The greatest civilian maritime disaster

Posted by admin | April 15, 2012 2

RMS Titanic

The Titanic, the sumptuous liner which sank due to an  accidental collision during its maiden journey on April 15, 1912, bringing death to 1523 of the 2228 passengers and crew members aboard. As the Titanic industry cranks into overdrive on the 100thAnniversary of the disaster on 15th April 1912 a timely reminder that contrary to general belief the world’s greatest ship disaster did not occur in the Atlantic Ocean and the ship was not the Titanic.

To give some balance to the Titanic commemorations the greatest civilian sea disaster actually took place in May 1945 when 7,500 civilians were murdered by RAF Fighter Command. The disaster in the Bay of Lübeck on May 3, 1945, involved 3 ships: Cap Arcona, Thielbek and Deutschland. A total of 7,500 people were killed in the air-raid. The ships had been commandeered by the Nazis 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. The British who were seen as potential rescuers by the concentration camp prisoners turned out to be their murderers. Mass graves were dug along the beach between Neustadt and Pelzerhaken where the bodies were washed up or brought ashore.

After Hitler had committed suicide on 30 April 1945 Admiral of the Fleet Karl Dönitz succeeded him as supreme commander. It was falsely reported that the Nazi leadership planned to move to Norway and to fight on from there having assembled around 500 ships in Lübeck Bay and Kiel Bay for this purpose. This falsehood remains uncorrected in British publications until today.

The Cap Arcona, one of 3 ships sunk by the RAF on 3rd May 1945 after Hitler had committed suicide and the German surrender was being negotiated killing 7,500 Holocaust prisoners.

On the 16th April 1945 Fighter Command had been given domain over the skies of Germany and Coastal Command over the coast. Winston Churchill had given the order following the bombing of Dresden which he had criticised as a wilful act of terror and destruction. This decision replacing Bomber Command with Fighter Command had serious consequences that resulted in the bombing of the prison ships. Bomber Command’s aerial reconnaissance was best informed regarding events and changes on the ground in Germany. They knew the exact position of concentration camps and so where not to bomb. For example, not one bomb landed on Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg. In fact, planes had flown low over the camp, waggling their wings, giving hope to the prisoners on the parade ground. Headquarters of Second Tactical Air Arm in Süchteln had little knowledge of the transport of concentration camp prisoners northwards. Consequently Operation Order No. 73 on the 3rd May 1945 read: “Destruction of the concentration of enemy shipping in Lübeck Bay west of Poel island and northwards to the border of the security zone”.

On the afternoon of May 3, 1945, British “Typhoon” fighter-bombers, striking in several attack waves, bombarded and fired on the Cap Arcona and then the Thielbek. The two ships, which had no military function or mission, were flying many large white flags. “The hoisting of white flags proved useless,” notes the Encyclopedia of the Third Reich. The attacks were thus violations of international law, for which – if Britain and not Germany had been the vanquished power – British pilots and their commanders could have been punished and even executed as “war criminals.”

The Cap Arcona in its glory days as a liner on the Hamburg – South America routes

The Thielbek, struck by rockets, bombs and machine gun fire, sank in just 15-20 minutes. British planes then fired on terror-stricken survivors who were struggling in rescue boats or thrashing in the cold sea. Nearly everyone on board the Thielbek perished quickly, including nearly all the SS guards, ship’s officers and crew members. Only about 50 of the prisoners survived.

The burning Cap Arcona took longer to go under. Many inmates burned to death. Most of those who were able to leap overboard drowned in the cold sea, and only some 350-500 could be rescued. During the next several days hundreds of corpses washed up on nearby shores, and were buried in mass graves. Having sunk in shallow water, the wreck of the capsized Cap Arcona remained partially above water as a grim reminder of the catastrophe.

Cap Arcona Memorial, Neustadt/Holstein. The memorial marks the mass grave of over 7,500 KZ prisoners that where killed during the sinking of the ships “Cap Arcona” and “Thielbek” on 3 April 1945

Only Max Pauly, the Stutthof  Concentration Camp camp commander, was tried and convicted of war crimes and hanged in Hamelin prison. Not one of the many other Germans guilty of the murder of the concentration camp prisoners on board the Cap Arcona and Thielbek have been sentenced either by British or German courts. Those responsible for the murder of the 400 Stutthof concentration camp prisoners were never brought to trial.

The burning Cap Arcona shortly after the attacks.


The Bay of Lübeck

The British Government has sealed the files until 100 years after the disaster ensuring that the information that would bring the tragedy to the public eye is locked until 2045, long after all remaining relatives are dead. No British government has ever made reference to the deaths of the 7,500 people in Lübeck Bay. There has never been a wreath laid nor a speech given in their memory.

For a personal account by a grandson of one of the survivors in the Jerusalem Post see;

For more on Lübeck see;


Female Prisoners on a Barge in the Baltic Sea while being evacuated from the Stutthof Concentration Camp. (Photograph from the Main Commission for the Investigation of Nazi War Crimes, courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives.)

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