On the night of 30 January 1945, the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff was steaming through the Baltic when three Russian torpedoes slammed into her, sending her to the bottom in a matter of minutes.
Nothing remarkable there. It was wartime and the Russians and Germans had been killing each other since 1941. Only the Wilhelm Gustloff was a passenger liner, not a warship, and she was carrying more than 7,000 non-combatants fleeing the war. All but a few hundred died that night in the largest single loss of life in maritime history.
The Wilhelm Gustloff was part of a massive evacuation of Germans from the Eastern Front in the face of advancing Soviet forces. As German resistance collapsed, Gross Admiral Karl Doenitz organised a seaborne rescue effort code-named ‘Operation Hannibal’ that pressed into service everything still afloat: warships, coastal vessels, former luxury liners, and freighters.
The operation was carried out from a handful of ports around the Gulf of Danzig, including Gotenhafen (now Gdynia, Poland). Hitler had refused to allow Army Group North to conduct an organised retreat, ordering them to dig in and hold ‘fortified places’, theoretically bleeding the Red Army dry. This meant that when the end came it would be a complete collapse.
Tens of thousands of refugees filled German-held ports hoping to escape Russian vengeance for what the Nazis had done in the Soviet Union. Doenitz’s cobbled-together fleet was to make repeated runs between ‘East Sea’ (Baltic) ports and the relative safety of north Germany and Denmark, bringing off as many Germans as possible. It was the Nazi counterpart of Dunkirk, only on a much larger scale. The German high command was particularly determined to save the crews at the submarine-training base in Gotenhafen.
When the evacuation started, the Wilhelm Gustloff had been tied up at the dock for four years, serving as a floating barracks for U-boat trainees. She had not always been so roughly used.
She was originally part of Germany’s ‘Strength Through Joy’ passenger fleet, constructed in the 1930s to show off Nazi shipbuilding, while providing low-cost holiday cruises for the German working classes. The liners would also provide a reserve fleet for the Kriegsmarine in the event of war.
The Wilhelm Gustloff – 25,484 tons displacement, 650 feet long – was launched in 1937 under Hitler’s watchful eye, and named to honour a Swiss ‘martyr’ to National Socialism, assassinated in 1936. She became the flagship of the Strength Through Joy fleet, a seagoing version of the zeppelin Hindenburg.
Early in the war, she served as a hospital ship, bringing the wounded home from the Narvik campaign in Norway. Then she was repainted camouflage grey and turned over to the submarine school for classroom and barracks use, retaining a faint vestige of a large, red swastika on her funnel.
As the Russians closed in on the German coastal enclave in January 1945, the Wilhelm Gustloff was tasked with saving the prized submarine crews, plus as many Nazi functionaries and military personnel as possible.
She operated under an awkward, two-headed command structure, with a veteran merchant-navy captain as master and a young submarine officer in charge of getting her prepped and loaded. From the beginning, these two, Captain Friedrich Petersen and Commander Wilhelm Zahn, did not see eye-to-eye about much of anything.
Preparing to sail
There was a frantic urgency to the preparations, which had to be completed in a matter of hours. Built to carry a maximum of 1,900 passengers and crew, the ship took on at least an additional 5,000, and might have taken even more except that her cabins had been reserved for high-ranking officials and their families. If it had not been winter, still more passengers might have been stowed on her open decks.
The final count included 1,500 submariners (some with families) and 373 Women Naval Auxiliaries, most of them teenagers. The crew set up a special maternity ward for pregnant women, and billeted the Auxiliaries in the empty swimming pool on E Deck.
As word spread that the Wilhelm Gustloff was loading passengers, the docks filled with frantic refugees. Harbour officials issued boarding passes that gave ethnic Germans and parents with small children priority, and posted armed guards at the gangways to keep order. Still, people managed to sneak on by subterfuge and bribery.
Meanwhile, Commander Zahn oversaw the loading of fuel and supplies and the mounting of anti-aircraft guns so the ship would have some hope of defending herself. At the last minute, some mysterious, unmarked crates were loaded into the hold under tight security.
She would be travelling with one other refugee ship, the liner Hansa, plus an escort of two worn-out torpedo-boats and no air cover. The urgency of the preparations meant there was no time to scrounge sufficient lifeboats and life-rafts if the worst came to the worst; she sailed with only 12 of her full complement of 22 lifeboats. But at least everyone was issued a lifejacket. Left unstated was the fact that, because of the cold, lifejackets would be useless if the wearer was in the water more than a few minutes.
Wilhelm Gustloff cleared the harbour about midday on 30 January, bound for the Kriegsmarine naval base at Kiel, a relatively short run through mine-filled waters. Shortly after setting out, she learned that her sister-ship, the Hansa, had broken down. Wilhelm Gustloff would be running for her life alone but for her escort of two decrepit torpedo-boats, a sitting duck for RAF bombers and Soviet submarines.
