History of Europe

When the Munich disappeared into the Atlantic

by Stefanie Döscher

In the winter of 1978, one of the largest ships of its time sank in the Atlantic. The modern freighter is to bring machine parts from Bremerhaven to the USA. But the journey ends in a catastrophe in heavy seas.

December 11, 1978:The "München", a 261 meter long cargo ship owned by the Hamburg shipping company Hapag-Lloyd, is struggling through the waters of the North Atlantic with 28 men on board. Cyclones have been raging here north of the Azores since the end of November. The wind is force 11, the waves are around 15 meters high, and the temperatures are around freezing. Because of heavy snow and hail, Captain Johann Dänekamp can hardly see anything.

That's not too worrying,, though because the "München" has survived numerous storms. The journey from Bremerhaven to Savannah in the US state of Georgia is her 62nd transatlantic crossing. Captain Dänekamp and his team are considered experienced.

The ship has loaded 83 so-called lighters. These are floating containers, which are an innovation in the 1970s and are considered a promising means of transport. At that time, container terminals were not yet developed. On the "München" the superstructures are at the front, a crane mounted on deck lifts the lighters over the stern and off board. This means that the ship is largely independent of the logistics in the port of departure and destination.

SOS on December 12 at 3:10 am

Shortly after midnight on December 12, the radio operator of the "München", Jörg Ernst, sent a short report to the cruise ship "Caribe". The bridge was damaged, some portholes were smashed. However, according to Heinz Löhmann, the crusader's radio operator, Ernst didn't seem worried. But just three hours later he transmits for the last time and very weakly - SOS. He gives a position north of the Azores, the Greek freighter "Marion" picks up the signal.

Large international search operation

In the early morning, the shipping company learned that its flagship was in distress and launched one of the largest search operations in the North Atlantic to date. A total of 110 ships, including those from the USA, the Soviet Union and numerous European countries, are taking part. They form a chain and comb through the mentioned area. In addition, 13 planes are searching for the missing ship.

The fate of the occupation moves the Republic

Shortly before Christmas 1978, the fate of the 25 men and three women on board occupied the Republic. The "Hamburger Abendblatt" says it receives numerous calls - from people in Cologne, Munich and Bonn. People want to know:Is there anything new about the "München"?

Search ends unsuccessfully

Only a few containers (pictured), life jackets and a lifeboat were found from the "München".

The search lasted until December 22 - two days longer than originally planned, at the request of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. After employer president Hanns Martin Schleyer was kidnapped by the Red Army faction last year and searched for weeks, Schmidt does not want to end the search for 28 people after just eight days. But after ten days there is no more hope. The balance of the search is sobering:three lighters, four life rafts, several life jackets and the emergency radio buoy - that's all the search parties find. Weeks later, one of the lifeboats turns up.

On January 3, 1979, a funeral service for the missing takes place in Bremen Cathedral. More than 2,000 people take part. The shipping company continues to pay the seamen's wages and invests a lot of money in investigating the case. The monetary damage is estimated at 150 million Deutschmarks.

Helpers were probably looking in the wrong place

In June 1980, the maritime authority in Bremerhaven negotiated the case. The sad realization:The helpers were probably looking for the "Munich" in the wrong place. The positions of the lighters and life rafts found speak for this. The freighter probably sank 170 kilometers from the area searched for the first few days.

It also turns out that the ship probably floated on the water for a long time before it sank. Because the "München" was equipped with a so-called emergency radio buoy. This was attached to the top deck and sent out a radio signal when it came into contact with seawater. It sent the first signal on December 13, 1978 at 11:08 a.m. - almost 30 hours after Jörg Ernst had sent the SOS.

Was the "München" victim of a monster wave?

Since the wreck is missing, various experts are trying to reconstruct the total loss of the carrier before the maritime authorities. On June 12, 1980, the office ruled that an "extraordinary event obviously caused by extremely bad weather" and "a chain of serious circumstances" led to the sinking of the "München". The Maritime Office assumes a heavy swell from the front. "I think it is very likely that a heavy wave smashed the front bridge and bridge window of the 'München' and the ship then had water ingress into the superstructure. That led to the system failure. Then the freighter probably drifted and got through the damage absorbed more and more water," says Stefan Krüger, Professor of Ship Safety at the Technical University of Hamburg (TUHH).

, looking back

Some voices blame a monster wave for the loss of the ship. Krueger disagrees with this assumption. His experiments have shown that even significantly smaller waves could be dangerous even for a freighter like the "München". During the severe storms at the time of the accident, a total of 17 other ships called at ports of refuge due to severe weather damage.

Many questions remain unanswered

The maritime authority contradicts the assumption that the construction of the ship and the hardly tested LASH system would have favored the sinking - this is unlikely on the basis of the reports. However, what exactly happened after the sea storm remains unclear. Other questions also remain unanswered:Was the radio message on December 12 at 3:10 am really the last one sent by the ship? Why didn't the captain send any weather reports with position information a day and a half before the SOS message, as was his habit? Has the "München" even been hit by a sea mine or collided with a submarine?

To get more answers, the wreck would have to be found. But that is at a depth of around 5,000 meters in the North Atlantic, where exactly is not clear. There are currently no plans to search for the "München".