30 January 1945 – nine hours after leaving port and seventy minutes after being hit, the huge liner, the Wilhelm Gustloff, slipped under the waves and sunk.
A small fleet of ships and boats arrived on the scene and managed to pluck a few survivors from the icy waters and rescued many of those on the lifeboats. Over a thousand were rescued but… an estimated 9,343 people died, half of them children – six times the 1,517 that died on the Titanic in 1912.
The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff remains the biggest maritime disaster in history.
We have all heard of the Titanic. A century after that fateful night, the disaster remains within our global consciousness. Even before James Cameron’s epic 1998 film, we knew of the iceberg, the “women and children first”, and the band that played on.
But how many of us have even heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff?
The Luxury Liner
The ship was named after the assassinated leader of the Swiss Nazi Party (yes, Switzerland in the 1930s had its own Nazi Party), murdered in his own home in February 1936 (Wilhelm Gustloff, pictured).
The ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, weighing 25,000 tons and almost 700 feet in length, was an impressive sight, and could carry almost 2,000 passengers and crew. Launched in 1937, it began its life as a luxury cruise liner for the German workers of Hitler’s Third Reich, and, until the outbreak of the Second World War, had sailed over fifty cruises.
For the first year of the war the Wilhelm Gustloff served as a hospital ship before being held in dock in the port of Gotenhafen on the Baltic coast (modern-day Gdynia) where, until early 1945, it served as barracks for U-boat trainees.
Hitler had launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, in June 1941 and the German juggernaut had fought all the way to within sight of Moscow. But then the tide of war turned against the Nazis, and Stalin launched his own counterattack.
By October 1944, the Soviet Union’s Red Army had fought the Germans out of the Soviet Union and broken through into East Prussia.
The Red Army Approaches
With the apocalyptic Red Army bearing down on them, the German civilians of East Prussia, desperate to get away, fled to the Baltic ports hoping to be evacuated out. Many of those caught in the maelstrom of the Soviet advance were murdered and raped.
The Wilhelm Gustloff, along with any other serviceable ship in the area, was pressed into service to aid the evacuation of German civilians. With forty-eight hours notice before departure, the scenes in frozen Gotenhafen were of panic as people, frantic for a place, fought on the dock and surged aboard the ship.
By the time it left, on 30 January, 10,582 people (40% of whom were children) had crammed onto a ship designed for less than 2,000. Of the three designated military escorts, two broke down, leaving only one torpedo boat to accompany the huge liner. The ship had four captains who argued over the best course to take – shallow or deep waters, a straight line for speed or zig-zags to help avoid detection. Poor visibility, heavy snow and freezing temperatures further hampered progress.
When the captains were informed of a German minesweeper convoy coming towards them, they decided, after much argument, to switch on the navigation lights to avoid colliding into the convoy, but by doing so the ship also became visible to a Soviet submarine lurking nearby.
The submarine fired three torpedoes, each hitting its target. The ensuing scenes of panic cannot be imagined. Most of the lifeboats had frozen onto their davits, leaving only a few that could be put into use. As the ship listed to one side, some were trapped below decks, and others were crushed in the stairways, while many fell into the freezing waters. Children drowned in lifejackets too big. People fought and clubbed each other to get onto the few available lifeboats, while many jumped to their deaths.
It was, coincidentally, the birthdate of Wilhelm Gustloff, born 30 January 1895. The day the ship sunk would have been his fiftieth birthday. It was also the twelfth anniversary of Hitler coming to power.
The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff on 30 January 1945 remains the greatest maritime disaster to ever have taken place. But why, when the tragic story of the Titanic is so known to us, does the Wilhelm Gustloff remain a forgotten catastrophe?
To help answer this, I quote from David F. Krawczyk, who has put together an excellent website, wilhelmgustloff.com, devoted to the subject. Below I paraphrase some of his observations:
1. The disaster occurred during wartime
Many view wartime disasters as less “tragic” than those occurring during peacetime.
2. The victims were on the “losing” side
Although the passengers were predominately civilian, they were German, and post-war sympathy for Germany was not overly forthcoming.
3. German war-guilt has repressed the disaster
A nation’s war guilt and repression of memory has served to push the Wilhelm Gustloff into obscurity. German writer and Nobel Prize Winner, Gunter Grass, wrote of the disaster and the preceding assassination of Gustloff in his 2002 novel, Crabwalk.
4. Russian retribution for Nazi occupation
When the Nazis broke their pact with Stalin and invaded Soviet Russia in 1941, their tactics were often brutal. Hitler himself made it clear that this was a war different from that waged in the West, calling it a “war of extermination”. When the tide eventually turned against Germany and the Soviets were marching towards Berlin, the Red Army showed no mercy – and exacted horrific revenge. Since the Soviets were in control of the Bay of Danzig both near the end of the war and for many years after, the Polish civilians were not allowed to mourn the loss of life on a German ship.
5. World sentiment regarding Nazi atrocities
As the world learned more about Nazi war-crimes and systematic genocide, subdued global reaction to a disaster on this scale was perhaps understandable. Under other circumstances, 4,000 innocent children dying in a single disaster would certainly be mourned by almost anyone in a “friendly” or “enemy” nation.
6. Ship was named after a prominent Nazi leader
Wilhelm Gustloff was leader of the Nazi Party in Switzerland. David Krawczyk, on his site, wonders if the profile of the ship might have been higher if it had been named after a city or non-Nazi figure.
7. Demise of so many refugees (mostly women and children)
For months, the disaster remained largely unreported both inside and outside Germany. Inside the imploding Nazi-Germany, Hitler wanted to suppress awareness about the death of so many. The Western Allies avoided it too; it would not have made for a popular news story where one of its allies had caused a disaster that had claimed the lives of so many women and children.
8. There is no American connection or Hollywood profile
Since comparisons are inevitable, we can see how the Titanic profile was raised even higher worldwide with an Academy-Award winning movie from Hollywood. Unlike the Titanic, the Wilhelm Gustloff was not sailing towards America, nor did it have any American passengers on its decks.
9. There were no rich victims on board
In another inevitable comparison to the Titanic, none of the Wilhelm Gustloff passengers on the fateful voyage were rich or of society’s elite. They were refugees simply trying to escape a terrible situation.
British Pathé have kindly offered this rare bit of footage of the Wilhelm Gustloff.
Read more about the war in World War Two: History In An Hour published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats and audio.
See also the sinking of the Armenia, the Soviet hospital ship, and the sinking of HMS Hood.
Rupert Colley’s novella, My Brother the Enemy, set during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, is now available.