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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.