Just as in the previous war, the conflict of 1939 through 1945 would be incredibly hard on the German merchant marine. Rebuilt at almost superhuman cost in the doldrum years of the Weimar Republic, it was to become the tool of a totally nihilistic regime that neither valued it, nor really knew how to use it. What followed was depressingly predictable.
“On land I am a hero; at sea I am a coward.”
This untypical bit of critical self analysis from the mouth of Adolf Hitler gave proof of where his priorities- and zone of malign expertise- really rested. Throughout the war, the German Navy and it’s civilian counterpart would remain very much the beggar at the feast as far as materials and priorities for the German armed services were concerned.
Of the two great pre war, North German Lloyd speed champions, the Europa was safely in Germany, but the Bremen was in New York, with only hours to escape before the formal declaration of war. Unwilling to see the ship interned just like her Great War predecessors, her crew sailed her out of New York without passengers, but with her decks rigged with explosives. Her crew gave a collective Hitler salute to the Statue Of Liberty as she sailed past it,
Outside territorial waters, a Royal Navy cruiser lay in wait for the Bremen, but the big liner confounded it, with her crew painting her grey as she made a headlong dash for the totally implausible port of Murmansk, in Russia.
In December, after three months as a ‘guest’ of Hitler’s temporary allies, the Bremen took advantage of darkness and fog to sneak down the coast of Norway on her way home. A British submarine actually sighted her, but was forced to dive by a German patrol aircraft. To the relief of her crew, the Bremen somehow made it home in one piece.
Painted in zig zag camouflage for the scheduled Operation Sealion, the planned invasion of Great Britain, the Bremen was left idle when that plan was aborted. In June of 1941, a disgruntled member of her skeleton crew set fire to the mammoth liner. Somehow, the 50,000 ton Bremen burned down to the waterline, in circumstances that have never been fully explained. Her gutted corpse was ripped apart after the war.
In December of 1939, the 32,000 ton, 1924 built Columbus, the third ship in the same line’s service to America, was intercepted off Cape Hatteras by a Royal Navy cruiser, HMS Hyperion. At the outbreak of war, the Columbus had headed for Cuba, where her cruise passengers were forcibly disembarked. Then, with her decks rigged with explosives just like the Bremen, she also attempted to run for home.
Her position was betrayed to the Royal Navy by a neutral American warship. Unable to outrun her heavily armed foe, the Columbus was scuttled by her crew. She was the first major liner casualty of the war on the Axis side. Events would prove that she would not be the last.
By January 1945, Germany had instituted Operation Hannibal, the evacuation by sea of as many civilians and soldiers as possible from East Prussia back to the interiors of the terminally contracting Reich. The approaching Red Army was unstoppable, and about to wreak a hellish vengeance for German atrocities committed across Russia itself.
On January 30th, the 28,000 ton Wilhelm Gustloff, a former ‘Strength Through Joy’ cruise ship built especially to cater to German workers and their families in peacetime, staggered out of the port of Gotenhafen, carrying anything up to an estimated ten thousand fear fuelled refugees and soldiers. The exact number was never recorded in the desperate haste of those times.
Emerging into the teeth of a howling gale, the wallowing liner became detached from her sole escorting warship. Just hours later, the Wilhelm Gustloff blundered into the cross hairs of a Russian periscope.
A trio of torpedoes from the Russian submarine S-!3 slammed into the liner. In little under an hour, amid scenes of indescribable horror, she capsized to port and sagged under the freezing Baltic waters. Just over 1300 survivors were plucked from the ice strewn seas, making for a never to be correctly ascertained death toll anywhere from six to nine thousand souls. To this day, the loss of the Wilhelm Gustloff remains the worst maritime disaster in history.
But in some ways, the sinking of the Cap Arcona on May 5th was even worse.
Hitler was already five days dead, but the war was not yet officially over, when RAF Typhoon fighter bombers discovered the three stack, pre war pride of the Hamburg-South America Line at anchor in the Baltic port of Neustadt, They promptly proceeded to fire rockets into the big liner, turning her into a huge, floating fireball,
Unknown to the British pilots, the Cap Arcona was actually loaded with over five thousand former concentration camp inmates, displaced from camps already overrun by the Allied advance. Within sight and sound of safety, most of these poor, emaciated souls would become unintended victims of the last great sea tragedy of the war. The bodies were still being washed up ashore for months afterwards.
This list, while depressing, is sadly by no means exhaustive.