On this day, 72 years ago, May 3, 1945, the German liner SS Cap Arcona, serving as a prison ship, was sunk by Royal Air Force fighter bombers in the Baltic Sea. Almost 5,000 prisoners from Nazi concentration camps who were being transported aboard the ship, were killed. Tragically, the attack took place as the war was ending. It was three days after Hitler’s suicide and only one day before the unconditional surrender of the German troops in northwestern Germany. Also attacked were the prison ships Thielbek and Deutschland. All the prisoners and crew were saved on the Deutschland, but an 2,000 additional prisoners died on the Thielbek.
RAF Pilot Allan Wyse of No. 193 Squadron recalled, “We used our cannon fire at the chaps in the water… we shot them up with 20 mm cannons in the water. Horrible thing, but we were told to do it and we did it. That’s war.”
SS Cap Arcona was severely damaged and burning and subsequently capsized. The capsized hulk later drifted ashore in the the Bay of Neustadt. The beached wreck was finally broken up in 1949.
The Vintage News reports: For weeks after the sinking, bodies of the victims were being washed ashore, where they were collected and buried in a single mass grave at Neustadt in Holstein. For nearly thirty years, parts of skeletons were being washed ashore, until the last find, by a twelve-year-old boy, in 1971.
SS Cap Arcona was built for the Hamburg Südamerikanische Dampfschifffahrts-Gesellschaft (“Hamburg-South America Line”) in 1927. She carried passengers and cargo between Germany and the east coast of South America, and in her day was the largest and fastest ship in that service.
In 1940 the Kriegsmarine requisitioned her as an accommodation ship. In 1942, she served as the set for the German propaganda feature film “Titanic.” In 1945, she evacuated almost 26,000 German soldiers and civilians from East Prussia before the advance of the Red Army, before being turned into a prison ship.