On 3 May 1945, a tragedy took place in the Baltic Sea’s Bay of Lübeck that is remembered in history as the sinking of the ocean liner Cap Arcona. The British Royal Air Force attacked German ships transporting prisoners from Nazi concentration camps. British bombs, missiles and shells killed people of more than 25 nationalities, not only Soviet citizens, but also people from the US, Britain, Germany, France, Canada, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Baltic states, Scandinavian countries, Greece, Serbia, and others. Their remains continued to wash up on the coast for several decades afterwards.
Estimates of the number killed range from 7,000 to 12,000, while the number of prisoners who survived the Cap Arcona sinking is thought to be between 310 and 350. There is also evidence that only 140 Soviet citizens survived. The temperature of the water that day was no higher than 7°C. It was not until the 1960s and 1970s that the general public found out about the tragedy that took place on 3 May 1945, and only thanks to material published in the USSR and abroad. Further evidence was then made public, and there are now new details about the events that took place 76 years ago.
A letter written by a man called Vasily Salomatkin (1919–1999), who was one of the prisoners involved in the tragedy on 3 May 1945, has been discovered among correspondence between the Soviet Ministry of State Security and the Office of the Plenipotentiary of the Soviet Council of Ministers on the Repatriation of Soviet Citizens for 1949. Of the historical documents available, the letter is of particular value because it was written by Salomatkin himself, it has never been published before, it has not been redacted or edited, and it contains previously unknown details about how the British military authorities treated the surviving prisoners.
In September 1939, Salomatkin took part in the liberation of Western Belarus and served in the Belorussian Special Military District before the start of the Great Patriotic War (1941–1945). Between 22 June and 12 October 1941, he fought the Nazis near Mogilev, on the Dnieper, near Yartsevo (Smolensk Oblast), and near Vyazma, where he was seriously wounded in a night battle and taken prisoner. Salomatkin was held in Nazi concentration camps in occupied Smolensk and Minsk and, from April 1942, in a camp in Kalvarija (Lithuania). He escaped from this camp but was caught in Western Poland and sent to a penal camp near the German city of Hanover. He was then moved to the Neuengamme concentration camp located 30 kilometres southeast of Hamburg.
“On 29 April 1945, the SS, sensing that allied troops were drawing closer to the Neuengamme concentration camp (near Hamburg), moved all the prisoners still able to walk to the city of Lübeck (a German port on the Baltic Sea). There were around 12,000 of us, and the vast majority were Russian prisoners of war,” writes Salomatkin.
In Lübeck, the prisoners were loaded onto barges and, heavily guarded by soldiers and boats, moved along Lübeck Bay to the Baltic Sea, where there were three vessels waiting for them, two small and one large. On 3 May 1945, according to Salomatkin’s letter, British troops reached Neustadt in Holstein not far from Lübeck and had demanded the town’s surrender by midday. The German authorities agreed. Then the British demanded the surrender of the ships on which the concentration camp prisoners were being held. The ships were anchored six kilometres from Neustadt in Holstein. “The SS guards on board the ships refused to surrender. Then a large number of British RAF planes arrived and started bombing the ships… The ships that we were on did not fire back at the RAF planes,” writes Salomatkin.
According to his letter, the first ship to be bombed was the Thielbek, which caught fire and started to sink. At this point, the SS guards on board the Cap Arcona put out a white flag to signify their surrender. The prisoners on deck also took off their white vests and started waving them in the air to signal to the British pilots that the ship was surrendering, “but the British pilots, just like the Nazi ones, acknowledged none of it and continued to bomb the ships, ignoring the white flag on board and the people on deck waving their white vests and begging for mercy, for their lives to be spared.”
The letter continues: “The next ship to be bombed after the Thielbek was the second smaller one. Then a bomb hit the stern of Cap Arcona; I was standing on the bow of the ship. At this point, the SS guards threw boats into the water and left, and the prisoners on board the ship started to panic. Those able to get out on deck threw themselves into the water…
“Torpedo boats appeared about a kilometre from where the Cap Arcona had sunk. Seeing them, we starting swimming in their direction, thinking that they were going to pick us up and save us, but the opposite turned out to be true. The soldiers on board the boats stood there and shot at the swimming prisoners with machine guns… Seeing this, I turned around and headed towards the shore. The shore was only just visible. I swam with nothing to help me, just my arms and legs. I too would have failed to reach the shore just like the others, but my misfortune turned to fortune when, having already swam a fair distance, the tide started going in. It saved me,” recalls Salomatkin.
After being washed ashore, Salomatkin was taken to a hospital and then to a camp for the survivors, where their ordeal continued on land. While the bombing of the ships laden with concentration camp prisoners has been written about before, only Salomatkin’s letter talks about what the survivors went through.
“After leaving the hospital, I was put in a camp with the other survivors. The British did not treat us properly. They forced us into small, cramped rooms and fed us poorly, just a single can of German rutabaga and spinach. Once, we protested and refused to eat, demanding real food, and they told us we weren’t worth it. They took two of the prisoners away, charged them with sabotage and threw them in prison. I never found out what happened to them. I left the camp, but they remained in prison,” writes Salomatkin.
According to his letter, the corpses of prisoners who had died on board the sunken ships started washing ashore a little while later. The Soviet prisoners put together a commission to bury the dead with military honours in a mass grave and asked a British officer – the commandant of Neustadt – for help, but he refused. “‘I will not give you anything. Go and bury them however you please and give them whatever honours you like; I have nothing for you’… So we did what we could to honour our comrades killed by British planes. That’s how the British treated us,” writes Salomatkin.
He also describes how the German prisoners of war in the town “were free to walk around, and they attacked us and beat us up; they threatened to kill all us Soviet prisoners of war during the night because they walked around with blades.” The British commandants did not respond to complaints made by the Soviet citizens. “The commandant just smirked and did nothing. Not having received a satisfactory answer, we went to the camp and told the other Soviet prisoners of war to get some weapons for self-defence. Once we had weapons, we posted our own guards around the camp in case the Germans attacked. That’s how things were with the British,” he adds.
According to Salomatkin, he was later taken on a military mission to repatriate Soviet citizens, where he “encountered flagrant displays of hostility towards the Soviet Union… The British gave speeches to the Soviet prisoners of war, urging them not to return to the Soviet Union, especially the Ukrainians, Latvians and Estonians”.