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Maritime catastrophe before the end of the war

On 3rd May 1945 more than 6,000 concentration-camp prisoners died during the bombardment of the ships “Cap Arcona” and “Thielbek” in the Bay of Lübeck. The International Tracing Service (ITS) holds documentation on the identification of those who died from the maritime catastrophe as well as documents relating to the burial sites of the corpses washed ashore and the later exhumations.

Between 21st and 26th April 1945 the SS sent thousands of prisoners from Concentration Camp Neuengamme on death marches, some of them in freight cars, some on foot, to Neustadt. In Neustadt Bay the “Cap Arcona” lay anchored, a former luxury steamer of the Hamburg-South America-Line, used by the German War Marine as of 1940 both as naval base as well as housing for soldiers. The two freighters “Athen” and “Thielbek” were also in the bay.

The concentration camp prisoners were “loaded” onto the ships, which were desperately overcrowded, with neither food nor drinking water. On 28th April 1945 the “Cap Arcona”, originally constructed to carry 850 passengers, had some 4,300 prisoners, approx. 400 guards and a ship’s crew of just under 100 men on board.

On 3rd May 1945 British fighter bombers attacked the “Cap Arcona” and the “Thielbek” which were drifting in the Baltic Sea at three kilometers’ distance from Neustadt. The British had taken them to be transport ships for troops – a fatal mistake, and, according to historians today, one provoked by the SS.

The “Cap Arcona” received several bomb hits and burst into flames. Both this ship and the “Thielbek”, which had also been struck by several bombs, capsized. As there were no lifeboats for the prisoners, many of the–emaciated and weakened–jumped into the cold waters, in the hopes of somehow saving their lives. SS-guards, some on-shore and some standing on the badly listing ships, fired at the fleeing prisoners. Of the some 7,000 passengers on board the “Cap Arcona” and the “Thielbek” only about 500 survived.