In January 1945 the Second World War in Europe was entering its final months and the Third Reich was tottering on the brink of military disaster. The vast multitudes of the Soviet Red army stood poised on Germany's eastern frontiers, eager to avenge the atrocities committed against their countrymen by the Germans during the previous long years of fighting. News of Soviet massacres, exaggerated by Nazi propaganda, prompted a mass-exodus with millions of Germans leaving their homes in the easternmost provinces of the Reich and fleeing westwards as the Red Army began its relentless advance onto German soil. Thousands of these refugees would die in the attempt, killed by the attacking Soviet forces or freezing to death in the harsh Baltic Winter. Many made the journey overland while others took the seaward routes, cramming onto the ships which had suddenly become beacons of hope and salvation.
One of those ships was the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, the Nazis' dream ship which had been originally built to transport German workers on the holiday of a lifetime but was now being used to evacuate military personnel and civilians from the threatened eastern territories. On January 30th 1945, while sailing dangerously overcrowded with more than 10,000 people on board, the Gustloff was torpedoed and sunk by a Soviet submarine, resulting in by far the single-greatest loss of life in any maritime disaster in history. At least 6000 people were lost according to the most conservative estimates but the death toll could have been as high as over 9000 considering that many passengers went undocumented in the rush to board. The tragedy of the Gustloff's sinking, a legitimate act of war despite the civilian loss, has been largely lost to history amidst the overall chaos of the war and the subsequent Soviet attempts to cover it up but it remains nonetheless one of the most emotive and tragic stories to emerge from the conflict.
Background: The East Prussian Offensive
Ever since their defeat at Stalingrad in the Winter of 1942-1943, German forces on the Eastern Front had been on the defensive, struggling to hold back the growing power of the Soviet forces whilst themselves running increasingly low on fuel, weapons and adequate manpower. By the Autumn of 1944 the German armies had been almost totally pushed out of Soviet territory and the forward troops of the Red Army were probing across the border into East Prussia, the easternmost province of the old German Empire. In November the Germans regained an element of control over the situation and pushed the Soviets back to the frontier, uncovering evidence of a massacre in the process. German cinema audiences were soon subjected to the horrific images of the dead victims of Nemmersdorf, an East Prussian village which had borne the brunt of the Soviet troops' lust for revenge. Josef Goebbels' Nazi Propaganda Ministry had hoped that showing these images would stiffen the people's resolve to resist the impending Soviet invasion; posters and graffiti went up on walls in the towns and villages of East Prussia compelling the population to stay and fight for their families, their property and their homeland. The population had other ideas, however, for the vast majority now wanted to flee and be as far away from the Soviets as possible when they arrived.
When it became clear to the Nazi leadership that their efforts to persuade the population to stay put with propaganda had backfired spectacularly, they next resorted to forbidding any evacuation of civilians. The Nazi Party official in charge of East Prussia, Gauleiter Erich Koch declared that anybody trying to leave would be shot as a traiter for undermining the morale of the military and the population. No amount of government intimidation could override the people's fears, however, and soon the civil services in East Prussia were overwhelmed with people desperate to escape, paralysing the Nazi administration. On January 12th 1945, the Red Army began its offensive into East Prussia, aiming to isolate it from the rest of Germany before capturing the provincial capital, Königsberg. The Soviets enjoyed total superiority over the Germans in ever military aspect and their advance was inevitably rapid, prompting the province's 2.5 million German residents to abandon their homes and head westwards, using horse-drawn carts and improvised vehicles to carry their possessions. The official ban on leaving was not lifted until January 20th but by then the situation was out of Gauleiter Koch's control. He, along with a number of other Nazi functionaries, was one of the first to save his own skin, abandoning his people to their fate.
|A refugee column in East Prussia|
The official evacuation efforts were disordered and chaotic, with the actions of the local Nazis leaders ranging from grossly irresponsible to downright inhuman; a number of refugees recall witnessing the massacre of some 5000 prisoners from the Stutthof concentration camp, who were marched to the coast by their SS guards who then shot them. Retreating German army units already clogged the roads and bridges, making the civilian evacuation even more difficult that it would otherwise have been. Those who hesitated or decided to stay behind risked being overtaken by the advancing Soviets and subjected to brutal treatment at their hands. Many German women were raped, murdered or packed off to labour camps in Siberia after coming into contact with Red Army troops, whose behaviour was condoned if not actively encouraged by their commanders. The Winter weather was unforgiving to those who refugees who fled on foot and it claimed the lives of many children and elderly people. Others were (slightly) luckier and managed to get a seat on one of the special refugee trains, the last of which departed from Königsberg on January 22nd. These trains were overcrowded and the wagons, which had once been used to transport Jews to the concentration camps, offered no more protection from the bitter cold.