Captain Petersen proceeded with all the speed her engines would produce (12 knots) and kept the navigation lights on to avoid collision with friendly vessels. He decided to eschew the zig-zag course typically followed when operating in hostile waters, hoping the steadily falling snow would cover their escape.
His two escorts soon fell behind, unable to keep up. Below decks, the passengers suffered from seasickness, stifling heat, and poor ventilation.
Just after 9pm, about 12 miles off the Pomeranian coast, the Wilhelm Gustloff’s luck ran out. She was sighted by Soviet submarine S-13, commanded by Alexander Marinesko, a veteran captain whose boat had already been at sea 20 days without firing a shot. He had seen no targets important enough to expend his small supply of torpedoes.
Marinesko was not a committed communist, but he was a very capable submarine commander. Born in the Black Sea port of Odessa in 1913, he had left school early to take a job as a cabin boy on a freighter. A naturally talented mariner, he was recruited to the Soviet Navy and rose swiftly through the ranks.
In 1936, he transferred from the surface fleet to submarines, and got his own boat in 1937. For the next two years he managed to avoid Stalin’s purges. He ran a tight ship, but when the war came, he got little chance to show what he could do. Still, he must have impressed his superiors, because in 1944 he was transferred to the S-13, a much larger boat with improved capabilities.
For most of the war, the northern fleet of the Soviet Navy had been bottled up in its Baltic ports. Though possessing 218 submarines, these vessels were inferior to both German and Allied submarines, their crews poorly trained, and their torpedoes defective. Still, as German naval power collapsed in the Baltic, they were finally able to take to sea and attack the convoys bringing supplies in and taking refugees out of the shrinking German zone.
On 11 January, the S-13 left Hangö in Finland to begin its first cruise in months. Nearly three weeks later, it was still looking for its first target. On the night of 30 January, while cruising on the surface, Marinesko found what he was looking for: a big target, the Wilhelm Gustloff, 25 miles off the coast and silhouetted against the shore.
He brought his boat into position and, at 1,000 yards, fired four torpedoes. One stuck in the tube but the other three hit home, 4.5 tons of steel and explosive imbedding themselves in the ship’s side.
The three hits seemed to lift the German liner out of the water. Then she began listing to port as water poured into her.
The blasts disabled the engines, extinguishing power and plunging the ship into darkness. The radio operator sent out a distress signal on emergency power, but because the frequency he was using was not a naval frequency, it was first picked up by the Hansa back at Gotenhafen. He continued sending out maydays for the next hour.
Meanwhile, passengers threw on coats and life-jackets and struggled to the boat deck, where the crew was desperately trying to work the frozen winches that lowered the lifeboats.
Other crewmen went below to try to close the watertight doors sealing off the damaged part of the hull. That was standard operating procedure in the event of a hull breach, but it did not save the ship – it merely trapped many of the off-duty crew in their quarters.
Passengers in the bowels of the ship were not much better off. Even if they could find their way along darkened passageways, they did not know the layout of the ship and therefore had no idea how to get out quickly.
Those lucky enough to get to the boat deck did not have it made. They found order had completely broken down, as no one was able to take charge of getting the lifeboats loaded and properly launched. Many of the crew were only interested in saving their own lives, fighting with passengers for a place in the lifeboats.
Women clutching infants in their arms begged anyone more likely to survive to take the child. But the most pitiful passengers were the pregnant women and the badly wounded soldiers; they had virtually no hope of escape. Occasional shots rang out in the frigid air, as armed officers fired warning shots trying to control the panic, while some armed passengers turned their guns on themselves, preferring to die by their own hand.
The best and the worst
Disaster can bring out the best or the worst in people. The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff was no different. Among the cases of heroism was that of an older woman who saved a teenage girl by pushing her into an alcove, putting her fur coat on her, then jumping overboard to take her chances in the water.
One burly seaman loaded a girl of the Women’s Auxiliary on to a lifeboat by shoving desperate men out of the way. Some men with pistols and families preferred to kill their loved ones quickly rather than have them die slowly in the icy waters. The sea temperature at that time of the year was typically 4ºC.
A Nazi official and his wife made a suicide pact, but after he killed her he could not bring himself to take his own life. A disgusted soldier nearby dispatched him with his own weapon.
In the water, survivors aboard lifeboats and life-rafts were not assured of safety. The rafts had only a net flooring, which left their occupants sitting in the water, and the few lifeboats that were launched attracted masses of desperate people in the water. As those people tried to clamber aboard, the occupants of one beat them off with fists and feet, until the sheer numbers capsized the boat, throwing everyone into the water to drown.
Shamefully, some of the ship’s officers, including Captain Petersen, were among the first into the lifeboats. Commander Zahn, after ordering ‘abandon ship’, remained on the bridge as long as possible, then jumped overboard and found a raft. When so many died that night, the question was asked afterwards, how did the ship’s master and its commander both manage to survive?
The ship went down by the bow, even as she listed heavily to port. The severe listing made it impossible to lower lifeboats on the starboard side. The forward tilt sent people and objects crashing toward the bow.
