The Wilhelm Gustloff – the Biggest Maritime Disaster In History

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.

The Wilhelm GustloffA 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

Wilhelm Gustloff2The 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.

Wartime

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.

Evacuation

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.

Hit

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.

WW2 in an hourRupert Colley

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.

The Naval Miscellany – book review

A couple of weeks ago on Twitter I saw a tweet from Osprey Publishing, posted just minutes previously, offering free copies of their new publication to the first five twitterers to send them a DM (Direct Message). I did so. An hour or so later, having already forgotten about it, I received a DM back from Osprey – I had been one of the five and therefore had won! Great, I thought, I’d never won a competition before.
And the prize? A copy of Naval Miscellany by Angus Konstam.
And now I’m a proud owner of said book. And a fine book it is too for this is a miscellany that’s had some effort put into it. This is not your usual random set of did-you-know facts, and random nuggets of information, and endless lists – the Top 10 of this, the ten fastest, biggest, smallest of that. Facts that you’re fascinated to learn about one moment, and totally forgotten about the next. No, what is different about Konstam’s miscellany is that it’s a series of articles, about 114 of them, that really does, for the layperson, add to one’s knowledge of naval history. Looking at the contents for the first time I felt a rush of excitement as I couldn’t decide what I wanted to read first. There were too many good titles that jumped out: How the press gang worked; Pearl Harbor – facts and figures; The U-Boat aces; The Wrecking of the Spanish Armada, and many more. Oh, where to begin, where to begin? It’s a dip-in, dip-out sort of book, and the contents are not in chronological or any other order but it’s certainly more-ish – you read one article, you’ll want to read another. And you do, transporting yourself from 1805 to 1945 via 333BC in a matter of pages.
All the famous names are here (Nelson, Drake, Raleigh, Mutiny on the Bounty), and many that are not. And lots of gruesome facts – the preserving of Nelson’s body as it was brought back to Britain, the rules and methods of flogging, and the awful punishment of keelhauling – dropping the unfortunate miscreant overboard and passing him under the ship, and pulling him up the other side.
And sad tales as well – the sinking of the German battleship, the Scharnhorst, in the freezing waters off Norway during the Second World War, or the sinking of the Mary Rose in 1545 as Henry VIII watched horrified from ashore.
There are a couple of lists – it can’t be totally avoided in such a book, the top 10 naval films as rated by the author being one. But rather than just a list of titles, Konstam provides us with a brief resume of each, and his enthusiasm is such that you immediately want to go find a copy somewhere (your local library perhaps, say I, as a former librarian) and watch it.
So, I may not have won a competition before and in terms of its monetary value it’s not exactly a life-changer but I would never have read this book unless it had dropped, literally, onto my front-door mat. And I’m very pleased it did.
Rupert Colley