On January 23rd, Soviet forces reached the Baltic coast near the city of Elbing, cutting off what was left of German-held East Prussia from the western provinces. Königsberg was now surrounded and its under-strength garrison of old men and boys recieved a direct order from Adolf Hitler that the city be defended to the last man, dooming them to a long and bloody battle that would last until April 9th. For the thousands of civilians that were still trapped in East Prussia, there remained only two routes to the west: either by ship from the port of Pillau near Königsberg or on foot over the frozen waters of the Frisches Haff, a freshwater lagoon located where the River Pregel and the various branches of the River Vistula met the Baltic Sea between Königsberg and Danzig. The thousands of refugees who made the journey across the Haff were hoping to reach the ports of Danzig and Gotenhafen, where German warships and merchant vessels were preparing to transport civilians and military personnel to the west as part of Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz's mass-evacuation plan, codenamed Operation Hannibal. Many did not make it and died after falling through the ice or being picked-off by Soviet aircraft. More people were killed as they fled along the Nehrung, the long and narrow spit of land that separated the Haff from the Baltic Sea itself.
"There were more refugees than you could count, and we attacked them from our planes. On the Haff, on the sandbar of the Nehrung close to Königsberg, it was just a massacre. God knows how many people were killed. Tens of thousands of people were crossing the ice; it was impossible to miss them. The Germans got back what they had done to us. That is why they could not expect any sympathy from us."
(Yuri Chuchrikov, Soviet Air Force pilot)
The Voyage of Hope
For those refugees lucky enough to catch a boat from Pillau or make it across the frozen Haff, one of the vessels waiting for them at Gotenhafen was the MV Wilhelm Gustloff. She had been constructed in 1937 as a purpose-built cruise liner for the German Labour Front (Deutsche Arbeitsfront, DAF) to be used by its subsidiary organisation, Strength Through Joy (Kraft durch Freude, KdF). The ship, named after the assassinated former leader of the Swiss Nazi Party, was intended to provide cultural and recreational opportunities for German workers, such as cruises and holidays, and also to serve as a handy public relations tool for the Third Reich. She had served as the flagship of the KdF cruise fleet until mid-1939 when she was requisitioned by the military in order to transport the men of the Condor Legion home from Spain, where they had been aiding Franco's victorious forces in the civil war there.
From the outbreak of war until November 1940 the Gustloff served as a hospital ship. She was then refitted as a floating barracks and permanently moored at the Polish port of Gdynia, which had been annexed by Nazi Germany and renamed Gotenhafen. She remained for the next four years serving as accomodation for the cadets of the 2nd Submarine Training Division. In January 1945 she was ordered to bring her thousand U-boat cadets to the port of Kiel in the north German province of Schleswig-Holstein, far to the west, where they were urgently needed for submarine duty. The opportunity was taken to have the ship take part in Operation Hannibal, allowing her to bring refugees and other military personnel along as well.
"Gotenhafen had 240,000 inhabitants, and then came 120,000 more. Every one of them, without exception, whether they were children or adults, they all looked to be at the very end of their tether. It was a hard thing to see."
(Helmut Engler, Hitler Youth port assistant at Gotenhafen)
As more and more refugees flooded into Gotenhafen in late-January there was an inevitable rush to get aboard the Gustloff and the other ships before they departed. The port was a restricted military area and the Wehrmacht had absolute priority according to official rules; civilians could only be taken if there happened to be the room on board. Nobody could get on the ships without a pass and this rule was strictly enforced at first, meaning that those who fitted into privileged categories (such as Nazi Party members) found it a lot easier to get past security than ordinary civilians. The military authorities soon became overwhelmed by the sheer number of refugees, however, and many were ultimately allowed to cram themselves aboard the Gustloff without any form of checking. The ship was only designed to carry around 1,800 passengers and crew but on this occasion the full crew complement and passenger list amounted to a total of 6050 people on board. This total does not include the people that embarked without being recorded so the real number is likely to have been considerably if not much higher. Later research carried out during the 1980s and 1990s by Heinz Schön, who had served as a crewman on the ship and survived the sinking, concluded that the total number of people aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff for her voyage to Kiel was a whopping 10,582. This consisted of 173 crewmen, 918 officers and men of the 2nd Submarine Training Division, 373 female naval auxiliaries, 162 wounded soldiers, and 8,956 civilians, 4000 of whom were children.
