How many ships were sunk in World War II

"Rainbow" command: submarine sinking in the Geltinger Bay

Status: 05/05/2021 9:00 a.m.

With the partial surrender for Northern Germany on May 4, 1945, the "Rainbow" order, the destruction of German warships by German troops, is no longer in force. Nevertheless, over 200 submarines were sunk in the North and Baltic Seas - on May 5, 1945 alone around 50 in the Geltinger Bay.

by Janine Kühl

It is an impressive spectacle that takes place in the first days of May in 1945 in the Geltinger Bay at the exit of the Flensburg Fjord: several merchant ships, two destroyers, a cargo ship, speedboats, minesweepers and more than 50 submarines of the German Navy will enter the otherwise calm bay from May 3rd and anchor here. The population flocks to the beach to watch the unusual goings-on. "My friends and I were sitting on the steep coast - and suddenly a submarine appeared. First you saw the antenna, then the tower. Then soldiers came out and drove to the beach in rubber dinghies," remembers Hans Niko Diederichsen, who did the Happened when I was eight years old.

German soldiers distribute provisions to villagers

Numerous refugees from the eastern regions have been coming to the villages along the Geltinger Bay since February 1945. Now parts of the boat crews are also quartered here. It is getting tighter - but also more pleasant for some: The soldiers clear their boats on May 4th and distribute provisions and materials to the villagers. "Word quickly got around what was going on here. The refugees came immediately because they urgently needed food and clothing," says Diederichsen. Weapons and ammunition are brought to Glücksburg by horse and cart.

Sinking the submarines by blowing up or opening the valves

"It was a clear night," remembers Diederichsen of the night from May 4th to 5th. "My father was on air watch and could see the outlines of the unlit ships from the tower. Then there was a bang here and there, sometimes he could see a small beam of fire. The next morning he told us about it." Around four o'clock on the morning of May 5, the first submarine sank in the Geltinger Bay. The figures for the total number of submarines gathered here vary between 48 and 52. In the following hours, the crews sink their boats by blowing them up or opening the valves. "Only a few speedboats and minesweepers had not sunk," reports Diederichsen.

Doenitz withdraws the "rainbow" order

Like so many other commanders of ships in the North and Baltic Seas, they are opposing the order of Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, who withdrew the so-called "rainbow" order to sink ships of the Navy on May 4th. The withdrawal of the order is one of the demands of the British, with whom Doenitz, as Hitler's successor, negotiated the partial surrender of northern Germany.

The "rainbow" command

Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler issued the so-called Nero Order on March 19, 1945. Accordingly, the military should only leave "scorched earth" behind when they retreat. The "rainbow" order referred specifically to the Navy and ordered that ships and boats of the Navy should be sunk so that they do not fall into the hands of the enemy. Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz had initially confirmed this order when he succeeded Hitler on April 30th, but withdrew it on May 4th.

Radio message reports ceasefire and prohibits scuttling

A radio message from Dönitz's headquarters on May 5 at 1:45 a.m. announced the negotiated ceasefire, which has now expressly prohibited sinking ships. The partial surrender takes effect on the morning of May 5th at 8 a.m. It covers northern Germany including Holland and Denmark. How exactly the command "rainbow" is triggered is not known. There are indications that Dönitz's adjudicator, Corvette Captain Walter Lüdde-Neurath, indirectly encouraged some commanders to do so.

"Rainbow" command: Over 200 submarines sunk

Most of the submarines sunk in the Geltinger Bucht are scrapped in Flensburg in the 1950s.

The Geltinger Bay is only one scene of the self-sinking campaign at the end of the Second World War. In total, more than 200 submarines are sinking in the North and Baltic Seas as part of the "rainbow" command, including off Flensburg, Cuxhaven, Bremerhaven, Wilhelmshaven and Eckernförde. Between 1948 and 1953 the submarines were lifted from the bottom of the Geltinger Bay and then scrapped in Flensburg. A cargo ship anchored in the Geltinger Bay, which was damaged by an air mine on May 14, 1945 and sank as a result, is also lifted in October 1950. Only one submarine has sunk so deep into the ground that it can no longer be lifted.

Prison sentences for submarine commanders

In the months that followed, the Allies charged several German naval officers with sinking their submarines and sentenced them to several years' imprisonment for violating the surrender regulations. Nevertheless, many British military personnel express understanding for the actions of the German officers, since the self-immersion in view of the hopeless situation at the time corresponds to the naval tradition of many countries.

Executions despite surrender

But the German military also executes judgments against its own soldiers shortly before and even after the end of the war. Because some commanders hold on to martial law despite surrender. At the beginning of May and even after the total surrender of the German Reich on May 8, 1945, young naval soldiers were sentenced to death for relatively minor offenses. Despite the simultaneous sinking operation, three soldiers were shot dead on May 5th because of sabotage committed the day before at the compass of their boat on a speedboat in the Geltinger Bay. The men had feared that after Donitz had suspended the "rainbow" order, they would have to go back to battle. And on May 10th, a captain had three young cadets executed in Mürwik near Flensburg who had tried to desert.

1975 oil crisis: Tankers anchored in the Geltinger Bay

After the submarines were lifted in the early 1950s, calm returns to the tranquil Geltinger Bay. However, around 30 years after the events of May 1945, the place once again became a sideline to world affairs - albeit not nearly as dramatically. During the oil crisis between 1975 and 1979, shipowners shut down many ships due to a lack of orders. During this time, up to 14 large tankers are temporarily anchored as so-called trailers in the bay in which the submarines were once sunk.

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News for Schleswig-Holstein | 02.12.2020 | 8:00 a.m.