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.
...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 an age when the words "coverup" and "massacre" are thrown around like so much confetti, it helps to put things into perspective.
Even in the context of the war, it is unconscionable that Britain does not even acknowledge what it did, let alone investigate this unimaginable tragedy.
UPDATE: Wikipedia adds some detail:
The ships were carrying from 7,000 to 8,000 prisoners from the German concentration camps in Neuengamme, Stutthof and Mittelbau-Dora, half of whom were Russian and Polish POWs, others from 24 nationalities, including French, Danish, and Dutch. Those reaching the shore after the sinkings were shot by SS troops, but about 350 managed to escape from the massacre; others were cannoned by the British pilots while trying to get ashore.
For weeks after the sinking, bodies of the victims were being washed ashore, to be collected and buried in a single mass grave at Neustadt in Holstein. For nearly three decades, parts of skeletons were being washed ashore, the last find, by a twelve years old boy, was in 1971.