The German ship Brmen, conducting a British blockade, ended its career in a junkyard.
By David Luhrssen
After docking in New York on August 28, 1939, just four days before the outbreak of World War II, Captain Adolf Ahrens of the German shipping company Norddeutscher Lloyd was faced with a decision.
The wayward skipper was again able to defy orders by allowing his ship, the passenger shipBremen, the jewel of the German merchant fleet, could be interned by the neutral United States, or he could obey orders and run off to pilot themBremenunder the eyes and cannons of the British Royal Navy, whose surface fleet dominated the North Atlantic, in a mad sprint home. Ahrens chose to pilot his ship to its berth in Germany.
It turned out to be the longest journey of theBremenhad ever undertaken. After a dangerous three-month odyssey, the luxury liner finally returned to its berth at Columbuskai in Bremerhaven. Ahrens relied on seamanship, luck, and the support of Nazi Germany's early-war ally, the Soviet Union.
the ssBremen: Designed by an award-winning architect
TheBremenwas one of the most respected blockade runners in the history of seafaring. Along with her sister shipEuropa, DieBremenrepresented Norddeutscher Lloyd's bid to challenge Cunard Line and French Line for luxury transatlantic passenger service in the interwar years. Architect Bruno Paul, whose work won awards for Germany at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair and whose buildings were known for their clean, classic elegance, led their design team. Paul, who designed one of Berlin's first skyscrapers, gave theBremen’s salons and cabins have a thoroughly modern appearance. Among his innovations was a unique split-funnel design in which the ship's two twin stacks, obstructions on most passenger ships, separated on the promenade deck to provide additional space for saloons and entertainment spaces.
TheBremenwas built for both speed and comfort, and on her maiden voyage in July 1929, she took home the coveted Blue Riband for the fastest transatlantic crossing. At a speed of 27.83 knots, she beat the Cunard liner and previous Riband holder RMSMauritaniaby two knots and travels from Cherbourg to New York in just four days, 18 hours and 17 minutes. TheBremenwas almost as fast as light cruisers, the greyhounds of the world navies. It was as modern as possible, equipped with desalination machines that turned seawater into drinking water.
The German ship appeared just months before the Wall Street stock market crash of October 1929, which triggered a worldwide depression and created favorable conditions for the rise of Adolf Hitler. Industrial unrest, including the regular shipyard strikes that theBremen's construction in the old trading town that gave her her name would never slow the ship in the years following Hitler's appointment as German Chancellor in 1933BremenThe crew of over 900 men and some women included a NSDAP cell and even a unit of the SA, the brown-shirted storm troopers who helped Hitler fight his way to power, but also the passengers traveling by planeBremenafter 1933 were rarely disturbed by politics.
In order to keep foreign customers and polish Germany's image as a modern, moderate state, it was the declared policy of German shipping companies to downplay National Socialism. Apart from the swastika flag fluttering at the stern, the Nazi takeover brought only a few changesBremenfrom the passenger perspective.
The mood, however, was decidedly anything but carefree, as theBremensailed from Bremerhaven on 22 August 1939 with cargo, thousands of mailbags and 1,200 passengers on board, most of whom were US citizens trying to escape the storm clouds gathering over Europe. The following day, as scheduled, the liner anchored briefly in the ports of nations soon to be at war with Germany, and picked up another 500 passengers at Southampton and Cherbourg before heading for the open Atlantic.
Arrived in America against orders
On the evening of August 25 at the 56th longitude, theBremenreceived word from Germany that all German ships on the high seas were to return to their home port before the outbreak of war. Captain Ahrens ignored the order and continued sailing to New York.
He also broke the rules again the following day by radioing Germany of his intention to travel to New York. On August 27, Ahrens broke radio silence again by telling his superiors that he only had enough fuel for three days and was sailing to Havana, where the passengers would disembark. This time the German Admiralty and Transport Ministry gave him clear and direct orders to disembark his passengers in New York, refuel and return to Germany as soon as possible. Ahrens finally obeyed.
AfterBremenArrived in New York on August 28, greeted by reporters and newsreel cameras along with tugboats and customs officials, Ahrens quickly and ingeniously prepared the ship for her most auspicious voyage, purchasing black paper from a theatrical supply company to black out the hundreds of portholes and windows. Although Norddeutscher Lloyd's New York office relayed instructions from the Interior Ministry for the liner's expeditious departure for Bremerhaven, US Customs officials were not enthusiasticBremenleave. Under the authority of recently enacted neutrality regulations, 26 customs officers boarded the ship on the morning of August 29, searched her bow to stern for weapons and contraband, inspected the lifeboats, counted life jackets, and paused for coffee and meals. At the end of the working day, the customs officers departed, stating that their report had to be read by the customs chief in New York before the ship could depart.
