The sinking of the Titanic may be the most infamous naval disaster in history, and the torpedoing of the Lusitania the most infamous in wartime. But with death counts of about 1,500 and 1,200 respectively, both are dwarfed by what befell the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German ocean liner that was taken down by a Soviet sub on Jan. 30, 1945, killing 9,343 people—most of them war refugees, about 5,000 of them children
MV Wilhelm Gustloff was a German military transport ship which was sunk on 30 January 1945 by Soviet submarine S-13 in the Baltic Sea while evacuating German civilians, Nazi officials and military personnel from Gdynia (Gotenhafen) as the Red Army advanced. By one estimate,9,400 people died, which makes it the largest loss of life in a single ship sinking in history.
Constructed as a cruise ship for the Nazi Kraft durch Freude (Strength Through Joy) organisation in 1937, she had been requisitioned by the Kriegsmarine (German navy) in 1939. She served as a hospital ship in 1939 and 1940. She was then assigned as a floating barracks for naval personnel in Gdynia before being put into service to transport evacuees in 1945.
The torpedoing of the Wilhelm Gustloff by the Russian submarine S-13 resulted in over 9,000 tragic deaths – a staggering figure by any comparison. Heartbreakingly, estimates have indicated that up to half of those who perished were children.
Fleeing from a brutal Soviet Red Army onslaught, the Wilhelm Gustloff was ready to leave port jammed with over 10,000 German refugees, naval personnel and wounded soldiers. The vessel was designed to hold a maximum of 1,880 passengers and crew. Of the refugees, a staggering four thousand were infants, children and youths on their way to promising safety in the West. Minus 18° Celsius (0° Fahrenheit) weather gripped the Oxhöft Pier in Gotenhafen (Gdynia) on Tuesday the 30th of January 1945.
Wilhelm Gustloff was the first purpose-built cruise liner for the German Labour Front (Deutsche Arbeitsfront, DAF) and used by subsidiary organisation Kraft durch Freude (KdF) (Strength Through Joy). Her purposes were to provide recreational and cultural activities for German functionaries and workers, including concerts, cruises, and other holiday trips, and as a public relations tool, to present “a more acceptable image of the Third Reich.”She was the flagship of the KdF cruise fleet, her last civilian role, until the spring of 1939.
During the summer of 1939, she was pressed into service to bring the Condor Legion back from Spain after the victory of the Nationalist forces under General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War.
From September 1939 to November 1940, she served as a hospital ship, with her official designation being Lazarettschiff D.
Beginning on 20 November 1940, the medical equipment was removed from the ship and she was repainted from the hospital ship colors of white with a green stripe to standard naval grey.As a consequence of the British blockade of the German coastline, she was used as an accommodations ship (barracks) for approximately 1,000 U-boat trainees of the 2nd Submarine Training Division (2.Unterseeboot-Lehrdivision) in the port of Gdynia, which had been occupied by Germany and renamed “Gotenhafen“, located near Danzig. In 1942, SS Cap Arcona was used as a stand-in for RMS Titanic in the German film version of the disaster.
Filmed in Gotenhafen, the 2nd Submarine Training Division acted as extras in the movie. The Wilhelm Gustloff sat in dock for over four years, until she was put back into service to transport civilians and military personnel as part of Operation Hannibal.
Operation Hannibal was the naval evacuation of German troops and civilians from Courland, East Prussia, and Danzig-West Prussia as the Red Army advanced. Wilhelm Gustloff‘s final voyage was to evacuate German refugees and military personnel as well as technicians who worked at advanced weapon bases in the Baltic from Gdynia, then known to the Germans as Gotenhafen, to Kiel.
The ship’s complement and passenger lists cited 6,050 people on board, but this did not include many civilians who boarded the ship without being recorded in the official embarkation records. Heinz Schön, a German archivist and Gustloff survivor who carried out extensive research into the sinking during the 1980s and 1990s, concluded that Wilhelm Gustloff was carrying a crew of 173 (naval armed forces auxiliaries), 918 officers, NCOs, and men of the 2 Unterseeboot-Lehrdivision, 373 female naval auxiliary helpers, 162 wounded soldiers, and 8,956 civilians of which an estimated 5,000 were children, for a total of 10,582 passengers and crew. The passengers besides civilians included Gestapo personnel, members of the Organisation Todt and Nazi officials with their families.
The ship was overcrowded, and due to the temperature and humidity inside many passengers defied orders not to remove their life jackets.
The ship left Gotenhafen early on 30 January 1945, accompanied by the passenger liner Hansa, also filled with civilians and military personnel, and two torpedo boats. Hansa and one torpedo boat developed mechanical problems and could not continue, leaving Wilhelm Gustloff with one torpedo boat escort, Löwe.
