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The death of a German transport with Soviet prisoners of war was the largest naval disaster in Norwegian history.
On the morning of November 27, 1944, a reconnaissance aircraft from the British aircraft carrier Implacable spotted a German naval convoy between the islands of Hietta and Ruseya in northern Norway. Guarded by several patrol boats, the large transport ship Rigel moved south along the coast towards Trondheim.
Such prey could not be missed in any way, and torpedo bombers and dive bombers "Fairy Barracuda", accompanied by fighters, took to the sky from the deck of the aircraft carrier. None of the British military then could have imagined what a terrible mistake they were making.
Until the outbreak of World War II, the Rigel served in Norway as a cargo ship. After the occupation of the country by the Germans in 1940, it was requisitioned for the needs of the German army and began to be used to transport troops and military materials.
The Rigel set off on her ill-fated November campaign, however, with a completely different load. On board, under the supervision of almost 400 soldiers, there were 95 German deserters and more than 2,200 prisoners of war - mostly Red Army soldiers, as well as Yugoslavs and Poles.
The ship, which temporarily served as a floating prison, was completely unsuitable for this. People were kept in cargo holds like cattle in a paddock: in terrible cramped conditions, without ventilation and access to basic sanitary and hygienic facilities.
The British pilots who found the ship did not know all this. They were confident that in front of them was a German military transport carrying reinforcements for German troops in Central Europe.
A weak convoy against British aircraft stood no chance. "Rigel" received several accurate hits and began to sink rapidly. The bombs destroyed the ramps in the cargo holds, thereby condemning hundreds of people to certain death.
Those who somehow managed to get on the deck, staged a fight for the ship's few life-saving equipment. “It was a life-and-death struggle. I was young and strong and fought for life,”Asbjörn Schultz recalled. Arrested for fighting a German soldier, he was one of eight Norwegian prisoners of the Rigel and the only one to survive.
People were burned alive or drowned in cold water. “The sea and the air were icy. The British continued to shoot at both those in the water and those on the liferafts,”Schultz said. The Norwegian himself was able to get on such a raft to the deserted island of Ruseya, located a few hundred meters away. Moreover, his companions on this short journey were a German soldier and a Soviet prisoner of war. Upon arrival at the site, each of them went their own way.
The mistake of the Royal Navy of Great Britain cost the lives of almost two and a half thousand people, most of whom were Soviet prisoners of war. In total, 267 people were saved, largely due to the fact that the captain of the "Rigel" Heinrich Rode was able at the last moment to throw the sinking ship aground near Ruseya.
For a long time, the corpses of the unfortunate passengers of the Rigel were washed ashore or thrown into the nets of local fishermen. For many, the sunken ship itself became a mass grave, the bow of which was visible above the water surface for several decades near the lifeless island. Only in 1969, the remains of the victims were recovered and buried in the military cemetery of the neighboring island of Hietta.
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