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My Name is Ubena

It is not uncommon for a nation to name ships after prominent people. It is a common practice for warships (USS Ronald Reagan,  Nuclear Aircraft Carrier) and merchant ships (Edmund Fitzgerald, ore carrier, lost on Lake Superior during a November, 1975 storm.

But, how about children named after a ship?

It’s happened at least once. Here is the story of some children named Ubena.

The Ubena, built 1928, as a 9,500 ton passenger liner.

The Ubena, built 1928, as a 9,500 ton passenger liner. The name “Ubena” is African but the meaning is unknown as far as I know. Prior to the war the Ubena traveled primarily to Africa.

By October, 1944 the Red Army had smashed German Army Group Center in Operation Bagration. The Soviet offensive took the Red Army to the gates of Warsaw.

The shattering of Army Group Center left the southern flank of German Army Group North wide open. As the Red Army continued to outflank and press Army Group North it retreated through the Baltic States (Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania) and into Germany proper itself, then called East Prussia (today a part of Poland).

Army Group North put up a terrific fight but found itself surrounded and isolated from the rest of Germany. It’s supply line was reduced to the Baltic Sea.

The Soviets for their part preached a war of revenge on the German people who lived in the Baltic countries, East Prussia and Pomerania. The Soviet Ministry of Propaganda fired up the Russian soldiers to commit acts of barbarity that rivaled and exceeded (hundreds of thousands of rapes, murders, executions and the massive theft of virtually of anything of any value) the crimes of the SS (and at times the Wehrmacht) when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union.

German refugees packed on a rescue ship. While many would be saved thousands others would perish in the icy Baltic.

German refugees packed on a rescue ship. While many would be saved thousands others would perish in the icy Baltic.

When the Red Army reached East Prussia it was not long before the German Ministry of Propaganda began to document and record for public consumption the atrocities on the German civilians caught in the path of the Red Army. The purpose was to encourage the German Army to fight to the last man and not give up an inch of German territory as well as to protect the civilians. It was a war of hatred between the two sides that few of us can grasp looking back over 70 years.

The German civilian population panicked (with good reason) and soon long columns of refugees (about 8.5 million in all) headed west to relative safety.

It should be pointed out that the refugees defied local Nazi authorities in their flight. The Nazi’s issued orders that any civilians that chose to evacuate an area without permission were to be shot because they were obviously “defeatist” and traitors. These orders did not apply to the Nazi officials themselves nor their families. The Wehrmacht ignored the orders  and did their best to protect the refugees from the advancing Red Army.

German Volksstrum, East Prussia. Virtually all remaining German males not in the military were formed into a kind of militia by the Nazis to stop the Red Army. Most were poorly armed and were either very young or very old. The Red Army took few Volkssturm prisoner considering them terrorists.

German Volksstrum, East Prussia. Virtually all remaining German males not in the military were formed into a kind of militia by the Nazis to stop the Red Army. Most were poorly armed and were either very young or very old. The Red Army took few Volkssturm prisoner considering them terrorists.

Many of these refugees became bottled up with the German Army along the Baltic coast. Included in the path of the Red Army was the City of Danzig (Gdansk today in Poland).

Eventually, an evacuation of wounded soldiers and civilians was ordered (Operation Neptune) in January, 1945. What remained of the German Navy (Kriegsmarine) attempted and largely succeeded in what was the largest sea-borne evacuation ever made. Between 800,000 and 900,000 civilians would be rescued along with 350,000 German soldiers from various points along the Baltic coast.

To accomplish the feat the German Navy assembled between 500 and 1000 ships of all shapes and sizes to evacuate civilians and wounded soldiers from the shrinking front.

What is even more remarkable is that the operation  was under taken without air superiority. The Red Air Force dominated the skies thus subjecting the rag-tag fleet to constant air attack. What is more the Red Navy had submarines in the Baltic sinking both the Wilhelm Gustloff and the General von Steuben both packed with refugees of whom few survived the frigid waters of the Baltic.

The Wilhelm Gustloff was a hospital ship sunk by a Russian submarine.

The Wilhelm Gustloff was a hospital ship sunk by a Russian submarine.

Added to this was the fact the ports of embarkation were under constant Red Army artillery fire and thousands died before they ever made it to the ships.

Just before the City of Danzig fell to the Red Army the German Navy decided to not risk any more of the bigger rescue craft to submarines. Instead they would send smaller ships and military ferries would ferry out the passengers to the smaller ships at night.

One of the ships was the 9,500 ton Ubena, a small liner that had spent much of the war serving as a floating barracks for U-boat crews in training. Arthur Lankau was the Ubena’s captain and he had made more than a few refugee runs during the operation and he was anxious to give it another go.

