- - Sunday, May 29, 2016


By Robert P. Watson

Da Capo Press, $25.99, 292 pages

Surely the phrase “friendly fire” ranks among the most sobering words in the military lexicon. In the fog of battle, an artillery spotter plots the wrong target. A rifleman mistakes a friend for an enemy. A fast-flying plane drops bombs prematurely. The result is that a comrade dies unnecessarily.

Military history teems with such horrors. In July 1944 alone, during the battle of Normandy, errant bombs killed not only a three-star general, Leslie J. McNair, but 111 other American soldiers.

But perhaps the most tragic of such episodes was the accidental sinking, by British Royal Air Force bombers, of a ship off the coast of Northern Germany carrying 4,500 persons who the Nazis had evacuated from a concentration camp. Only 350 of them survived. The deaths were all the more horrific because those killed had undergone years of brutal captivity, truly “innocent victims.”

Why these persons died is the subject of a gripping — and disturbing — book by Robert P. Watson, a historian who has authored 36 books. History has pretty much overlooked the tragedy, Mr. Watson writes, because it was “sandwiched halfway between Hitler’s suicide and victory in Europe.” He drew heavily on archives in the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

What turned out to be the death ship was a one-time luxury German passenger liner, the Cap Ancona, which in the pre-war years carried 1,325 affluent passengers to South America per voyage. Owners called it “The German Titanic.” When the war began, it was converted into a “floating military barracks” and naval training platform.

In April 1945 the Cap Ancona was one of many vessels moored in the harbor of Lubeck, a Baltic Sea port. Some of the ships were there to ferry frantic Nazi officials and their families to sanctuary in Scandinavia to escape the onrushing Red Army.

But others made more sinister missions. With the Third Reich collapsing, Hitler ordered henchmen Himmler and Goebbels “to destroy the concentration camps and their inmates rather than allow them to fall into enemy hands.” Persons imprisoned in the camps “should not witness the triumph of being a victor.” Commanders should destroy “any evidence” of the Holocaust.

One of the camps to be evacuated, and then razed, was known as Neuengamme, on the outskirts of Hamburg. Its ostensible function was as a “work camp” to produce bricks. But it carried a reputation for harsh brutality, and thousands of prisoners perished there.

Then orders came: the camp was to be closed, and prisoners marched some 60 miles to the port, in subfreezing weather over ice-packed roads. Hundreds died. “Many lacked shoes and had to tie rags around their bloody feet, all were weak, ill and malnourished,” Mr. Watson writes. SS guards shot anyone who paused even briefly. Scores of other ships were taking on other camp inmates — and also fleeing Nazis.

Why the exodus? There was no feasible destination for the Cap Ancona once it left port. Orders found post-war dictated that some camps were to be destroyed by German planes, so that the deaths could be blamed on Allied bombers.

Circumstantial evidence is that the Germans planned the same ploy for the ships. Once they were out of sight of land, German submarines or bombers would destroy them. Or, even better: British intelligence knew that some of the ships carried ranking Nazis. Perhaps the British could be lured into doing the bombing, thinking they were attacking legitimate targets.

In any event, air activity was intense on May 3, with some 200 British planes sinking 29 vessels and damaging 115 more. And the Cap Ancona was among those that were attacked. A few frantic persons jumped into the sea. Some died in the frigid waters; others were killed when the British Typhoon war planes strafed the area, killing others. Some 4,500 died, and bodies washed ashore for weeks.

Then came a horrible realization. The previous day, Red Cross officials had given the Royal Air Force notice that some of the ships berthed in Lubeck bore former concentration camp prisoners.

A subsequent invasion confirmed that indeed there had been warnings. But “although there should have been enough time to warn the pilots who attacked ships by some oversight the message was never passed on.”

But would the prisoners have escaped death had the British been warned off?

At the Nuremberg trials, a ranking SS officer, Count Georg-Henning Bassewitz-Behr, was asked, “Was there an order that all detainees of concentration camps weren’t supposed to fall into the hands of the Allies under any circumstances?” The order was Himmler’s.

“Yes,” he replied. And if there was no chance to evacuate the prisoners, “they were supposed to be killed.”

Joseph C. Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.

Sign up for Daily Opinion Newsletter

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide