The Cap Arcona was a large German luxury ocean liner, formerly of the Hamburg-South America line. While heavily-laden with prisoners from Nazi concentration camps, she was sunk in 1945 by the Royal Air Force, with the loss of many lives.
On May 3, 1945, four days after Hitler's suicide, but four days before the unconditional surrender of Germany, the Cap Arcona, the Thielbek, and the passenger liner Deutschland (possibly converted to a hospital ship but not marked as such), were attacked as part of general attacks on shipping in the Baltic by RAF Typhoons of 83 Group of the 2nd Tactical Air Force, commanded by Sir Arthur Coningham.
Pilots of the attacking force stated that they were unaware that the ships were laden with prisoners who had survived the camps. However, some sources suggest elements of British command knew of the occupants, but failed to pass the information on.
The RAF commanders ordering the strike reportedly thought that the ships carried escaping SS officers, possibly fleeing to German-controlled Norway.
Equipped with lifejackets from locked storage compartments, most of the SS guards were able to jump overboard from the Cap Arcona, and they shot any prisoners who tried to escape. German trawlers sent to rescue Cap Arcona's crew members and guards managed to save 16 sailors, 400 SS men, and 20 SS women. Most of the prisoners who tried to board the trawlers were beaten back, while those who reached shore were shot down. Only 350 of the 4,500 former concentration camp inmates who had been aboard the Cap Arcona survived.
RAF Pilot Allan Wyse of No. 193 Squadron later recalled, "We used our cannon fire at the chaps in the water . . . we shot them up with 20mm cannons in the water. Horrible thing, but we were told to do it and we did it. That's war."
Severely damaged and set on fire, the Cap Arcona eventually capsized. The death toll was estimated at 5,000 people.