RAF pilots tricked into killing 10,000 camp survivors at end of war

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The Independent Online

In some of the final hostilities of the Second World War, almost 10,000 survivors of German concentration camps were killed by the Royal Air Force, whose pilots believed they were attacking senior Nazi officers.

In some of the final hostilities of the Second World War, almost 10,000 survivors of German concentration camps were killed by the Royal Air Force, whose pilots believed they were attacking senior Nazi officers.

A Typhoon squadron that attacked four ships in the Bay of Lübeck - strafing survivors struggling in the water - had been told the ships contained escaping SS troops. After a number of incidents in which captured Typhoon pilots had been executed by the Nazi élite corps, the pilots were in no mood to show them any mercy.

But in one of the most cruel episodes of the war, the ships contained up to 10,000 survivors, predominantly Jewish, of the concentration camps, and it was their bodies that would wash ashore on Germany's north-eastern coastline. The country's surrender was only four days away.

Details of the little-known event have been uncovered by documentary makers, whose television programme will be shown later today. They found that many of the RAF pilots involved were unable to put the events behind them, although the deaths were soon forgotten in the ensuing victory celebrations of VE Day.

The survivors were part of a larger group that had been at Neuengamme Camp in northern Germany. In the summer of 1945, with Hitler having committed suicide and the Reich crumbling, the SS was trying to destroy any evidence of the concentration camps - including prisoners.

The 40,000 Neuengamme prisoners were split up, some travelling south, some east and some north to the port of Neustadt. At Neustadt they were crammed into the filthy, unlit holds of the liners Deutschland and Cap Arcona and two large steamers, Theilbek and Athen.

The ships were anchored for days in the Bay of Lübeck, the prisoners having no idea of their destination. The conditions below were horrifying: there were no toilets, food or water, and as people died the bodies were piled at one end of the hold and then hauled up by the SS and thrown overboard.

RAF intelligence had been informed that high-ranking officers and SS troops had boarded ships that were fleeing the northern German ports to make a last stand in Norway. On 3 May 1945 three Typhoon squadrons equipped with rockets and 22mm cannons were ordered to sink the ships and open fire on the Germans in the water. This was an unusual order, but since D-Day the Typhoon squadrons had lost more than 150 pilots out of a total of 450. They also knew that the SS had executed a number of their pilots who had been forced to bale out.

On the ground, local intelligent sources in Lübeck had reported to the Allies that concentration camp internees had been loaded on to four ships. This information was relayed to the RAF but did not reach the Typhoon squadrons. Earlier reconnaissance flights had confirmed that SS officers had been seen on deck.

Squadron leader Derek Stevenson led the first raid. Speaking from his home in Switzerland, he told The Independent: "We had been in action for days blowing up railways, refineries and ships. For us this was just another job, but knowing the SS were on board made us all the more determined to destroy the ships. We came in at 9,000ft, dived to 3,000ft and I fired all eight rockets and every cannon round at one ship."

For the next hour the Typhoons attacked, setting the two liners on fire and sinking the Theilbeck. Thousands ofcamp survivors struggled in the water as they were shot at by the Typhoons, now coming in at 500ft. Witnesses said bodies seemed to jump out of the water as they were hit.

German patrol boats were picking their own men out of the water, but the propellers were also killing and injuring the other survivors. Some managed to stumble ashore only to be shot there. When the British Army arrived in the port of Lübeck later that day they saw thousands of bodies washed up on the beaches. There were very few survivors.

The British ordered the local population and the SS to dig a number of mass graves and bury the dead. Today the only markings on the nameless graves in the local cemetery are a number and the Star of David.

The SS commandant of Neuengamme Camp and many of his subordinates were sentenced to death at the Nuremberg trials.

The Typhoon pilots who flew the mission had no idea at the time of the horror they had wrought. Flight Lieutenant David Ince, another of the Typhoon pilots, said: "If you are in war, then these things happen. You try yourself to stop them happening. But it is the penalty of going to war, part of the downside, and part of the evil. Try as you will, you cannot stop it."