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- December 2006 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Shadow Voyage – The Extraordinary Wartime Escape of the Legendary SS Bremen,
by Peter Huchthausen,
Published by John Wiley
Reviewed by Ian Pfennigwerth
In July 1929 the new Nord-Deutscher Lloyd luxury liner Bremen claimed the fastest crossing of the Atlantic at an average speed of 27.9 knots. At 52,000 tons, she was the byword for modernity and luxury and very popular and, with her twin Europa and the older modernised Columbus, soon took a considerable slice of the transatlantic passenger trade.
Ten years later, on 25 August 1939, the German Naval High Command took operational control of merchant ships, and all were ordered back to Germany or to neutral ports. Approaching New York, Bremen continued her voyage, but was ready to sail by 30 August, despite US attempts to delay her departure. That afternoon she passed the Statue of Liberty for the last time, set an easterly course into a rainstorm and vanished.
Bremen’s captain, Adolph Ahrens, while not a Nazi, was patriotic enough not to want his ship to fall into enemy hands. He planned his track back to Europe far to the north of normal shipping routes, using bad weather and speed to get clear of areas where Royal Navy ships and aircraft would be patrolling. His other advantage was the embarked signals intelligence detachment keeping watch for British naval activity in his vicinity. Both were of inestimable value to Ahrens in avoiding, by forty miles, an encounter with the heavy cruiser HMS Berwick off Halifax.
Bremen’s black hull and white upperworks were painted grey on passage and preparations made to scuttle the ship if it was intercepted. While in the Denmark Strait, Ahrens received orders to sail to Murmansk in the Soviet Union. Arriving on 6 September, she spent a cold and isolated three months at anchor while Ahrens’ First Officer, Eric Warning, was sent to Naval Headquarters in Berlin to arrange a plan for the big ship to reach a German port.
The British were aware of Bremen’s location and had deployed surface and submarine patrol lines in the Shetland-Faeroes gap, off the Norwegian coast, and at the entrance of the Skagerrak against any breakout. The Germans had arranged a line of U-boats patrolling from the Barents Sea south to report directly to Bremen on any enemy traffic ahead of her, and had managed to have a watchful British merchant ship expelled from the Kola Inlet.
In Murmansk, indications of an approaching winter blizzard triggered surreptitious preparations to sail, and Bremen quietly weighed just before midnight on 10 December. Ahrens stayed forty miles off the Norwegian coast, navigating by the loom of lighthouses, and taking care to avoid any contact with other shipping, helped by the appalling weather. Two days passed without incident, until at 0900 on 12 December an aircraft was sighted. A few anxious moments followed until it was identified as German, radio contact made, and the aircraft advised it was to scout ahead of the liner during her approach to the defensive minefields off the Weser River estuary and home. Then at 0930 her hydrophone effect was detected by the submarine HMS Salmon patrolling near the minefield entrance.
Salmon’s commander, Lieutenant Commander Bickford, had been alerted to the possibility of Bremen’s arrival and his orders were to stop, but not to sink, her: he was only authorised to engage an enemy passenger ship under naval or air escort. Bickford had not detected escorts, although Bremen’s grey paint was a confusing factor. He surfaced about four miles away from Bremen, signalled the German to stop, and prepared to fire a shot from his deck gun across the liner’s bows. As he did so his boat was attacked by a Dornier 18 patrol aircraft.
Salmon dived and calculated a torpedo firing solution on Bremen, now exceeding 30 knots and opening fast. Ahrens, alerted by the aircraft’s contact report, pressed his chief engineer for more speed and altered away. Bickford rapidly debated his options. He was not permitted to fire at an unarmed passenger ship – which Bremen apparently was – and there was no real evidence linking the Dornier to the liner. He decided to let her go. Despite some subsequent public disquiet, Bickford’s decision was confirmed by an Admiralty message after the incident clearly stating that Bremen was not a target for attack. It had been another close run thing for the liner. Ironically, Bremen was burned out in March 1941 by a fire started by an arsonist.