Because of the unexpected delay, Ahrens granted his team leave for the night. Many of the sailors were so familiar with New York from previous trips that they jokingly referred to the city as the "suburb of Bremerhaven". As they strolled through Times Square, they found a notice of their ship's arrival on the electrically-lit billboard of the New York Times building. Some of the sailors ventured into Manhattan's German restaurants while others toured attractions such as Broadway and Rockefeller Center.
TheBremen's officers believed that the Roosevelt administration was delaying their departure to give the Royal Navy time to set up pickets in the Atlantic or in the hope that Ahrens would lose heart and allow his ship to be interned and perhaps eventually by confiscated by the United States. merchant marine.
On the morning of August 30, customs agents boarded the ship again, this time removing paneled walls, searching the tanks in the engine room, and examining the deepest corners of the ship. They returned the next morning, checked the ship's pumps and, according to a report later released in Germany, walked around dragging their feet. The crew could only console themselves that customs agents also inspected the French liner Normandie, which docked nearby.
The crew prepares for war
In the late afternoon, the US authorities finally approved nothingBremento depart At 6:30 p.m. she finally set sail. On their way to the Atlantic, the ship's band slowly glided past Lower Manhattan and intoned "Deutschland über Alles" and the anthem of the NSDAP "Horst Wessel Lied". Many crew members had gathered on deck, arms raised in the Nazi salute. But political zeal and martial zeal could not overrule the old courtesies of the sea. If thatBremenfilesNormandie, Sailors from both ships waved and dipped their flags in salute. In contrast to theBremen,DieNormandiewould never leave New York Harbor. It was interned and eventually seized by the United States as a troop transport before being destroyed in a mysterious fire at the port in 1942.
After passing the lightshipAmbrose, DieBremenWorking from lifeboats hovering above the waterline, the crew of , quickly painted the liner's black hull a dull gray to match the overcast North Atlantic. TheBremenThe white superstructure and yellow chimney were also painted with a mixture of white and black paint when the gray was used up. The ship name and home port have also been overlaid with dark paint. Acceleration at 27-28 knots thatBremenfurther northeast through heavy seas and dense fog. Running lights were turned off, radio silence was maintained and additional lookouts were posted on deck and on the masts. At the first sign of another ship on the horizon, theBremenchanged course to avoid detection.
Hoping for either peace or to overtake the start of war, the officers drew up detailed plans for sinking the ship and evacuating the crew if captured by the British. Mattresses, wood and petrol were piled at key points to set the ship ablaze, even as engineers planned to open channels to flood the liner's lower decks. Sandbags were placed around the wheelhouse in case British planes fired at the ship.
Hunted by the Royal Navy
Tension increased on September 1 when it was announced on the radio that the German army had rolled over the Polish border. The Germans had hoped that France and Britain would avoid Hitler, as they had done so often in recent years. Breaking news was regularly posted on the ship's bulletin boards. By September 3, when Great Britain declared war on Germany, theBremenwas south of Iceland and emptied into the Denmark Strait. The captain gathered the crew in the main dining room to break the disheartening news.
Until then theBremenwas hunted by sizeable Royal Navy units anxious to capture or sink the pride of the German merchant fleet. British submarines lurked near the entrances to German ports. Two British cruisers, escorted by eight destroyers, roamed the Norwegian coast and heavier units of the British Home Fleet patrolled the North Atlantic. But the British never expected thatBremento defy the threat of icebergs by crossing the Arctic Circle into the chilly Denmark Strait. Lacking clothing warm enough for the cold, the crew resorted to clothing normally available for passengers in the ship's shop and stacked layers to retain body heat.
Arrive safely in Murmansk
On September 6, the German ambassador in Moscow, Count Friedrich Werner von der Schulenberg, informed the Kremlin of his government's intention to divert blockade runners to the ice-free northern Russian port of Murmansk on the east shore of Kola Bay, 30 miles from the Barents Sea. The Soviet authorities were expected to unload German ships and send their cargo by rail to Leningrad, where German freighters were waiting. The Soviets complied willingly.
Ahrens received orders to steam down the Denmark Strait to Murmansk. In view of the turmoil of war, the crew of theBremenentered Russian waters in a state of fear. The Germans reversed direction and retreated to sea when they saw a plume of smoke steaming towards them from the shore, deep in the waterline. They easily overtook the warship, which turned out to be a Soviet torpedo boat. After identifying it as a friend and not an enemy, theBremenresumed course and met with the Soviet warship. A boarding party was dispatched from the torpedo boat. The German and Soviet officers tried to communicate in halting English, but were relieved to discover that one of the twoBremenThe stewards of , who were born in Kronstadt before the First World War, were fluent in Russian.
