The Sinking of the Cap Arcona
The Cap Arcona was a German luxury liner that was sunk in the last days of WWII in one of the most tragic naval disasters of the entire war. The history of the ship and the story of its sinking is little known today.
The Cap Arcona was a German Turbine Steamer (27560 BRT) that was launched by the Hamburg-South America Line on May 14th, 1927. The ship was named after Cape Arkona which is on the Baltic Sea island of Rügen in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. It was completed on October 29th, 1927, and made its maiden voyage on November 19th, 1927 from Hamburg to La Plata. In 1940, the Cap Arcona was taken over by the German Kriegsmarine for use as a naval accommodation ship in the German-controlled Baltic port of Gotenhafen (Gdyina). Specifically, the ship was under the control of Festungkdt. Gotenhafen (Fortress Commander, Gotenhafen) known as a Kasernenschiff. In 1941, it came under the control of Kübef. Mittlere Ostsee (Coastal Control Officer Middle Baltic). In these roles, the Cap Arcona played the seemingly unimportant part of providing housing and living space for Kriegsmarine sailors. It lay at anchor in Gotenhafen for the majority of WWII in this role.
An interesting side note regarding the Cap Acrona is that the ship was used in 1943 to produce the German film “Titanic”. The film was essentially a feature-length propaganda epic and was the most expensive film produced in Germany up to that time. The film was released in Paris in the winter of 1943 and but was banned shortly after due to its depiction of mass death at a time when Germany was being bombed on a regular basis. It wasn’t shown again until 1949 after which it fell into obscurity. In 2005 a complete version of the film was made available once more.
As WWII came to a close the Kriegsmarine increasingly turned its attention to a massive sea rescue operation taking place in the Baltic Sea. Between late 1944 and May of 1945, over 2,000,000 refugees were transported to the west in the wake of advancing Soviet forces. During these rescue operations 25,000 lives were lost, most with the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff and the Goya accounting for over 15,000 lives combined. Even so these operations proved to be incredibly successful. As the sea rescue operation in the Baltic became increasingly more frantic though, every available German ship was put into use in making the run to take out refugees and soldiers. The Cap Arcona like most other German vessels in the Baltic would take part in these rescue operations in the closing weeks of WWII.
Earlier in WWII there existed a Kriegsmarine shipping control authority known as a Kriegsmarinedienstellen or KMDs – Naval Service Field Offices. The KMDs were responsible for the coordination of merchant marine shipping and Kriegsmarine transport. Up until the last year of WWII, the German merchant marine (Handelsmarine) was not under 100% total Kriegsmarine control, and as a result, there was a greater strain on many rescue and transport operations. To add to these problems, there existed a political position created by the NSDAP High Command known as the Reichs Commissioner for Shipping, or Reikosee. Reikosee was headed by Gauleiter Kaufmann from Hamburg, and it was his duty to oversee the attempt to centralize control and economic use of all merchant shipping. He was a member of the NSDAP and was appointed as a political figure. His position plays one of the most important roles in the ultimate fate of the Cap Arcona.
To correct the terrible shipping and transport situation, in 1944, Grossadmiral Karl Donitz created a new, more powerful shipping authority in Germany known as Seetra – the Wehrmacht Sea Transport Officer. Under this new position, the German Kriegsmarine was able to take complete and total control of all German merchant marine shipping, as well as all other forms of naval shipping. Transports sailed if, when, and how Seetra directed them to. It had authority over all shipping, and most importantly, over Reikosee. Although Reikosee was not in the chain of command of the Kriegsmarine, Seetra had the ultimate power to direct any and all merchant marine and transport shipping, and Reikosee would get whatever Seetra left behind.
In 1945 in the closing months of WWII the Cap Arcona, under Seetra direction, helped rescue 26,000 refugees in three separate runs between the besieged eastern ports and the west. As mentioned above these runs were part of the largest naval evacuation operation in history and consisted of the transport of millions of refugees, soldiers, sick, and injured fleeing from the advance of the Soviets. After her third and final run, exhausted and worn-out from lack of maintenance and constant use, the Cap Arcona ended her stint as a Kriegsmarine refugee transport ship when Seetra and the German Naval High Command released her from their control.
In April of 1945, the Cap Arcona was ordered to Neustadt Bay near Kiel where she was paid off and stricken from Kriegsmarine control. At this time Reikosee took control of the Cap Arcona and directed that the ship be used as a floating prison vessel and to prepare for the transport of concentration camp inmates from the Neuengamme Camp near Hamburg. Over 4,500 inmates were eventually force marched to Neustadt and taken onboard between April 26th and April 28th, 1945.
On May 3rd, 1945, just days after Hitler committed suicide and 4 days before Germany surrendered the Cap Arcona was attacked by Hawker Typhoon Mark 1B fighter-bombers. The Typhoons were from the 83 Group of the 2nd Tactical Air Force and attacked the Cap Arcona as a part of operations against all German shipping in the Baltic. The British attack consisted of the No. 184 Squadron, No. 263 Squadron, No. 197 Squadron, and No. 198 Squadron. The attack was grimly successful and caused the ship to burn extensively and later capsize. Those inmates who weren’t killed immediately in the initial attack were gunned down by SS guards onboard, or by the RAF pilots who were under orders to strafe survivors in the water. Tragically the British pilots that attacked the Cap Arcona had no way of knowing that the ship was filled with innocent victims or that days later British units would enter Neustadt itself.
Amongst all this carnage only 350 of the 4,500 inmates survived the sinking and its aftermath. Nearly 490 of the 600 Germans onboard survived.
Like all those lost at sea, may those who died with the Cap Arcona rest in peace.
Steel Ships, Iron Crosses, and Refugees; The German Navy in the Baltic 1939-1945, by Charles Koburger