The beginning of the container era in Hamburg

For the Port of Hamburg, a new era commenced on 31 May 1968. Arrival of the “American Lancer” heralded its triumphant advance to become Germany’s largest container port.

The first containers arrived in Hamburg in the form of additional deck cargo and were barely noticed. Conventional heavy-cargo cranes heaved these off general cargo or RoRo freighters. As the first of these inconspicuous steel boxes were being handled in Hamburg, only a few people had any inkling of their later overwhelming success. The American forwarder Malcolm McLean is regarded as the inventor of the 20-ft standard container. It was the US Army, moreover, that first brought these transport boxes to Germany. Since its supply line ran through Bremen, it was there that a container first appeared in Germany on 5 May 1966.

In Hamburg, HHLA soon recognized the commercial potential of the new cargo handling technology, already deciding in November 1965 that the first special facility for container handling should be built at Burchardkai. The first centre for container handling in the Port of Hamburg was a vehicle loading facility in Waltershof. In the 1960s, before the construction of Köhlbrandbrücke, this was still cut off from the rest of the port by the River Köhlbrand. Nevertheless, today’s HHLA Container Terminal Buchardkai (CTB) swiftly became Hamburg’s largest cargo handling facility.

Whereas in the mid-1960s the Multi-Purpose Terminal Burchardkai was still mainly loading VW Beetles for the USA, from 1966 it was also handling combined container/general cargo services to the US East Coast. Hamburg’s first container gantry cranes were erected at Berth 3 on Burchardkai in 1967 and were already handling 12 -18 containers per hour. The “real” container age in the Port of Hamburg began on 31 May 1968 with the arrival of the “American Lancer”. This United States Lines vessel with a length of 213 metres was the first full containership to appear on the Elbe. Using the new technology and a lot of manual labour, a few dozen boxes were unloaded. Among those present to formally welcome the ship was Helmuth Kern, Hamburg Minister of Economics at the time, later chairman of HHLA’s Executive Board, who had championed the development of Hamburg as a container port right from the outset.

By autumn 1968, between four and five full container ships per week were calling at Burchardkai. By 1972, six container gantry cranes were available at six berths to handle containerships with a capacity of up to 2,600 standard containers (TEU) around the clock. Along with United States Line, the pioneers among the shipping lines were Hapag-Lloyd from Germany and Maersk Line from Denmark, and there was a regular trade in goods with Africa, Australia, North America and East Asia. The terminal on Burchardkai was continually upgraded and extended to keep pace with exponential growth in throughput.

All in all, a complete revolution

Clemens Rabe experienced how general cargo moved into containers on Burchardkai. Not every technique caught on, and the "port heroes" had to adapt.

Read the interview