships were senior Nazi officials who were planning to go to Norway for a last stand. The Red Cross messages never got to the air force commanders in time to call off the raid.

Aerial Attack

At mid-afternoon on May 3, 1945, four squadrons of Hawker Typhoon Mark 1B fighter-bombers swooped out of the sky over Neustadt Bay. The planes were equipped with 20 mm cannons as well as rockets and bombs.

Ground crew load rockets into a Typhoon’s launch racks. The cannons can be seen protruding from the wing.

Ground crew load rockets into a Typhoon’s launch racks. The cannons can be seen protruding from the wing.

They made short work of the Thielbek; it sank in 20 minutes. The Cap Arcona took longer to die. She caught fire and, eventually, capsized.

Some of the prisoners managed to get out of the ship’s hold but were met by flames and machine-gun fire from SS guards. Seizing the ship’s few life jackets, the guards leapt overboard and were rescued by German trawlers. A few emaciated prisoners jumped into the frigid water only to be shot by troops on the shore. They were also strafed by British aircraft whose pilots believed them to be Nazi officials trying to escape.

Estimates vary, but it seems about three quarters of the people who survived the horrors of concentration camps died in that RAF raid: maybe 7,000 in all. However, a much higher percentage of the SS guards survived. A year after the attack, bodies were still washing up on area beaches and it’s thought a bone found in 1971 came from one of the victims.

One theory is that Karl Kaufmann and the Nazis filled the ships with prisoners knowing they would be attacked, thereby getting the British to do their dirty work for them. Another is that the plan was to take the vessels out to sea and scuttle them to destroy the evidence of their cruelty, but the Allied advance was so swift they didn’t have time to execute their scheme.

The Arcona ablaze.

The Arcona ablaze.

Bonus Factoids

  • The SS Cap Arcona was launched in 1927 and carried passengers in luxury between Europe and South America. The Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels used the ship in a 1943 movie about the sinking of the RMS Titanic. The plan was to ridicule British and American passions for luxury and greed. However, the movie was never shown because it dawned on the propagandists that it could be viewed as a mirror image of the sinking German government.
  • The RAF records regarding the attacks on the SS Cap Arcona and the other vessels are sealed and won’t be opened until 2045.
  • Karl Kaufmann was arrested by the British in Hamburg in 1945 and became a witness at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. He argued the Cap Arcona was being made ready to take the prisoners to neutral Sweden despite the fact that she was not seaworthy. He was tried for war crimes and sentenced to a prison term but was released on the grounds of poor health. However, he didn’t die until December 1965.
  • About 105,000 prisoners passed through the Neuengamme camp during its existence. Of these about 40,000 died in the camp; most of the others were killed elsewhere.
A memorial to the victims of Neuengamme camp.

A memorial to the victims of Neuengamme camp.

  • “Neuengamme.” Holocaust Encyclopedia, undated.
  • Why the RAF Destroyed a Ship with 4,500 Concentration Camp Prisoners on Board.” Daniel Long, The Conversation, April 25, 2017.
  • “The Cap Arcona.” The Crime Museum, undated.
  • “RAF: The Tragic Sinking of the SS Cap Arcona, 5,000 Concentration Camp Prisoners Killed.” Russell Hughes, War History Online, October 31, 2017.
  • “WWII: For Nearly 39 Years, Parts of Skeletons Were Being Washed Ashore – SS Cap Arcona Was Carrying Around 5,500 Concentration Camp Inmates.” Nick Knight, The Vintage News,January 20, 2016.

© 2018 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on November 26, 2018:

This is such a tragedy for the victims of the atrocities committed by the Nazis. I was unaware of this event. World War II has many awful tales of suffering and death. Very good article.

Liz Westwood from UK on November 24, 2018:

This is a World War 2 atrocity that I had not heard of before. A tragic tale.

Siny J from Delhi, India on November 23, 2018:

One theory is that Karl Kaufmann and the Nazis filled the ships with prisoners knowing they would be attacked, thereby getting the British to do their dirty work for them. Another is that the plan was to take the vessels out to sea and scuttle them to destroy the evidence of their cruelty, but the Allied advance was so swift they didn’t have time to execute their scheme.

Whatever is the motive, innocent lives lost due to the war and the associated events.

Really sad news.

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