Mention “disasters at sea” and most Americans will think of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. A history buff might think of the sinking of the R.M.S. Lusitania, a British passenger ship sunk by a German torpedo three years later. Some might even think of the Andrea Doria, an Italian ship that struck the MS Stockholm in the north Atlantic in 1956.
But the fact is, all of these disasters pale compared to the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in World War II. 1,520 people lost their lives in the Titanic disaster. Lusitania’s sinking lost 1,198 souls. Almost everyone survived the sinking of the Andrea Doria, except for 46 people who were killed on impact with the other ship. At least twice as many people died in the Wilhelm Gustloff disaster compared to Titanic, Lusitania and the Andrea Doria combined. At a minimum, 5,348 people were lost from the Wilhelm Gustloff, although many speculate that the actual numbers of the dead could be twice that number. And sadly, almost no one knows anything about the tragedy.
The Wilhelm Gustloff was the first German cruise ship built under the Nazi’s Kraft durch Freude (“Strength Through Joy”) program. Named after the assassinated leader of the Swiss Nazi Party, the ship was built by the Blohm and Voss shipyards and launched on May 5, 1937. For the first two years of her existence, the Wilhelm Gustloff served her intended purpose of providing leisure activities for Nazi party members. Concerts, dinner cruises and even full-blown vacations aboard the Gustloff were offered as enticements to German citizens for meeting certain goals, or as recognition for a job well done.
Of course, World War II changed all that and the Gustloff was pressed into wartime service. From September 1939 to November 1940, the Gustloff served as a hospital ship; later on in the war she was used as a barracks for U-boat trainees. In this capacity, she was docked at Gotenhafen, in East Prussia (which is now called Gdynia, and is part of Poland).
By January 1945, the Soviet Army was rapidly closing in on East Prussia. In fact, by January 23, 1945 East Prussia was effectively surrounded and cut off from the rest of the German-speaking world. Many Germans had firsthand knowledge of the many atrocities committed by the Wehrmacht during their invasion of the Soviet Union, and reports began to trickle in of Soviet “revenge atrocities”. In many villages, the Soviet soldiers raped every single German-speaking woman they could find. Many German women and children were lined up and shot without mercy. As you might guess, the Germans trapped in East Prussia were terrified of what might happen to them when the Soviet Army came. German admiral Karl Dönitz knew that the war was lost, and on that same date (January 23, 1945) he radioed naval command in Gotenhafen and ordered them to begin “Operation Hannibal”: the evacuation of as many people as possible.
By January 30, conditions in Gotenhafen had really started to fall apart. The Wilhelm Gustloff was only designed to hold around 1,800 people, but more and more people kept showing up at the dock begging for space on the ship. The ship was due to sail to Stettin (now Szczecin, a port city in the northwest corner of Poland close to the German “homeland”), a distance of only a couple hundred miles. Because of both the short distance and the extreme situation, the crew of the Gustloff kept allowing people to board.
Eventually, the total number of people on the ship would swell to the “official” number of 6,050. However, several eyewitnesses reported seeing “stacks” of notebooks next to the official ship’s log; these notebooks contained the names of people who had boarded the ship, but whose names had yet to be entered into the ship’s log. Estimates range from “just over 9,000” to 9,400 to 10,582 people aboard the ship. Perhaps the saddest thing about the tragedy is that no one will ever know exactly now many people were aboard the ship, nor how many died that night.
The Wilhelm Gustloff left Gotenhafen at 9:08pm local time on January 30, 1945. She was accompanied by the Hansa, a sister ship, and two torpedo boats. However, the Hansa and one of the torpedo boats had mechanical problems and returned to port, leaving Gustloff and the other torpedo boat, the Löwe, to go it alone.
In a series of moves that would be comical if the outcome weren’t so tragic, the Gustloff’s civilian captain, Friedrich Petersen, first took the ship into deep water (a German submarine commander aboard ship, Lieutenant Commander Wilhelm Zahn, begged Petersen to keep to shallow water where Soviet submarines were unlikely to tread). Petersen then heard about a convoy of German minesweeping ships in the area, so he turned on his red and green navigation lights to avoid a collision with the minesweepers.
Petersen had, by turning to deep water and turning on the navigation lights, made his ship the perfect target for Soviet submarines. And, less than 20 miles into the journey, Soviet submarine S-13 spotted the ship and fired three torpedoes into her port side.
Although there were several ships in the area, and although most of them made valiant attempts to rescue survivors, the Wilhelm Gustloff sank in under 50 minutes, and only 1,250 people were pulled out of the sea. Many were killed by the torpedo blasts, or drowned in the onrush of water from the torpedo hits, while many more were trapped in the ship, just like the third-class passengers in the Titanic movie. Perhaps thousands more escaped the ship, only to drown or freeze to death in the Baltic sea. While the average temperature of the Baltic Sea in January is 39F (4C), January 30th was an especially cold day, with air temperatures recorded between 14 and -1F (-10 to -18C).
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Gustloff tragedy is the all-around lack of knowledge about it.
The Germans did their best to keep news of the sinking under wraps, as Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels was busy trying to convince the German people that victory in the war was just around the corner. Goebbels could hardly have gone on the radio and told the people how close the Germans were to winning the war on one hand, then mention the sinking of the ship so close to home on the other.
The Soviets, after finding out the the ship was carrying mostly civilians, did their best to sweep the incident under the rug. This was made easier for them thanks to the captain of S-13, a man named Alexander Marinesko. Marinesko was a barely-competent sub captain. He claimed to have sunk an enemy ship when he hadn’t, and to celebrate his “victory”, he then returned to base ahead of schedule and without warning. Other Soviet subs, not knowing it was Marinesko, attacked the sub, and Marinesko and crew barely escaped with their lives. Just a couple of weeks before the Gustloff incident, Marinesko went AWOL to spend New Year’s Eve 1945 with a Swedish woman (contact with any foreigners – much less drunken, naked Swedish girls – was a huge no-no in the Stalin era). So there would be no “Hero of the Soviet Union” parade for Marinesko, even if the Gustloff had been a warship.
The British and Americans found out about the sinking and just shrugged their shoulders… after all, no British or American citizens were involved, so who cared about 10,000 enemy dead, even if they were civilians?
The subsequent years have been even less kind to the Gustloff tragedy. This incident took place during wartime, so people paid far less attention to the disaster than they would if it had happened in peacetime. And it happened to the losing side of a long war: the Americans, British and Soviets just wanted to forget the whole thing and move on. For their own part, the Germans have developed a squeamishness about World War II that has prevented much German research into the tragedy. And the rest of the world just doesn’t care, perhaps due to the Nazi atrocities of WWII. The Gustloff also mostly carried nameless refugees – not the upper crust of society as on the Titanic – so there’s never been any “external” interest from Hollywood or book authors in the sinking. In fact, there’s little in the Gustloff tale that would make a good movie, book, or even a short documentary film… so there’s been almost zero interest in the story from modern historians. Which is sad. The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff is easily the worst tragedy at sea in human history… only no one knows about it.