As part of Adolf Hitler’s dream of uniting all the German people behind him, soon after his election in 1933 he banned all trade unions and created the DAF (Deutsche Arbeitsfront – German Labour Front). Every German worker had to become a member. To encourage all the people to join the DAF, he then created the Kraft durch Freude (KdF – Strength Through Joy) organisation. This would offer German workers the opportunity to enjoy low-cost cruises as a reward for their efforts to rebuild and develop Germany. This had the added benefit of finding a use for the many ships and seamen that had been laid-up during the Great Depression. The scheme was a great success, and many well-known ships were used from Hapag, NDL and Hamburg-Sud. The Nazis realised their success, and decided to build two new vessels designed purely for cruising: these would be the Wilhelm Gustloff and the Robert Ley, both named after prominent Nazis. They were built as one-class only, so no passenger felt superior or inferior. Facilities included a swimming pool and a gymnasium, and passengers enjoyed an excellent cuisine. Excursions ashore were organised at each port of call.
Robert Ley was launched by Adolf Hitler on 29th March 1938, at Howaldt shipyard in Hamburg. Although owned by DAF, she was managed by Hapag. Once completed she was handed over on 24th March 1939, and sailed soon after on her maiden cruise. In May 1939 Robert Ley was used to transport members of the Condor Legion – German troops who had fought in the Spanish Civil War – back to Germany. Events in Europe were now deteriorating, and on 25th August 1939 Robert Ley was converted into a hospital ship in preparation for the coming conflict. During the brief but bloody Polish campaign she was used to bring wounded troops back to Germany for treatment. With the collapse of Poland, Robert Ley was sent to Neustadt, where she was used as an accommodation ship for submarine crews for the next four years.
In January 1945, as the Soviet troops advanced rapidly from the east, the Nazis called on every available vessel to help evacuate thousands of troops – healthy, sick and wounded – as well as thousands of refugees, from the Eastern Zone, in Operation Hannibal. This call-up included Robert Ley, and for three months she was heavily involved. In early March 1945 she was returned to Hamburg. On 9th March the RAF conducted an intensive bombing raid on Hamburg, and during this Robert Ley caught fire and was quickly gutted. Not worth rebuilding, in June 1947 the hulk was towed to the UK, where she was scrapped at Inverkeithing.
A lot more detail on this interesting vessel, and some rare and unusual photographs, were published in J. Russell Willoughby’s excellent book “The KdF Fleet in historic photographs”.