The friendly fires of hell

7,000 Holocaust survivors were inadvertently killed by the UK a day before Germany surrendered.

By ROBERT J. WHITE-HARVEY
April 18, 2007 23:13
The friendly fires of hell

royal air force 88. (photo credit: )

On May 3, 1945 - in the worst friendly-fire incident in history - Britain's Royal Air Force killed more than 7,000 survivors of Nazi concentration camps who were crowded onto ships in L beck harbor, Germany. The ragged masses that had survived the Holocaust stood no chance against the guns of their liberators. This tragic mistake occurred one day before the British accepted the surrender of all German forces in the region. Reports of the incident were quickly hushed up - as a jubilant world prepared to celebrate the Allied victory in Europe. Despite the bitter irony of dying in hellish fires on sinking ships just hours before liberation, the tragedy was quickly forgotten or resolutely ignored. The anniversary of this dark day will soon pass by again - largely unnoticed or unmentioned. By early May 1945, the rumors of Hitler's suicide had rekindled hope for beleaguered prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. The Red Army had just conquered Berlin, the British held Hamburg and Americans were in Munich and Vienna. After surviving unspeakable horrors and deprivations for years, the battered prisoners could finally dare to hope that their day of deliverance was at hand. In the closing weeks of World War II, thousands of prisoners from the Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg, the Mittelbau-Dora camp at Nordhausen and the Stutthof camp near Danzig were marched to the German Baltic coast. Most of the inmates were Jews and Russian POWs, but they also included communist sympathizers, pacifists, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, prostitutes, Gypsies and other perceived enemies of the Third Reich. At the port of L beck almost 10,000 camp survivors were crowded onto three ships: Cap Arcona, Thielbeck and Athen. No one knew what the Nazis were planning to do, or what plans the Allies had already set into motion. Although the final surrender was imminent, British Operational Order No. 73 for May 3 was to "destroy the concentration of enemy shipping in L beck Bay." While thousands of camp prisoners were being ferried out to the once-elegant Hamburg-Sud Amerika liner Cap Arcona, the RAF's 263rd, 197th, 198th and 184th squadrons were arming their Hawker Typhoon fighter-bombers with ammunition, bombs and rockets. At 2:30 p.m. on May 3, at least 4,500 prisoners were aboard the Cap Arcona as the first attack began. Sixty-four rockets and 15 bombs hit the liner in two separate attacks. As the British strafed the stricken ship from the air, Nazi guards on shore fired on those who made it into the water. Only 350 prisoners survived. The Thielbeck - which had been flying a white flag - and the poorly marked hospital ship Deutschland were attacked next. Although Thielbeck was just a freighter in need of repairs, it was packed with 2,800 prisoners. The overcrowded freighter sank in just 20 minutes, killing all but 50 of the prisoners. In less than two hours, more than 7,000 concentration camp refugees were dead from the friendly fire. Two thousand more would have died if the captain of the Athen had not refused to take on additional prisoners in the morning before the attack. MOST WHO were familiar with the Cap Arcona disaster believed that the Nazis intended to sink the ships at sea to kill everyone on board. Hundreds of prisoners had already been killed on the forced marches from the camps. In this case, however, RAF Fighter Command did their killing for them. In the Cap Arcona/Thielbeck/Athen disaster, the tragic deaths of so many who had suffered so much for so long were quickly forgotten. After years of unprecedented bloodletting and destruction, the nations involved were in shambles, their populations numbed by suffering and death. The unfortunate victims who perished at the close of history's worst conflagration were quickly lost in the fleeting euphoria of peace. In 1945, at the close of the war in Europe, the victorious British and their American allies did not want a media disaster overshadowing their V-E Day celebrations. When the extent of the friendly-fire incident became known at Westminster, the British government and Allied Command effectively prevented most news of the disaster from spreading from Germany. Beyond war-weariness and postwar jubilation, other factors conspired to ensure that the valiant prisoners who died at the threshold of freedom would not be given much attention in the world press. In a war in which the British had paid so high a price to defeat the Nazis, to even criticize their forces was tantamount to siding with the devil. Then postwar Germany quickly became one of the "good guys" as an important frontline ally in the Cold War against communism. As such, most Germans preferred not to draw attention to their own war atrocities. Millions of Jews, Russians, Serbs, Poles and others had already been killed by the Nazis. Tens of millions more were homeless refugees, with many near starvation. The memory of 7,000 or 8,000 concentration camp survivors killed by mistake would soon wash away in the tide of history in a violent age. Britain has never officially apologized for its tragic mistake at L beck Bay, nor has it honored the innocent victims with a proper memorial. The RAF records of the disaster are sealed until 2045, one century after the attack. No British government document has referred to the estimated 7,500 victims of its mistake. In May 1990, Germany opened a two-room museum dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Cap Arcona tragedy in the small port city of Neustadt-in-Holstein. A memorial monument was erected on the beach nearby at Pelzerhaken, where many of the bodies washed ashore and were buried. Other monuments were erected along L beck Bay and at the Neuengamme Camp Memorial southeast of Hamburg. Much has been written in German about the tragedy, but surprisingly little about the Cap Arcona has made it to the English press. On a recent visit to the memorial, a helpful resident of Neustadt said to me: "So your family is German?" I said, "No." "Oh, then you are Jewish?" Again I said, "No." My new acquaintance looked puzzled. Eventually he asked: "Well how could you possibly know about this?" I asked myself: "Why did it take me a half century to find out?" A Jewish dental student, Benjamin Jacobs, gives a firsthand account of the friendly fire attack in The Dentist of Auschwitz (University of Kentucky Press, 1995). Along with Eugene Pool, the Boston dentist also wrote The 100 Year Secret: Britain's Hidden World War II Massacre (Lyons Press, 2004). Documentaries on the subject, such as Lawrence Bond's Typhoons' Last Storm, have had only limited publicity. According to legend, Pheidippides was an Athenian herald who ran from the battlefield at Marathon to Athens 2,500 years ago. After announcing the Greek victory over the Persians, he allegedly died on the spot. The tale has been widely propagated by organizers of modern athletic events. Surviving the horrors of concentration camps - one day at a time - is in many respects like a marathon run. Mere survival under such brutal conditions surely tested the endurance of both body and spirit. And like the mythical runner, thousands of inmates made it all the way to the end of their agonizing journeys only to perish at the finish line. A half-century after the ill-fated air raid, we still know very little about the Jews, the Russians and other prisoners who survived so much before dying on the finish line in May 1945. By the time British records are unsealed in 2045, all children and most grandchildren of the victims will be gone. Historians will pore over the tragic details of the Cap Arcona disaster with the same level of detachment that we now feel for events such as the Franco-Prussian War or the siege of Sevastopol. There is no question that the friendly-fire fiasco was a tragic error made during a routine military operation. Despite the terrible consequences, few reasonable people would condemn the British for their ill-fated raid. Some Hitler apologists have even attempted to use such mistakes to blame the Allies for monstrous crimes committed by the Nazis. Yet the continued avoidance of criticizing friends does not justify shunning all mention of the innocent victims of the attack. Whether embarrassing or not, the 7,500 Cap Arcona victims deserve to be remembered.


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