At 12:30pm on January 30th 1945 the Wilhelm Gustloff raised anchor and left harbour for the first time in over four years. The people on board, cold, hungry and crammed in though they were, began to relax and take solace in the fact that only the short voyage to Kiel remained between them and safety. The atmosphere on the ship's bridge was not quite so contented as the four captains (three civilian, one military) fretted over the shortage of lifeboats and wondered how well the Gustloff would perform after such a long time away from the open sea. There was also much discussion among them regarding the threat posed by Soviet submarines, which had been breaking through into the Baltic Sea more frequently over the previous months but so far they had not made a significant impression on the German shipping lanes. The Gustloff's captains were of course aware of the danger presented by submarines but that did not deter them from leaving Gotenhafen without an adequate naval escort; she was accompanied on the journey by only a single torpedo boat, the Löwe.
The submarine dilemma then presented the problem of which route the Gustloff should take. The military captain on the bridge, Lieutenant Commander Wilhelm Zahn of the 2nd Submarine Training Division, argued that the ship should stay in the shallower waters close to the coast where she would be safe from submarines. The senior civilian captain Friedrich Petersen, a 67-year-old Merchant Marine officer and former prisoner-of-war, did not agree. He was far more concerned about the danger posed by mines and it could not be guaranteed that the waters near the coast were mine-free. In the end Petersen overruled Zahn and opted for a route further away from the coast known as Emergency Route 58, which was in deeper waters but offered a shorter journey time and, more importantly, was regularly swept clear of mines by the German navy. The Gustloff subsequently set off along this faster and apparently safer route, the 10,000 people on board unaware of the danger lurking in the waters ahead.
As night fell on January 30th, the Soviet submarine S-13 was on a lone patrol in the Baltic around the area of Emergency Route 58. Based at the Finnish port of Hangö, she had been at sea since January 11th but had so far not encountered a single German vessel. This was a matter of serious concern for the sub's rather wayward commander, Alexander Marinesko, who was desperate to redeem himself after a recent run-in with his superiors. S-13 had been scheduled to go to sea on January 2nd but the mission was delayed because Marinesko had gone missing for several days. When he eventually reappeared it was revealed that he had been on a New Year drinking spree in Hangö and had spent time with a Swedish woman. As far as the Soviet Union was concerned, going AWOL and fraternising with foreigners were both treasonable offences and carried the most severe of punishments. Marinesko only managed to avoid a court-martial (which would almost certainly have meant a death sentence) because there was no other man on-hand to replace him and every submarine available was needed to disrupt the German evacuations. When Marinesko finally did manage to sober up and make it to sea he knew full well that he had to put in an impressive performance in order to get back into his bosses' good books. If he were to come home without having scored a kill, his future would be very uncertain indeed.
Back aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, Captain Petersen was troubled by a mysterious radio message which spoke of a German minesweeper convoy in the vicinity (there was no such convoy in the area at the time and the origin of the message remains a mystery). As he was understandably keen to prevent the possibility of a collision in the darkness, Petersen decided to switch on the ship's red and green navigation lights. The Gustloff was now lit up like a Christmas tree, making her very easy to spot in the night. The lights were switched off again an hour later but by then it was too late. S-13 had spotted the Gustloff at around 6pm and was taking up pursuit. The submarine managed to avoid being discovered by the Löwe thanks to a stroke of good fortune; the escort ship's submarine detection equipment had broken down in the cold weather.
After almost three weeks of looking at nothing but empty sea, the crew of S-13 could not believe their luck when they found what appeared to be a large transport vessel. The Soviet submarine was not fast enough to keep up with its speedy target underwater, however, so Marinesko took the decision to surface in order to increase speed. Bringing a submarine to the surface in potentially hostile waters was (and still is) a very risky thing to do but on this occasion the move paid off and by 8pm S-13 had caught up with the Gustloff. Marinesko next decided upon a daring manoeuvre in which S-13 would sail right round the target and attack it from the landward (port) side. The reasoning for this was that it would reduce the likelihood of the submarine being spotted by the ship's lookouts, whose attention would be primarily focused in the opposite direction, or by any escort ships that may or may not be in the area.
"When he looked through his periscope, Marinesko could see that it was big and that it was not a warship. But he could not tell what it was carrying: wood, or weapons, or people. How could he tell that? He was simply pursuing a big transport ship. That was all. He was following his orders to sink large warships and freighters, and that is what he did."
