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The SS Cap Arcona — The Tale of One of The Most Tragic Maritime Disasters

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Considered one of the most impressive ships of its time, the Cap Arcona was luxury liner lost as a result of sinking as it was filled with concentration camp prisoners and sailors. Named after Cape Arkona located in Mecklenburg on the island of Rugen, and launched on May 14, 1927, this impressive German ship carried passengers ranging from classes that included steerage-class immigrants to aristocratic upper-class travelers that journeyed primarily to South America. The ship served the stopping the transport of commercial passengers.

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On an interesting note, in 1943, the SS Cap Arcona was used as a stand-in in the full length film “Titanic” which was produced in Germany and served as a accommodation ship to provide outside location shots required for filming. However, the lifespan of this epic movie release was shortened due to its inclusion of the mass deaths that resulted from rampant bombings in Germany. Additional controversy occurred when movie director Herbert Selpin was arrested after making defamatory remarks about the Kriegsmarine sailors. After once again making unfavorable remarks against war efforts made by the Germans, Selpin was later found hanged in his jail cell. The movie was not available for viewing again until 1949 and again in 2005 when a full version of the film was made available for viewing.

In 1945, the German navy revived the SS Cap Arcona for Operation Hannibal and was used to transport over 25,000 German civilians and soldiers from Eastern Prussia to West Germany. The riskiness of these trips were marred by the threat of Soviet submarines, adding a dangerous tone to each trip. A tragic incident occurred on 30 January when 10, 582 crew and passengers of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff where killed by a Soviet torpedo, sinking the ship in just under 40 minutes and skilling 9, 400 souls.

One day after the surrender of German troops at Luneburg Health in northwestern Germany, and three days after the apparent suicide of Adolph Hitler, three ships that included the Theilbek, the Deutschland and the SS Cap Arcona were attacked by bombs carried by Hawker Typhoon Mark bomber aircraft from the No. 184, 193, 197, 198 and 263 Squadrons, killing over 5000 souls after striking the ship with over 40 rockets. After suffering a series of gapping holes throughout the hull of the ship, an insufficient pumping system and the lack of lifeboats and a subgrade system for fighting fires, many passengers were forced to jump while others were trapped below deck. It is said that unbeknownst to them, pilots were not aware that these vessels were carrying prisoners that actually survived concentration camps and believed these ships were carrying SS officers who were thought to be escaping to Norway, which was fully controlled by Germany. Many prisoners that tried to escape were shot down and those that attempted to swim ashore sealed their fate by being gunned down. A small group of 350 concentration camp prisoners of the original 4, 500 survived the bombing of the SS Cap Arcona. 490 of 600 Germans onboard the ship survived.

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