The Cap Arcona Massacre
By James Donahue
The wartime bombing of the German liner Cap Arcona should never have happened. The war was ending,
the German army was in a state of collapse and the ship was filled with prisoners that had just been removed from Nazi concentration
camps in East Prussia.
Pilots from the Royal Air Force, making what must have been one of their final attacks in the war,
bombed and sank the Cap Arcona and at least two other ships at their anchorage in the Bay of Lubeck and an estimated 7,000
innocent people died. It was marked as one of the worst maritime losses of life in history.
The sinking of the Cap Arcona was such a horrific event that the British government ordered its war
records of the sinking sealed, thus hiding the disaster from the world for years.
The Cap Arcona was a 675-foot-long luxury liner launched for the Hamburg-South American Line in 1927.
The ship carried upper-class travelers and steerage-class emigrants, mostly from Europe to South America. The ship was seized
by the German Navy in 1940 and used as a floating barracks until returned to active service ferrying civilians and military
personnel on the Baltic Sea as part of Operation Hannibal.
Operation Hannibal was one of the largest emergency evacuations by sea in history. It involved about
1,000 ships that transported between 800,000 and 900,000 refugees and 350,000 soldiers back to Germany to escape the advancing
Red Army in 1945.
As the war in Europe was coming to a close, and the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps were being
revealed, the Swedish diplomat, Count Folke Bernadotte, vice-president of the Red Cross, was organizing the rescue of Danish
and Norwegian prisoners from the camps to Sweden. The three ships, the Cap Arcona, Athen and Thielbek were anchored in the
Bay of Lubeck, their decks laden with rescued prisoners from the Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg. About 140 of
the prisoners were being transferred from the Thielbek to another ship, the Magdalena, for transport to hospitals in Sweden.
British intelligence allegedly knew about the ongoing rescue operation involving these ships. Yet
on May 3, four days after Hitler’s suicide and four days before the unconditional surrender of Germany, the RAF bombed
and sank the Cap Arcona, the Thielbek and the passenger liner, Deutschland, then operating as a hospital ship, in four separate
Survivors from the sinking that reached shore were gunned down by SS troops. It was said that only
350 escaped the massacre.
Bodies of the victims washed ashore along the coast for weeks after the sinking. They were collected
and buried in a single mass grave at Neustadt in Holstein. For years after that, parts of skeletons washed ashore. The last
find, a 12-year-old boy, was discovered as late as 1971.
The burned out and capsized hulk of the Cap Arcona drifted ashore where it was broken up for scrap