Cruising for trouble | On this day

Some people love cruise ships, some people hate them. But, personal preferences aside, the fate of the SS Columbus — scuttled by her captain eighty years ago — suggests the dangers of tourism in a time of war. James Ferguson tells the tale

  • illustration by Rohan Mitchell
  • In December 1939, the captain of the SS Columbus scuttled the cruise ship rather than let it be captured by the Royal Navy. Photo by John Frost Newspapers/Alamy Stock Photo

Cruise ships divide opinion and excite contrasting emotions. I have a friend who loves them, who has taken journeys across every ocean in the world, and who combines exotic destinations and fine dining with giving lectures on cultural topics to an (admittedly captive) audience. These tend to take place on one of the smaller, more exclusive vessels that are increasingly in demand as an antidote to the massive ships which ply the Caribbean with anywhere between four thousand and seven thousand people aboard. The sheer scale of the numbers involved confirms that cruising is extremely popular, and is liable to become even more so in the next few decades.

Of course, there are those who decry cruise liners as floating gin palaces and shopping malls, worlds apart from the places they visit. A recent British TV series gleefully depicted emergency helicopter evacuations after engine failure near Norway, drunken brawls, and an explosive outbreak of Norovirus (don’t ask). Critics complain that the all-inclusive model of cruising means that passengers have little incentive to eat and drink when ashore, and that the hordes of tourists who disembark in Caribbean island ports are corralled towards air-conditioned duty-free outlets rather than seeing the places themselves.

Still, some twenty million people chose each year to visit the Caribbean in this way, most setting out from Miami and following set itineraries that usually include the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands, and the Mexican island of Cozumel. Many islands can sometimes feel somewhat swamped by the cruise ship crowds: in 2013, Aruba (population approximately 100,000) received almost 700,000 cruise visitors. The Caribbean needs the industry, with its foreign income and employment, argue its supporters. There are also critical voices that raise issues such as pollution, private beaches, and a decline in more conventional tourism.

Whatever your view, cruise ships remain slightly controversial, albeit massively profitable. They operate everywhere, from the frozen wilderness of Antarctica to the tropical splendour of the Caribbean, and they work all year round under any circumstances. But the moral of the story that follows, which took place eighty years ago, should maybe not be ignored: don’t book a cruise when a world war is about to break out.

The cruise ship in question, the SS Columbus, was born and died in conflict. It was ordered in 1914 by the Hamburg-based Norddeutscher Lloyd, one of the world’s leading shipping companies, from a boatbuilding yard in Danzig, together with a sister ship. Both were to be deployed in the growing transatlantic passenger business. The outbreak of the First World War put a stop to its early construction, and work only resumed in 1920 after its completed sister ship had been handed over to Britain as part of the punitive system of war reparations imposed on the defeated Germans. After shortages of essential materials delayed completion, Columbus was finally seaborne in 1924 — having earlier become stuck for two months on the launch ways.

At 32,000 tons and 775 feet long, the ship had 1,750 cabins for four classes of passenger, an outdoor swimming pool, and luxurious fittings throughout. Columbus was briefly the fastest and biggest liner in the German merchant marine fleet. But with competition from new, faster Norddeutscher Lloyd liners, it was decided to refurbish Columbus in 1929. According to Michael L. Grace’s history:

Particular attention was devoted to giving the rooms a spacious feeling, and the Dining Room and Social Hall both extended up through two decks. Noted German artists were employed to provide art work for the ship, with murals by E.R. Weiss and hand-carved art work by Joseph Wackerle.

Perhaps most important for some status-conscious travellers, “Decks were so arranged that passengers travelling in different classes never came in contact with one another.”

This was a time when transatlantic passenger services were gradually morphing into today’s cruise industry, when getting from London to New York could be complemented with leisurely tours of exotic destinations. A March 1937 prospectus advertised an “Easter Cruise to the West Indies,” with SS Columbus leaving New York on 26 March and calling in at Port-au-Prince, Kingston, and Havana before returning on 2 April.

But the days of carefree cruising were numbered, and in September 1939 war once again broke out between Britain and Germany. The Columbus was in the Caribbean at the time, and Norddeutscher Lloyd realised that British forces could at any moment seize the ship as a potential enemy combatant. Having disembarked the 745 passengers at Havana, the ship’s captain Wilhelm Daehne set sail for Veracruz in neutral Mexico. There it was suspected that the liner was secretly refuelling German U-boats, so Daehne, supported by Norddeutscher Lloyd, decided to make a dash for it, hoping to reach Germany or Scandinavia by eluding the blockade by British warships in the Atlantic.

On 14 December, SS Columbus left Veracruz, escorted by seven US warships charged with patrolling the American coastal neutrality zone (which included the Caribbean). Five days later, Daehne’s bold plan suddenly foundered as the British destroyer HMS Hyperion appeared on the horizon, about four hundred miles off the coast of Virginia. Had the neutral Americans tipped off the British?

The US cruiser Tuscalooosa was on duty in the area, and its crew looked on as two warning shots from Hyperion were followed by smoke beginning to rise from the German cruise ship. Rather than hand over his ship to the British (no doubt for future use as a troop carrier), Daehne had decided to scuttle Columbus, allegedly on Hitler’s orders, starting multiple benzene-fuelled fires and opening sea water valves as the crew took to the lifeboats. This process had been practised many times, and the ship took several hours to sink in the waters of the Atlantic. Its final moments make for melancholy viewing, as captured by Pathé News footage. “Not until 9.55, when he was satisfied that his ship was unquenchably ablaze,” reported Life magazine, “did Captain Daehne climb down the rope ladder to the last lifeboat.”

The crew of 576, including women and children, were picked up by Tuscaloosa, thereby avoiding becoming prisoners of war, and were taken to Ellis Island in New York. Some four hundred “distressed seamen” were subsequently transferred to a camp in New Mexico, where they seem to have enjoyed a relaxed regime of gardening and sports, until Germany declared war on the US on 9 December, 1941. Those who survived the henceforth harsher conditions were eventually freed in 1945, at the end of the war.

So ended one of the most elegant of early cruise ships, quite literally in the wrong place at the wrong time. History does not record how the 745 passengers stranded in Havana ever made it back to Germany. Perhaps they also stayed safely on dry land until peace in 1945 — surely qualifying their trip as the longest in cruise ship history.