(Viktor Germanov, biographer of Alexander Marinesko)
As far as the established rules of warfare were concerned, the Wilhelm Gustloff was a perfectly legitimate target and would still have been a legitimate target even if the Soviets had known about the enormous number of refugees on board. The ship had been fitted with anti-aircraft guns and was transporting combat troops to a location from which they could commit hostile acts against both the Soviet Union and the Western Allies (the United States, the British Empire and France). Despite having wounded men on board, the Gustloff was not marked as a hospital ship and no notification of her operating as a hospital ship had been given, facts which meant that she ultimately had no protection under international law.
|The Wilhelm Gustloff at sea before the outbreak of war|
As S-13 silently stalked its prey, the oblivious passengers aboard the Gustloff sat and listened as the familiar but increasingly forboding voice of their Führer crackled over the ship's tannoy system. It was exactly twelve years since Adolf Hitler had been appointed Chancellor of Germany (January 30th 1933) and the Propaganda Ministry was broadcasting his traditional speech which always marked the anniversary of the Nazis' rise to power. Hitlers words were nothing new and similar speeches from himself and other leading figures in the regime had already been made since the tide of war turned against him in order to shore up public support for the crumbling war effort. He called upon the German people to be steadfast, to hold out and to resist the enemy forces encroaching upon their homelands and to fight on until Germany ultimately prevails over its foes.
Shortly after 9pm on January 30th 1945, just minutes after the conclusion of Hitler's speech, S-13 was in position to launch her torpedoes at the Wilhelm Gustloff, which by now was passing the Stolpe Bank located roughly nineteen miles off the coast between the East Pomeranian towns of Großendorf and Leba. At 9:16pm Marinesko gave the order to fire four torpedoes, which were inscribed with the dedicational messages: "For Stalin", "For Motherland", "For Soviet people" and "For Leningrad". "For Stalin"got jammed in its launch tube and had to be hastily disarmed by the crew before it had the chance to blow the submarine to pieces. The other three all launched without a hitch, however, and all found their target, exploding along the Gustloff's port side. "For Motherland" struck just aft of the bows and destroyed the crew living quarters. "For Soviet people" hit amidships directly under the ship's swimming pool where the 373 female naval auxiliaries were billeted, killing nearly all of them almost instantly. "For Leningrad" scored the critical hit, exploding aft of amidships in the area of the engine room, cutting off power to the ship and plunging the packed interiors into darkness for a few moments until the emergency lights came on. Within seconds of the three impacts, people on the Gustloff's lower decks were already dead or dying. Many off-duty crew members, whose experience and seamanship would have undoubtedly been crucial for saving lives, were sealed in the damaged forward section when the ship's watertight compartments were closed from the bridge.
Soon after being hit, the Gustloff took on a list to port and settled rapidly by the head, triggering mass panic and crowd crushes on board as the thousands of passengers all tried to make their way to the top deck where the lifeboats were located, jamming vital corridors and stairways in the process. Extra lifeboats had been put on board the ship at Gotenhafen as a precautionary measure but there was still nowhere near enough for the exceptionally high number of passengers. The problem was further compounded when the surviving crew tried to prepare the lifeboats only to find that the davits and pulleys had frozen up in the bitter Winter temperatures (between -10 and -18°C), making them almost impossible to move. Meanwhile, those passengers who couldn't reach the top deck instead headed for the lower promenade deck where they hoped to smash out the windows and climb into the lifeboats as they were being lowered. What they did not realise, however, was that the promenade windows were made of shatterproof safety glass. Hundreds of people soon found themselves trapped, unable to break out and escape from the rapidly sinking ship.
|Map showing the evacuation route and the site of the sinking|
Back on deck, the combination of partly-immobilised lifeboats, the lack of trained crew members and the speed at which the Gustloff was going down led to a complete breakdown of order and the situation quickly degenerated into an every-man-for-himself affair. Although there were isolated acts of heroism, many of the officers, crewmen and military personnel quickly disregarded any responsibility that they may have had for the welfare of the civilian passengers and instead focused on saving themselves and those closest to them; one lifeboat left the ship occupied by only twelve sailors while another, fully-occupied, was crushed in the water after one of the frozen anti-aircraft guns broke free from its deck mounting and fell onto it. The increasing list to port eventually made it totally impossible to launch lifeboats at all and the multitudes on deck could only resort to clinging on for dear life.
"Beside me, a woman was hanging on, and next to her, two children, and next to them, a man. He was the only uniformed man I had seen on board with a swastika armband. The woman kept screaming at him, "Finish it! Finish it!". Then he took out his pistol, still holding on with one hand, and first he shot the two little girls, and then his wife. And then he held the pistol to his own temple and it did not go off; he had run out of bullets. He yelled at me, "Give me your pistol!" and I shouted back, "I haven't got one!". And then he let go, and slid after his dead wife and children across the icy snow-covered deck, and over the side."
