1939 - 1947
Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party came to power in Germany after the election
of 1933, he soon began taking steps to transform the country into his dream
– a third Reich. Seeing all labour unions as a threat to this dream, he
almost immediately forbid all such activities in Germany. However, he needed
the workers on his side to reach his goals, and so he founded the Deutsche
Arbeitsfront (DAF) or German Labour Front, of which every worker had to
become a member.
were not that easy though. The working class would not join the DAF simply
because Hitler said so. What he needed was a carrot to lure them with.
In 1934, the propaganda division of the Nazi Party came up with the solution
– a program that would go under the name ‘Kraft durch Freude’ (KdF), or
‘Strength through Joy’.
|The Robert Ley
serving as a 'Kraft durch Freude' cruise ship.
was rather simple: as a member of the German Labour Front or the Nazi Party,
everyone would be given the opportunity of a low-price ship cruise to
various destinations. This scheme would make the workers happy, and happy
workers would result in more labour – hence the program’s name.
KdF-program was not only a way to keep the labourers content, it was also
a good way to make use of ships that would otherwise had been laid up because
of the Depression. Several vessels were requisitioned from Germany’s three
largest shipping companies; Hamburg-Amerika Line, Norddeutscher Lloyd and
Hamburg-South America Line, for example the Dresden, Der Deutsche,
Oceana and Monte Olivia.
after the first Kdf-cruises could the Nazis see that the program was a
complete success. The German working class simply loved the exotic destinations
that were offered, as they could never have dreamed that they would someday
experience such voyages. Nearly all voyages were booked full, and the astonishing
progress of the program soon led the Nazis to order two new ships especially
built for Kdf-cruising purposes.
of the two vessels was the Wilhelm Gustloff, launched at the yards
of Blohm & Voss in Hamburg on May 5th 1937. It looked as
if she and the second ship, which was being built as ship number 754 in
the yards of Howaldt in Hamburg, would soon enter a very profitable service.
The future was indeed looking bright.
29th 1938, the second ship was launched in the presence of among
others Adolf Hitler himself. The ship was christened Robert Ley,
after the leader of the DAF in Germany. Many of the workers that had built
the ship were also present, and in his launch-speech, Hitler made sure
to point out that the ship had been built for the workers:
the ship’s launch, the Robert Ley was towed to her fitting-out wharf,
|"The purpose of the ‘Kraft
durch Freude’ organisation is to show the less fortunate the wonders and
beauties of their nation. It opens opportunities to the people that formerly
were reserved for the well-to-do."
where she was to be completed. Almost one year after her launch, the Robert
Ley was handed over to the DAF on March 24th, 1939. Shortly
afterwards she sailed on her maiden voyage, on which Hitler was also present.
|The Robert Ley,
as a hospital ship during WWII.
Ley and her older sister-ship Wilhelm Gustloff would go into
history as the first purpose-built cruise ships ever. Unlike every other
ship built at the time, the two new Germans’ passenger accommodations were
not divided into separate classes. It was made sure that the passengers
and the crew members were given the same kind of cabins. Equality had for
the first time reached the high seas, ironically in a Nazi ship.
The Robert Ley was managed by the Hamburg-Amerika
Line, although she was technically owned by the DAF.
the engine rooms of the Robert Ley and Wilhelm Gustloff,
one would soon discover that they were fitted with quite modest engines, as their all-out
cruising services did not require high speeds. Neither of the two ships
would ever exceed 16 knots.
Ley served as a Kdf cruise ship for about two months, but was called in
for other duties in May of 1939. German forces known as the Legion Condor
had been busy in Spain helping Franco’s nationalists seize power of the
country. Now they needed transport back home to the Reich, and for this
purpose the Robert Ley, Wilhelm Gustloff, Stuttgart,
Der Deutsche, Sierra Cordoba and Oceana were called
in. The Robert Ley alone took on 1,416 men and on May 30th
the convoy returned to Germany.
now the future no longer looked so bright. As Hitler planned his invasion
of Poland, the clouds of war were gathering on the horizon. A week before
the assault, the Robert Ley was commissioned and converted into
a hospital ship for the German Kriegsmarine on August 25th.
morning of September 1st, Hitler’s army marched into Poland
and immediately made enemies of Great Britain and her allies. Although
Hitler’s ‘blitzkrieg’-trained forces were far superior the Polish, the
number of wounded was considerable. The Robert Ley saw a great deal
of work when she was used for transporting soldiers back to Germany.
the Poland campaign had been won, the Robert Ley was decommissioned
from her hospital duties on November 22nd. She was now instead
sent to Neustadt, where she would serve mostly as an accommodation ship.
Like her sister, the Robert Ley would remain in this role until
the early weeks of 1945, although she was briefly used as a transport for
sick and wounded in July 1944.
end of 1944, the luck had turned on the Germans. They had been very successful
during the first two or three years of the conflict, but now they were
on the retreat back to Germany. On the western front, troops mostly from
America were advancing rapidly and Soviet forces were closing in from the
east. The Eastern Territories of the Reich now held thousands and thousands
of sick and wounded soldiers as well as many refugees in need of evacuation.
|The burned-out hulk of
the Robert Ley, under tow to her place of final demolition.
knew that the war was lost, and called in every available ship to deal
with the massive evacuation task. This of course included the Robert
Ley. In January 1945 she took part in the massive operation that between
late 1944 and May of 1945 would carry over 2,000,000 people west from the
wake of the advancing Soviet Armies. In January the Robert Ley’s
sister ship Wilhelm Gustloff was lost when she was sunk by a submarine
in the Baltic Sea, taking with her more than 5,000 people.
1945, the Robert Ley had been sent back to Hamburg for further transport
duties. These tasks, however, she would never be able to perform. On March
9th, the British Royal Air Force made a bombing raid over the
city, and the Robert Ley lying in the nearby waters was simply too
good a target to resist. Soon the bombs were falling down on the former
cruise ship, and it was not long before fires were ravaging her. When these
eventually extinguished, all that was left of the Robert Ley was
a burned-out hulk.
hard times during the very last days of the war, there was no possibility
to do something with the wreck lying in Hamburg. It was not until two years
after the war that the Robert Ley was towed to Great Britain for
scrapping, in 1947.
|The Robert Ley - Specifications:
||667.2 feet (203.8
||78.6 feet (24 m)
||27,288 gross tons
||Six MAN 2-stroke 6-cylinder
diesels turning two propellers.