May 25, 1941


May 25, 1941


Merchant vessel near Denmark

The Diary of Kim Malthe-Bruun

Kim Malthe-Bruun was a seventeen-year-old Danish boy when Germany invaded his country during World War II. Approximately one year later, he began keeping a diary. Two significant life events prompted him to begin writing. The first was that he needed to make a living and decided to become a merchant seaman. Embarking on this new adventure most likely motivated him to record his thoughts and observations. The second was that he had a new girlfriend named Hanne and wanted to keep in touch with her. Many of his diary entries were written as if they were letters to Hanne. He probably used his diary as the basis for the actual letters he would write when he was in a port city and had access to mail. 


Kim was hired on as a merchant seaman during a time of war. This was a dangerous profession even during peaceful times. During a war, the danger increased exponentially. There was always the possibility a ship could be mistaken for an enemy vessel, or that one or both sides of combatants might try to sink ships carrying goods to an enemy port. For this reason, seamen were often well aware of the most recent news and even unsubstantiated rumors regarding the course of the fighting.  Developments might have a direct impact on the ship and the lives of the crew.

On May 25th, 1941, Kim wrote about three things he had recently heard. “The wildest rumors are going on around here that the Germans have sunk a whole lot of English warships – big ones, that America has officially entered the war and that the Germans are about to attack Russia.” All of these rumors probably originated with sailors from the German Navy who happened to be in port at the same time as Kim’s ship. These three rumors had varying degrees of truth to them. The first almost certainly came from a naval encounter between Germany and Great Britain that had begun the day before. The battleship Bismarck, the pride of the German fleet, had sunk the British battlecruiser H.M.S. Hood, but the rumor that many ships had been sunk was an exaggeration. Furthermore, this incident was not yet over. British ships were still shadowing the Bismarck. Two days after Kim wrote this diary entry, the British caught up with the Bismarck and managed to sink it before it could reach port for refueling and repairs. As for the second rumor, contrary to what Kim had heard, the United States had not yet officially entered the war, though it was sending ever increasing amounts of material aid to Great Britain.  It would be a little more than six months until the Americans were in the fight.

The one rumor that was entirely correct was the one about Russia, known as the Soviet Union at the time. In fact, in less than one month Germany would launch its attack against the Soviet Union that would ultimately change the direction of the war. Kim had a feeling about the truthfulness of this last rumor because he could detect a change in the operations of the German military, particularly in the increase of Luftwaffe (air force) activity overhead. He concluded his diary entry with the observation, “If the lid blows off now, it will certainly be interesting to have been on the spot, but ‘interesting’ won’t be the word for it if we’re still here when the shooting starts.” As it turned out, the operation against the Soviet Union did not begin at that port, but the soldiers who were on the ground at its commencement probably shared Kim’s opinion on the matter.

You may read excerpts from Kim Malthe-Bruun’s diary in Children in the Holocaust and World War II: Their Secret Diaries by Laurel Holliday.

Learn more about the end of the German battleship Bismarck.