This Day in Jewish History / Allied Forces' Catastrophic Attack

After the Nazis had all but surrendered to the Allies, they packed several ships with Jewish prisoners, in a last-ditch effort to kill them. The Royal Air Force accommodated, attacking the ships and killing more than 7,000 innocents.

May 3, 1945, is the day of the British Royal Air Force attack on Luebeck harbor, where the Germans had packed some 8,000 concentration camp prisoners, the vast majority of them Jews, into three vessels. Seven thousand and five hundred of the prisoners were killed, making it one of the largest maritime disasters in history.

By May of 1945, the Axis forces were nearly vanquished. Adolf Hitler had killed himself on April 30, the city of Berlin had surrendered two days later, and on May 7, in Rheims, France, German forces would surrender unconditionally to the Allies. It was in this context that Reichsfuehrer SS Heinrich Himmler gave the order that no civilian prisoners held by the Nazis were to emerge from the war alive. Prisoners from Neuengamme, the largest concentration camp in Germany, and several others, were sent on a death march northward.

On April 19, 1945, some 11,000 prisoners who survived the march (half the number that began the journey) arrived at Luebeck, on the Baltic Sea, some 60 km northeast of Hamburg. A detailed website about the Luebeck disaster hosted by the University of Hamburg explains that the prisoners were made to board three ships in the harbor – the Cap Arcona, the Athen and the Thielbek – for the express purpose of having them die at sea. The ships were unmarked, and not fit for sailing anywhere. Prisoners had no food or water. After the war, witnesses spoke of plans either to scuttle the ships, of having German forces attack them by air or by U-boats, or of simply blowing them up. The direct order to transfer the prisoners to the ships came from Karl Kaufmann, the gauleiter (Nazi party chief) of Hamburg, and German officers who tried to refuse were threatened with execution.

At midday on May 3, after a first flyover of British warplanes, Captain Nobmann of the Athen was ordered to return to Luebeck and pick up additional prisoners who had arrived from Stutthof concentration camp on barges. He refused, but because the Athen was at harbor when the attack came, the nearly 2,000 people on board were spared from death.

The largest of the ships, the SS Cap Arcona, had started life in 1927 as a German luxury liner in the Hamburg-South America line (in 1942, it was used in a German film about the Titanic as a stand-in for the unsinkable British vessel). By the end of World War II, it had been retired from use as a troop transport, and was supposed to be out of service. The Thielbek and the Athen were both smaller vessels.

On May 2, the International Red Cross received information that 7,000-8,000 prisoners were being held on ships in Luebeck harbor. That information should have been passed on to the Allies. Yet, the next day, Typhoon fighter-bombers from five RAF squadrons attacked the ships. First hit was the Arcona, at 2:30 P.M. Prisoners who were held below deck were shot by their captors; those who jumped into the ice-cold sea and tried to swim to shore were shot in the water. Of 4,500 prisoners on board, 350 survived. Some 490 of the 600 crew and soldiers were rescued.

The Thielbek was hit next, about an hour later. Only 50 of its 2,800 prisoners survived the RAF attack, and most of its German crew were killed as well.

Although an investigation by a British officer into the disaster later concluded that it appears that the primary responsibility for this great loss of life must fall on the British RAF personnel who failed to pass to the pilots the message they received concerning the presence of KZ [concentration camp] prisoners on board these ships," there has never been any official British apology for or acknowledgment of the unnecessary loss of innocent lives, nor is it clear why the attack was carried out. Records of the event are to remain classified until 2045.

Bodies of the dead continued to appear on the shore for months and more after the disaster. The last body of a prisoner who died that day is believed to have washed ashore in 1971.

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