The civilians in Danzig had given up hope that any more ships would arrive. But Captain Lankau, known as an impatient man grew weary of waiting around for further orders. Lankau was also concerned about the constant Soviet air attacks on the fleet and so decided why not try to get to Danzig one last time.

Upon the Ubena’s arrival thousands of civilians emerged from their hiding places and under Soviet artillery fire boarded the small liner in utter chaos. Lankau took on 4000 refugees but was not done yet.

Traveling down the coast he told authorities he could take on another 1000 wounded German soldiers. Again under artillery fire the Ubena took on 1,500 wounded German soldiers. This time the Ubena received an assist in the undertaking as German warships, the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen and pocket battleship Lutzow fired on the Russian artillery, silencing them,  thus giving the ships time to load their human cargo and get out of artillery range.

Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen gave naval gun support as the Ubena took on board refugees.

Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen gave naval gun support as the Ubena took on board wounded soldiers and refugees..

German pocket battleship Lutzow. The remaining German warships did extraordinary work protecting the evacuation fleet.

German pocket battleship Lutzow. The remaining German warships did extraordinary work protecting the evacuation fleet.

Eventually the Ubena would dock safely at Copenhagen, Denmark still under German occupation with 5,500 refugees and soldiers on board.

The Ubena made 12 voyages during Operation Neptune.  Between 20-40 children were born on the Ubena during the 12 voyages. At Captain Lankau’s suggestion many of them were christened with the ship’s name that had saved their lives.

In 1985 a merchant vessel was built in Bremen, Germany and named the Ubena in memory of the liner’s heroics.

Two children who had been born on the Ubena were on hand for the launching. They were Karin-Ubena Osterwalder and Sabine-Ubena Gildemeister.

The story of Ubena is recorded in Prit Buttar’s Battleground Prussia-The Assault on Germany’s Eastern Front 1944-45

As for the original Ubena she would survive the war and be taken over by the Royal Navy and would serve as a troop transport under the name Empire Ken. The Ubena\Empire Ken was scrapped in 1957 after taking part in the British landings at the Suez Canal in 1956.

Interesting link dedicated to the refugee ships involved in Operation Neptune

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13 comments on “My Name is Ubena

  1. A shame she was scrapped with a lot that history wrapped up in it. I wasn’t aware of the Ubena. Thanks for sharing!

    • I figured you’d like this one 🙂 It’s an obscure story. A quick INET search turned up little other than the connection between the Ubena and the Empire Ken. It was, imo, one of the most compelling human interest stories in Buttar’s work. I suppose the Ubena is a footnote compared to the losses of the big liners suck by Soviet subs. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Interesting blog, I need more time to read here – like the ‘broeder’ 🙂

    • Thanks for stopping by. My dad wanted to name me Eric and my mom Scott so they settled on Bruce. Go figure. The “Roeder” is German.

      • Interesting – how people get their names 🙂 I saw on the Net ‘Roeder’ also means ‘famous soldier’ and ‘broeder’ = another Afrikaans word for ‘brother’ – we ‘borrowed’ many words from the German language as well. 🙂

      • I found that Roeder could mean dweller by a river or bicycle! I like famous soldier the best. Very interesting about my name being an Afrikaans word for brother. I had read or heard that Afrikaans was a Dutch/German mix.

        I checked our your Boer (pronounced Boor;-) page and found it interesting. I had a friend from Rhodesia who immigrated here and from him got both sides of the story-you know, the stuff that did not fit the medias agenda.

        Anyway, it’s an interesting and well done page. I’ll be back to read more.

  3. Yes, Afrikaans is roughly 80% Dutch and almost 100% Flemish. We have many German words – it’s easy for me to understand German [not all] -due to the Germanic influence – and Afrikaans is also part of this group of languages. -French influence quite rich as well. I’m glad you enjoyed the reading. Yes, we know [quite well] the ‘politics’ behind the politics. – such a shame.

  4. Soviet East Pomeranian Offensive Battle of Kolberg Courland Pocket On the 25 January 1945 Hitler renamed three army groups. Army Group North became Army Group Courland , more appropriate as it had been isolated from Army Group Centre and was trapped in Courland, Latvia; Army Group Centre became Army Group North and Army Group A became Army Group Centre.

  5. Dear Bruce
    Thanks for the interesting history of the Ubena. Our family has a long connection with the Ubena as my father bought a model of the ship at an auction in Zanzibar in the early 40s. The model was probably a display model at the Deutsche Ostafrika Linie offices before they were wound up. It has stayed in our family since then and has recently arrived in the UK from Dar es Salaam.

    best wishes

    AP

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