The ship had four captains (the Gustloff‘s captain, two merchant marine captains and the captain of the U-Boat complement housed on the vessel) on board, and they could not agree on the best course of action to guard against submarine attacks. Against the advice of the military commander, Lieutenant Commander Wilhelm Zahn (a submariner who argued for a course in shallow waters close to shore and without lights), Wilhelm Gustloff‘s captain—Friedrich Petersen—decided to head for deep water which was known to have been cleared of mines. When he was informed by a mysterious radio message of an oncoming German minesweeper convoy, he decided to activate his ship’s red and green navigation lights so as to avoid a collision in the dark, making Wilhelm Gustloff easy to spot in the night.
As Wilhelm Gustloff had been fitted with anti-aircraft guns, and the Germans, in obedience to the rules of war, did not mark her as a hospital ship, no notification of her operating in a hospital capacity had been given and, as she was transporting military personnel, she did not have any protection as a hospital ship under international accords.
The ship and her escorting torpedo boat were soon sighted by the Soviet submarine S-13, under the command of Captain Alexander Marinesko.
The submarine sensor on board the escorting torpedo boat had frozen, rendering it inoperable as had Wilhelm Gustloff‘s anti-aircraft guns, leaving the vessels defenseless. Marinesko followed the ships for two hours before launching three torpedoes at Wilhelm Gustloff‘s port side about 30 km (16 nmi; 19 mi) offshore between Großendorf and Leba soon after 21:00 (CET), hitting it with all three. Marinesko intended to fire four torpedoes but the fourth misfired and the crew had to disarm it.
The first torpedo caused the watertight doors to seal off the bow which contained the crews’ quarters where off-duty crew members were sleeping. The second torpedo hit the accommodations for the women’s naval auxiliary located in the ship’s drained swimming pool; dislodging the pool tiles at high speed which caused heavy casualties and only three of the 373 quartered there survived. The third torpedo was a direct hit on the engine room, cutting all power and communications. Reportedly, only one lifeboat was able to be lowered, the rest had frozen in their davits and had to be broken free with some lost when they fell or capsized as a result of the panic.
The water temperature in the Baltic Sea at that time of year is usually around 4 °C (39 °F); however, this was a particularly cold night, with an air temperature of −18 to −10 °C (0 to 14 °F) and ice floes covering the surface. Many deaths were caused either directly by the torpedoes or by drowning in the onrushing water. Others were crushed in the initial panic on the stairs and decks, and many jumped into the icy Baltic. The majority of those who perished succumbed to exposure in the freezing water.
Less than 40 minutes after being struck, Wilhelm Gustloff was lying on her side and sank bow-first, in 44 m (144 ft) of water.
German forces were able to rescue some (a total of 1,252) of the survivors from the attack: torpedo boat T-36 rescued 564 people; torpedo boat Löwe, 472; minesweeper M387, 98; minesweeper M375, 43; minesweeper M341, 37; the steamer Göttingen saved 28; torpedo-recovery boat (torpedofangboot) TF19, seven; the freighter Gotland, two; and patrol boat (Vorpostenboot) V1703 was able to save one baby.
All four captains on Wilhelm Gustloff survived her sinking, but an official naval inquiry was started only against Wilhelm Zahn. His degree of responsibility was never resolved, however, because of Nazi Germany’s collapse in 1945.
Many ships carrying civilians were sunk during the war by both the Allies and Axis.However, based on the latest estimates of passenger numbers and those known to be saved, Wilhelm Gustloff remains the largest loss of life resulting from the sinking of one vessel in maritime history. Günter Grass, in an interview published by The New York Times in April 2003, “One of the many reasons I wrote Crabwalk was to take the subject away from the extreme Right.
They said the tragedy of Wilhelm Gustloff was a war crime. It wasn’t. It was terrible, but it was a result of war, a terrible result of war.”
About 1,000 German naval officers and men were aboard during, and died in, the sinking of Wilhelm Gustloff. The women on board the ship at the time of the sinking were inaccurately described by Soviet propaganda as “SS personnel from the German concentration camps”. There were, however, 373 female naval auxiliaries among the passengers.
On February 10, just 11 days after the sinking, S-13 sank another German ship, General von Steuben, killing about 3,000 people.
Before sinking Wilhelm Gustloff, Alexander Marinesko was facing a court martial due to his problems with alcohol and was thus deemed “not suitable to be a hero” for his actions and was instead awarded the Order of the Red Banner. Although widely recognized as a brilliant commander, he was downgraded in rank to lieutenant and dishonorably discharged from the navy in October 1945. In 1960 he was reinstated as captain third class and granted a full pension. In 1963 Marinesko was given the traditional ceremony due to a captain upon his successful return from a mission. He died three weeks later from cancer. Marinesko was posthumously awarded Hero of the Soviet Union by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990