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 Lubeck harbor, Germany – one day before the British accepted the surrender of all German forces in the region. 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. Almost 10,000 camp survivors were crowded onto three ships: Cap Arcona, Thielbeck, and Athen. Although the final surrender was imminent, British Operational Order No. 73 for May 3 was to “destroy the concentration of enemy shipping in Lubeck Bay.”
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 – was packed with 2,800 prisoners. It sank in just 20 minutes, killing all but 50 of the prisoners.
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. In this case, however, RAF Fighter Command did their killing for them. The RAF records of the disaster are sealed until 2045.