In the closing weeks of World War II, thousands of prisoners from the Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg, the Mittelbau-Dora camp at Nordhausen and the Stutthof camp near Danzig were marched to the German Baltic coast. Most of the inmates were Jews and Russian POWs, but they also included communist sympathizers, pacifists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, prostitutes, Gypsies and other perceived enemies of the Third Reich.
At the port of L beck almost 10,000 camp survivors were crowded onto three ships: Cap Arcona, Thielbeck and Athen. No one knew what the Nazis were planning to do, or what plans the Allies had already set into motion.
Although the final surrender was imminent, British Operational Order No. 73 for May 3 was to “destroy the concentration of enemy shipping in L beck Bay.” While thousands of camp prisoners were being ferried out to the once-elegant Hamburg-Sud Amerika liner Cap Arcona, the RAF’s 263rd , 197th , 198th and 184th squadrons were arming their Hawker Typhoon fighter-bombers with ammunition, bombs and rockets.
At 2:30 p.m. on May 3, at least 4,500 prisoners were aboard the Cap Arcona as the first attack began. Sixty-four rockets and 15 bombs hit the liner in two separate attacks . As the British strafed the stricken ship from the air, Nazi guards on shore fired on those who made it into the water. Only 350 prisoners survived.
The Thielbeck – which had been flying a white flag – and the poorly marked hospital ship Deutschland were attacked next. Although Thielbeck was just a freighter in need of repairs, it was packed with 2,800 prisoners. The overcrowded freighter sank in just 20 minutes, killing all but 50 of the prisoners.
In less than two hours, more than 7,000 concentration camp refugees were dead from the friendly fire. Two thousand more would have died if the captain of the Athen had not refused to take on additional prisoners in the morning before the attack.
Most who were familiar with the Cap Arcona disaster believed that the Nazis intended to sink the ships at sea to kill everyone on board. Hundreds of prisoners had already been killed on the forced marches from the camps. In this case, however, RAF Fighter Command did their killing for them.
On 4 May 1945, a British reconnaissance plane took photos of the two wrecks, Thielbek and Cap Arcona, the Bay of Neustadt being shallow. The capsized hulk of Cap Arcona later drifted ashore, and the beached wreck was finally broken up in 1949. For weeks after the attack, bodies of victims washed ashore, where they were collected and buried in mass graves at Neustadt in Holstein, Scharbeutz and Timmerdorf Strand. Parts of skeletons washed ashore over the next 30 years, with the last find in 1971.
The prisoners aboard the ships were of at least 30 nationalities: Belarusian, Belgian, Canadian, Czechoslovakian, Danish, Dutch, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Luxembourger, Norwegian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Swiss, Ukrainian, US, Serbian and possibly others.
On 30 January Wilhelm Gustloff, carrying a total of 10,582 passengers and crew, was torpedoed by the Soviet submarine S-13 and sank in 40 minutes. An estimated 9,400 people were killed.