Some found a seemingly safe spot and stayed there, hoping to be rescued before the ship went down. Others decided to take their chances by diving into the freezing waters. Still others had no choice: the tilting ship sent them skidding across the icy decks and over the side.
Those who stayed on board were as doomed as those who went into the water. One group numbering in the hundreds thought they had it made when they reached the glass-enclosed upper promenade deck. There, armed crewmen maintained order, assuring them they would be rescued if they remained calm.
It was all over in a matter of minutes. The ship rolled over on her side until her funnel was level with the water. Those passengers who had stood obediently on the promenade deck awaiting the promised rescue crashed through the windows and into the sea.
Some of the life-rafts that had been moored to the deck broke free and drifted away, providing a miraculous safe haven for those who could still clamber aboard. Seventy minutes after being torpedoed, the Wilhelm Gustloff slid beneath the Baltic to the sea bottom 150 feet down.
As she went under, her boilers exploded, briefly restarting the generators, causing the dying ship to light up eerily as she disappeared from sight.
On the surface, the sea was dotted with lifeboats and life-rafts, a few of which were occupied by one or two, while others were dangerously overcrowded. In the water, pitiable cries for help echoed for several minutes, slowly fading into silence. Survivors would state many years later that they could never forget those screams.
The heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper and her escort were the first German ships on the scene. Already loaded down with more than 2,000 refugees and afraid of becoming a target herself, the Admiral Hipper steamed away without picking up a single survivor.
Her escort conducted rescue operations for an hour before also departing for fear of becoming submarine bait. During that time, however, she managed to save 550 people.
It would be five hours before other rescue vessels arrived. One of the last survivors to be picked up was the Wilhelm Gustloff’s radio operator, who had stayed at his post to the bitter end. For weeks afterward, hundreds of frozen bodies washed up on the nearby shore.
The death toll
The exact number lost that night has never been agreed on. Estimates range from as low as 6,500 to as high as 9,300. Nazi authorities at the time were not saying, if they even knew.
Whatever the total number on board when the ship left Gotenhafen, few more than 900 survived. German salvage efforts after the war eventually brought up the ship’s bronze bell, but the Baltic remained the watery grave of the ship and its thousands of passengers.
It was later claimed, without proof, that the Wilhelm Gustloff had been carrying, in addition to her human cargo, the famous ‘Amber Room’ of the Czar’s palace, looted from Leningrad by the Nazis earlier in the war. The priceless panels were last seen shortly before the Wilhelm Gustloff sailed and have not been seen since, adding an element of mystery to the tragedy.
Doenitz’s seaborne evacuation continued through 8 May, bringing away more than two million Germans, but leaving tens of thousands more either stranded or at the bottom of the Baltic. The General Steuben was sunk on 2 February, also by S-13, and the Goya on 16 April, each with the loss of thousands of lives. Operation Hannibal was the last large-scale operation of the Third Reich before it surrendered on 8 May 1945.
None of the principals in the Wilhelm Gustloff tragedy came away looking good. Commander Zahn was called before a navy board of inquiry five days later. The board did not blame him, but they did not entirely clear him either, and his career was finished. Captain Petersen’s actions were roundly condemned, and he never commanded a ship again.
Captain Marinesko, who should have been a Hero of the Soviet Union, was not rewarded. Though he got his boat away safely, and subsequently sank the passenger liner General Steuben, carrying 4,000 passengers, making him the most successful Russian submarine commander in the Baltic, he was never credited by the high command with either sinking. He spent the next 15 years fighting for recognition, but only succeeded in making enemies and getting himself demoted and booted out of the service.
Whether the sinking was a legitimate act of war or a war crime was also debated, turning on whether she was a hospital ship or not. An investigation by a German institute that studies sea law decided the Wilhelm Gustloff was a legitimate military target because she was armed and carrying combatants (naval personnel).
The story of the Wilhelm Gustloff went largely untold in the West for many years, for several reasons. Germans had no reason to remember the horrific affair, in particular the series of official mistakes that contributed to it. In his memoirs, published in 1959, Admiral Doenitz estimated those lost in Operation Hannibal as only 1% of all brought away in the evacuation and counted it as one last, proud act of the German Navy. Nor did the Soviets celebrate either the sinking or their submarine commander.
As a maritime disaster, the Wilhelm Gustloff was worse than the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 (1,600 dead) and the Lusitania in 1915 (1,198 dead) combined. It has been compared to the sinking of the Lancastria on 17 June 1940 by German aircraft during the British evacuation of St Nazaire in France, but that killed ‘only’ about 4,000.
The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff seems especially tragic because it did not shorten the war by a single day, cost the lives of so many innocents, and no one involved covered himself in glory. In the end, it was all about payback. •
Dr Richard Selcer is an author and professor of history who is a resident of Fort Worth, Texas. He has published 13 books and taught for more than 40 years, and continues to do both.
All images: Wikimedia Commons.