An extract from Ghosts on the Shore by Paul Scraton, which is our Book of the Month for June
What we know:
The journey east began by walking west, back to the Priwall ferry for the short trip across the water to Travemünde. At first I walked the sands, aiming at the tower of the Maritim Hotel that stood on the opposite bank of the river, but after five minutes of slow progress I gave up and followed one of the boardwalked paths through the dunes to the sheltered track behind. Now I was walking through the colony of holiday cabins. They had been built close together, with tiny walkways running down either side between the walls and high fences erected to give some semblance of privacy in these cramped conditions. The track was rough and uneven, and though I walked alone I could see it on a warmer day, filled with strolling couples and bike-riding kids, legs spinning in too low a gear as they moved between their cabin, those of their friends, and the wide expanses of sand beyond the dunes. Outside a kiosk, locked and shuttered for the winter, I paused to pull a water bottle from my bag. I took a sip in the place where the cheap inflatables would be piled, next to the baskets of flyaway footballs and beach toys, a rack of old postcards never bought. I could smell the suntan lotion and the sweating tubs of penny sweets, and could hear the flip-flops slapping against the cool, tiled floor. It was the smell and the sound of a Welsh caravan park, transplanted to the Baltic.
On a wooded headland I reached the spot where the bay met the mouth of the river, opposite the Maritim Hotel. As so often at the Baltic coast, I was conscious of the absence of salt in the air. According to the Internet you can drink these waters, the saline content of the Baltic Sea being so low that it will not dehydrate you. I decided not to test this theory. Instead I stood and looking out across the water. There was not much to see. Slight waves. A few gulls buffeted by the breeze. A solitary boat.
There was not much to see, but plenty that I knew was there.
On 3 May 1945, three days after Hitler blew out his brains in a Berlin bunker, and only twenty-four hours before the German generals signed the unconditional surrender to end the Thousand Year Reich after only twelve, the SS began to load ships in Neustadt Harbour, north of Lübeck. Four ships, including the Cap Arcona, were filled with around 40,000 prisoners from the Neuengamme concentration camp. The plan was to commit one last crime before the curtain fell: to take these ships out to sea – filled as they were with prisoners from over thirty different countries – and scuttle them. An evidence-destroying act of mass murder, to take place in the shallow waters of the Bay of Lübeck.
To RAF pilots, however, these boats looked just like the troop transports they had been targeting for months in the waters north of Germany. And although it is strongly suspected that their commanders knew these boats were filled not with enemy soldiers but with prisoners, the instructions to the pilots were that these were transports of SS officers fleeing to Norway. And so the fleet was attacked from the air.
We used our cannon fire at the chaps in the water, RAF Pilot Allan Wyse of the No. 193 Squadron would later write. 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.
Most of the SS officers who had been accompanying the prisoners managed to escape the sinking ships and were rescued by German trawlers. The prisoners themselves were left to their fate. Those who managed to get off the burning ships were shot in the water or, if they made it to land, were executed on the sands by the SS. The RAF bombing raid and what followed resulted in the death of over 4,000 concentration camp survivors, and for over three decades their remains would continue to wash ashore, to rest on beaches all along the Bay of Lübeck and further down the coast.
I stood on the promontory at Priwall and looked out across the Bay of Lübeck. I looked north to where the Cap Arcona had gone down after an attack from the sky. Now I imagined the Atlantic, sucking the waters back through that narrow channel between Denmark and Sweden, the Baltic plug pulled, and the transformation of a featureless sea into a cracked and fractured landscape of sandbanks and crevices, of breathless fish and the thousands of skeletons, of ships and of people, resting on the damp sands. Skeletons that we know are there as we look towards the horizon, should we choose to think of them, even if it is only the divers among us who will ever see them.
Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic coast is published by Influx Press.
You can buy your copy here, from the Caught by the River shop.