20 Iyar 5705 – May 3 1945
The German luxury passenger ship Cap Arcona, the world’s largest and fastest ocean liner at the time of its launching in 1927, was requisitioned by the Nazi regime’s navy in 1940 to provide accommodation for forces in the Baltic Sea. Toward the end of April 1945, the Germans put together a prison flotilla, including the Cap Arcona, in the Bay of Lübeck, and transferred over 10,000 concentration camp prisoners from the Neuengamme camp near Hamburg onto the ships, which by then were barely sea-worthy hulks. Locked below decks without food or medical attention for days, the prisoners were meant to be towed out to sea and the ships torpedoed, washing away all traces of the Nazis’ inhuman crimes as the Allies approached. On May 3, three days after Hitler’s suicide and just the day before German forces in the area surrendered, the flotilla was attacked by British Royal Air Force planes targeting Nazi shipping in the Baltic, trying to prevent the escape of the Nazi leadership. Though pilots later declared they’d had no idea there were prisoners on board, there is evidence that British intelligence had received reports of the concentration-camps’ victims presence, but had not passed them on.
Most SS personnel on the Cap Arcona’s decks managed to jump overboard with life-jackets, and survived. Before leaving, they shot those prisoners who’d managed to escape the ship’s hold. German fishing boats were sent out to save the crew, pulling 16 sailors, 400 SS men and 20 SS women from the freezing water. Prisoners who attempted to climb on board the boats were pushed or kicked back into the sea, and any who swam ashore were shot on arrival. The British shot indiscriminately at everyone in the water, killing more of the prisoners. Only 350 of the 4500 camp-victims from the Cap Arcona survived.