It was 75 years ago tomorrow on May 3, 1945, that the liner Cap Arcona was sunk by RAF fighter bombers in the Bay of Lubeck in the Baltic Sea.

The German prison ship and three other ships, the Deutschland, Thielbek and Athen, were alleged to be carrying fleeing SS officers and other senior Nazis trying to escape to Norway, where parts of the country were still in Nazi hands.

There were indeed SS people on board, but in one of the war’s great tragedies, the vast majority of the passengers were concentration camp inmates. Most of them were Jewish, but there were other victims of Hitler’s lunacy, such as homosexuals and communists. In all, some 30 different nationalities were represented on board.

If they were ever known about, the deaths were soon forgotten in the ensuing victory celebrations of VE Day. It was only when survivors spoke out that the real horror of the event surfaced.


The SS Cap Arcona was a large ocean liner originally built in 1927 for the Hamburg-South America line. She was requisitioned as an accommodation ship in 1940, but was briefly removed from service in 1942 so she could play the part of the Titanic in a crude German propaganda film about the sinking of the famous vessel.

She had already evacuated 26,000 German soldiers from East Prussia, as it was being overrun by the Soviet Red Army, before she docked in the Bay of Lubeck to become a prison ship.

Her main turbines were out of use, so the chances of her taking prisoners to Norway was non-existent. Instead, the Cap Arcona lay at anchor in the Bay until she was filled with prisoners from a concentration camp near Hamburg. SS chief Heinrich Himmler had issued a strict order: “No concentration camp prisoner must fall alive into enemy hands.”

It is likely the prison ships were going to become death ships. It seems they were to be towed out to sea and sunk by the SS.

Proof of their intentions came on the morning of May 3, when some 500 prisoners who could not be put aboard the already overcrowded fleet of prison ships were marched onto a beach and machine-gunned to death.


Though some in the RAF knew the ships were carrying concentration camp prisoners, the men who ordered the raid and the pilots who carried it out did not know.

They had been told it was the SS on board and, in a very unusual departure from the norm, they were ordered to shoot any survivors in the sea.

Five squadrons equipped with Hawker Typhoon fighter bombers, each carrying 20mm cannons and either bombs or rockets, were dispatched in two waves. They were to attack the ships which were not carrying Red Cross signs and were therefore a legitimate target, not least because British intelligence had uncovered the plot for the SS to don naval uniforms and escape by sea.

Speaking in 2000, squadron leader Derek Stevenson, who led the first raid, told The Independent: “We had been in action for days blowing up railways, refineries and ships. For us this was just another job, but knowing the SS were on board made us all the more determined to destroy the ships. We came in at 9000ft, dived to 3000ft and I fired all eight rockets and every cannon round at one ship.”

The Cap Ancona was badly damaged. It caught fire before she turned turtle and capsized. The Thielbek and Deutschland also capsized.

Most of the SS were able to escape, though some were indeed shot in the sea by the RAF. Most of the prisoners on board the three ships died, either on board or in the freezing water.

Some 7000 people died that day, though around 3000 survived, the Athen rescuing most of them. Bodies washed up on the shore for months afterwards. They were buried in mass graves. It was only in 1971 that the remains of the last victim were found on the shore.


The information that could have saved the prisoners was simply not passed on at a time of great confusion in the British forces.

An official report into the tragic events compiled shortly afterwards stated: “The intelligence officer with 83 Group RAF has admitted on two occasions; first to Lt H. F. Ansell of this team (when it was confirmed by a wing commander present), and on a second occasion to the investigating officer when he was accompanied by Lt. H. F. Ansell, that a message was received on May 2, 1945, that these ships were loaded with KZ [concentration camp] prisoners but that, although there was ample time to warn the pilots of the planes who attacked these ships on the following day, by some oversight the message was never passed on ...

“From the facts and from the statement volunteered by the RAF intelligence officer, 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 prisoners on board these ships.”


Flight lieutenant David Ince, one of the Typhoon pilots, said later: “If you are in war, then these things happen. You try yourself to stop them happening. But it is the penalty of going to war, part of the downside, and part of the evil. Try as you will, you cannot stop it.”

A television documentary shown in 2000 found that many of the RAF pilots involved were unable to put the events behind them.

No one was ever charged or prosecuted for the killings of thousands of innocent civilians, and the events were indeed down to the fog of war.