The Nazi Titanic

Title:                      The Nazi Titanic

Author:                  Robert P. Watson

Watson, Robert P. (2016). The Nazi Titanic: The Incredible Untold Story of A Doomed Ship in World War II. Boston, MA: Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group

LCCN:    2016003417

VM383.C365 W38 2016


  • Introduction: history’s secrets — Part I. Opening act: Germany’s Titanic — A bold idea — The queen of the Atlantic — An urgent message — Part II. Starring role: Nazi propaganda film — Rewriting history — Hollywood on the Rhine — Raising the Titanic — The celebrated Selpin — A new star — Blockbuster — Part III. Third role: evacuation ship — The tide of war changes — Evacuation — Neuengamme — A cruel race — Swedish savior — Part IV. Final role: floating concentration camp — Exodus — Floating concentration camps — In the bunker — Operation Rainbow — Death from above — Waves — Part V, Curtain call — Final act — Aftermath.


Date Posted:      February 24, 2017

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden[1]

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 written 36 books. History has pretty much overlooked the tragedy, Mr. Watson writes, because it was “sandwiched halfway between Hider’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 prewar 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 postwar 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.”

[1] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (21, 3, Fall/Winter 2015, pp. 107-108). Joseph C. Goulden’s 1982 book, Korea: The Untold Story of the War, was published in a Chinese-language edition in 2014 by Beijing Xiron Books. He is author of 18 nonfiction books. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times, for AFIO’s Intelligencer, for law journals, and other publications. Some of the reviews appeared in prior editons of The Washington Times or The Washington Lawyer (DC Bar Association) and are reprinted by permission of the author. Goulden’s most recent book [as of 2016] is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

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