A luxury liner flying the swastika evades the Royal Navy. Paradoxically, writes Huchthausen (Hostile Waters, 1997, etc.) of the cat-and-mouse tale, it made for a victory for the Nazis, and for the British as well.
On August 30, 1939, the 52,000-ton Nazi passenger ship Bremen stole out of New York harbor, cleared Sandy Hook, shut out its lights, and veered north toward Greenland, using bad weather as a shield against what would become many pursuers. For the British to gain the Bremen would be a propaganda victory, but, more important, its seizure would also provide the Royal Navy with a much-needed troop transport ship, the eventual use the Kriegsmarine put it to. The Bremen therefore steered an elaborate evasive course that took it far into arctic waters and to Murmansk, Russia, a friendly port by virtue of the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact. From there it steamed to Germany, evading a British vessel that did not fire upon her, it appears, for humanitarian reasons, inasmuch as warships were not then supposed to sink passenger ships. By the time the Salmon found the Bremen, Germany was no longer observing such niceties, a fact by which Britain scored propaganda points and claimed moral victory in the engagement. Huchthausen’s recounting of the Bremen’s tortuous, 14-week journey has its Hunt for Red October moments, but the drama is sometimes blunted by too much detail, swallowing the highlights. Huchthausen also shares Tom Clancy’s fascination with technical arcana; along the way, for instance, he explains why the shape of the Bremen, both long and broad, and its use of the “bulbous forefoot” (“This protrusion makes a hole in the water as the ship plows ahead, forcing seawater away to both sides and downward, thereby reducing drag on the skin of the shop, increasing the mass of the water at the stern, and strengthening the bite against which the propellers can thrust”) were factors in its escape.
A solid bit of maritime history, ably recounting a mere footnote—but an interesting one—to the larger Battle of the Atlantic.