(Heinz Schön, trainee purser aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff)
Within an hour minutes of the torpedo attack, the Wilhelm Gustloff had keeled over completely and was lying on her port side in the water. She then took her final plunge and sank bow-first with her lights still blazing and thousands of people still trapped inside. Because so few of the lifeboats had been launched successfully, most of the people who had managed to escape from the ship's interior ended up being thrown from the deck into the frigid waters of the Baltic Sea, which were normally around 4°C at that time of year and dotted with ice floes. Many of those people died, the adults succumbing after just a few minutes to the effects of exposure while the children drowned due to ill-fitting lifejackets which caused them to float in the water upside-down. The especially cold air temperature meant that the lucky few fortunate enough to be in the lifeboats and rafts did not have a particularly easy night either. The only blessing was that the first rescue ships arrived on the scene mercifully quickly, although even that was still too late for a great many of the victims.
Death Toll and Aftermath
Although estimates regarding the actual death toll very widely, it is unanimously agreed that the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff resulted in what was and still is by some distance the greatest loss of life in any shipping disaster in history. Heinz Schön's subsequent research concluded that the number of people who died was 9343, an amount which is nearly three times higher than the combined total of those lost aboard RMS Titanic (British ocean liner sunk in 1912 by an iceberg; 1514 dead), RMS Lusitania (British ocean liner sunk in 1915 by a German submarine; 1198 dead) and USS Arizona (American battleship sunk in 1941 by Japanese aircraft during the attack on Pearl Harbor; 1177 dead). This death toll was recently verified by the Discovery Channel documentary series Unsolved History which undertook a detailed computer analysis of the sinking based upon Schön's overall passenger total of around 10,600, using eyewitness accounts of passenger densities around the ship and calculating the possible escape routes that could be utilised by those passengers in the time that it took for the ship to sink.
Along with Schön, just under 1250 other people survived the sinking and were later picked up by the Löwe and other various ships which bravely put themselves at risk of attack in order to stop and rescue people from the water. All four of the Gustloff's captains managed to survive but Friedrich Petersen was never brought to account either for prematurely abandoning his vessel or for his role in the events leading up to the sinking. An offcial naval inquiry into the causes of the sinking was subsequetly begun but it focused only, and somewhat unfairly, on the actions of Wilhelm Zahn. His degree of resposibility was never resolved, however, due to the collapse of Nazi Germany and the conclusion of the Second World War in Europe, which happened barely three months after the sinking in early-May 1945. In any case, neither Petersen nor Zahn ever went to sea again; Petersen died shortly after the war while the bitter Zahn spent the rest of his life as a salesman.
|Porthole salvaged from the wreck|
Following the successful attack on the Wilhelm Gustloff, S-13 remained on patrol in the Baltic and continued to hunt for other targets. On February 10th she torpedoed and sank another German evacuation vessel, the SS General von Steuben, which was carrying wounded soldiers and refugees. Almost 4000 people were killed. Upon his return to base, Marinesko was left smarting when he found out that he would not be awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union for his efforts as his superiors still considered him to be unreliable and had initially refused to believe that he had been responsible for the two sinkings. When a delegation of staff officers arrived in Hangö to present Marinesko with the Order of the Red Banner, he petulantly refused the award by ordering S-13 to submerge. He made his feelings even more abundantly clear when he deliberately failed to attack any German ships during his next mission (April 20th - May 13th 1945). Marinesko was eventually removed from his submarine command in September 1945 and demoted to shore duties. Two months later he was discharged from the Soviet navy altogether, after which his life quickly degenerated into a downward spiral of alcoholism and crime, including a two-year spell in a prison camp as punishment for a petty theft. His reputation had recovered somewhat before he died of cancer in Leningrad in 1963 and he was posthumously made a Hero of the Soviet Union in May 1990.
The wreck of the Wilhelm Gustloff still lies where it landed in 144 feet of water approximately 19 miles off the East Pomeranian coast, which was trasferred from Germany to Poland after the war. The exact location was quickly discovered after the war by the Soviet authorities, who subsequently paid a number of visits to the wreck in the hope of finding any looted treasure (There was considerable speculation that the ship might have been carrying pieces of the famous Amber Room, which the Germans had stolen from the Tsarskoye Selo palace complex near Leningrad) or military equipment that would help them in justifying the sinking of the ship. They then dynamited the central portion of the wreck to cover their tracks, leaving only the bow and stern sections reasonably intact. Although certain items from it have been salvaged over the years, the wreck today is a designated war grave and is appropriately protected. Diving expeditions can only go ahead with the expressed permission of the Polish Maritime Office which is based at Gdynia, the port from which, nearly seventy years ago, the Gustloff and her thousands of passengers had set out on their ill-fated final voyage.