On September 6th, theBremenfinally dropped anchor, having traveled 4,045 nautical miles six days and 13 hours since leaving New York. The crew lined up on either side of the deck for a view, and saw a port city that was raw, unfinished, and mostly unfortified. Among the few modern amenities Murmansk offered were the Hotel Arctic and a clubhouse for foreign sailors, mostly Swedish, Dutch and Norwegian merchant seafarers.
During theBremenStaying in Murmansk, the whereabouts of the liner was the subject of intense speculation in the foreign press. An Italian newspaper noted thisBremenin Veracruz, while a Stockholm newspaper claimed the liner had been reflagged to the Italian flag and was en route to Italy. In Antwerp, reporters speculated that theBremenhad arrived in Reykjavik, Iceland. A Belgian newspaper guessed the truth and named Murmansk as the ship's destination.
On September 18, about 850 crew members were sent to Germany aboard two Russian trains, leaving a skeletal detail of 70 officers and men to keep watch and maintain the ship. Winter came early in this part of the world. It was already snowing when the trains left Murmansk.
A Hero's Welcome
In the months when theBremenwaited for the last leg of his journey home. At the end of September, a German tanker arrived in Murmansk to replenish the tankersBremens fuel. The outbreak of the Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland after Stalin's invasion of the neutral country on November 30 dampened sentiment. After a Finnish airstrike damaged a nearby airbase, the Soviets insisted that all ships in port dim their lights.
Murmansk at this time was busy with German shipping. Also in port was the US merchant ship City of Flint, which had been seized in the North Atlantic by the pocket battleship Deutschland for carrying contraband for Britain. Ironically, Murmansk became a key destination for Anglo-American convoys supplying the Soviets after Hitler attacked Stalin in 1941Bremenback to sea and to Bremerhaven. Fifty-seven of his crew secretly returned to the United StatesBremento prepare for the journey home.
In the early morning of December 7, the ocean liner left Murmansk before sunrise and under the cover of a heavy snowstorm. She was a gray ghost sailing against a dark horizon; The long nights and rough seas at these latitudes in the last few weeks of the year aided the voyage. However, theBremenhad brief contact with the Royal Navy after leaving the safe harbor of Murmansk. On December 12, the British submarine Salmon intercepted themBremenoff the Norwegian coast. The Salmon enjoyed an eventful patrol in the North Sea that included the unusual feat of torpedoing an enemy submarine, the U-36.
The Salmon's skipper, Lt. Cmdr. EO Bickford, showed up after identifying himBrementhrough his periscope and gave repeated warnings to the liner to surrender. Bickford failed to claim his award. He was forced into a dive when a Dornier Do-18 flying boat sent to escort by the German Navy crashedBremen, appeared on the horizon. Salmon survived to cripple German cruisers Leipzig and Nuremberg before returning to base.
On December 13th, theBremenfinally returned to its berth at Columbuskai in Bremerhaven. “The joy of winning the race twice and bringing our beloved home safelyBremen, this precious possession of the German merchant fleet, is on everyone's lips,” said Ahrens.
The captain and crew were given a heroic welcome by the chairman of North German Lloyd and the Reich Minister of Transport. A band played and a company of sailors presented their arms. Ahrens' earlier disobedience on the high seas before the outbreak of war fell into oblivion. He was promoted to commodore for being foolhardy and seamanlike. He was celebrated in the German news media and received thousands of letters from well-wishers. TheBremenwon his battle but would never go to sea again.
In the months that followed, the ship was painted in camouflage colors and refitted as troop transport No. 802 for Operation Sea Lion, the German invasion of Britain that was never to be launched. Aware ofBremen's new mission, the Royal Air Force tried to sink her but failed. On March 16, 1941, a fire broke out in their lavishly furnished, wood-panelled dining room, which had been converted into a dormitory. It spread over the entire ship and burned out of control despite vigorous response from the Bremerhaven fire brigade. Poorly noted towards the quay, theBremenwas flooded so that she could right herself and sink in the shallow waters of the Weser, which made it easier to salvage machinery.
The Gestapo initially suspected that the British secret service was involved in the destruction of the ship, but investigations soon fell on a 15-year-old sailor from theBremen, Walter Schmidt, who finally confessed to having set the fire in revenge for a slap in the face that a superior had given him. Wartime justice was swift and severe. Smith was executed.
TheBremen, which began the war with a picture-perfect adventure, ended it as a charred behemoth brooding over the ruins of Bremerhaven, a port city regularly visited by RAF and Eighth Air Force bombers. 1946, theBremenwas towed three miles upriver to a sandbar. The mammoth ship, which at the time resembled a beached and decomposing whale, was gradually dismantled and scrapped between 1952 and 1956.