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The deadliest maritime disaster in history

The Wilhelm Gustloff (Photo: Imago)
The Wilhelm Gustloff (Photo: Imago)

January 30, 2022, marks the 77th anniversary of the sinking of the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff which happened during Unternehmen Hannibal (“Operation Hannibal”) and constituted the largest maritime disaster ever. The operation was a German naval rescue operation to evacuate about 2 million German troops and civilians from East and West Prussia from the approaching Red Army between January and May 1945. In this article, we will explore the background of this operation and what led to the catastrophe of the Wilhelm Gustloff and other ships that participated in the mission.
 
It was one of the coldest winters in decades when, on January 13, 1945, the Soviet Union launched its massive East Prussian campaign against the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front. The Red Army, spearheaded by the 3rd Belorussian Front under the command of General Ivan Chernyakhovsky, marched into East Prussia, overwhelming the German defenders with 1.5 million men. The Soviet troops gradually cut off East and West Prussia from the rest of Germany. The inhuman Nazi treatment of Soviet civilians in the Third Reich’s eastern campaign left no doubt in German people and leadership that the advancing Soviet troops are looking for revenge and that no one, not even refugees, could expect sympathy from them. Violence was widespread. Many women were raped multiple times and there were reports of men being nailed to the doors with their cut-off testicles put into their mouth. Soviet warplanes strafed the convoys of people fleeing with their families in the extreme winter cold reaching sometimes -4 °F / -20 °C. Many froze to death in the ditches along the road.

Refugees fleeing from East Prussia (Photo: Ullstein Bild)
Refugees fleeing from East Prussia (Photo: Ullstein Bild)

As the Soviets approached, full-fledged panic ensued in East Prussia. Descriptions of Soviet brutality and violence spread like wildfire. The only option for survival for the local German population was to flee to the coast to be evacuated by sea. Hitler had previously forbidden any retreat or evacuation, but Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, Commander-in-Chief of the German navy, correctly assessed the danger of being imminently cut off and ordered to plan and execute the evacuation of German military servicemen and civilians from East and West Prussia to Germany and the German-occupied Denmark. The priority of the rescue operation was to move naval personnel, mainly the nearly 1,000 submarine cadets of the 2. U-Lehrdivision (“2nd Submarine Training Division”), and equipment to Kiel in Germany to continue the war. The naval operation was named Unternehmen Hannibal (“Operation Hannibal”) and went on between January and May 1945. The center of the evacuation was the Polish port of Gdynia which was renamed by the occupying Germans to Gotenhafen. It was bombed several times by the Allies from 1943 onwards but it was not damaged severely. Operation Hannibal began on January 23, 1945 and lasted for 15 weeks. During this time, more than 1,000 naval and merchant ships were put into action evacuating around 2 million people.

The location of Gdynia/Gotenhafen on today’s map (Photo: Google)
The location of Gdynia/Gotenhafen on today’s map (Photo: Google)

One of the ships in the convoy was the Wilhelm Gustloff which had been serving as a barracks ship for the cadets of the 2. U-Lehrdivision since 1940. The ship was named after the Nazi official who was assassinated in Davos, Switzerland in 1936 by David Frankfurter, a Yugoslav Jewish student (Gustloff was the founder of the Nazi Party’s organization for Germans living in Switzerland). Originally, she was supposed to be called Adolf Hitler. She was launched in 1937 as a cruise ship tasked to take Germans on subsidized trips meant to promote National-Socialism as part of the Kraft durch Freude (“Strength Through Joy”) leisure organization. In 1939, she had been requisitioned by the German navy, subsequently she served as a hospital ship participating also in the invasion of Norway (Read our earlier article – The German invasion of Norway).

Adolf Hitler at the launch of the Wilhelm Gustloff in 1937 (Photo: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Adolf Hitler at the launch of the Wilhelm Gustloff in 1937 (Photo: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Under the leadership of the 67-year-old Captain Friedrich Petersen, she left Gdynia on January 30, 1945 and, due to mechanical problems of other ships, was escorted only by one warship, the Löwe (“Lion”). The latter vessel was a former Norwegian destroyer taken over and renamed by the Germans following the invasion of Norway. Before embarkation, a huge crow assembled in the docks, tensely waiting for boarding the Wilhelm Gustloff. Military personnel and some privileged Nazis had special tickets while others appeared without any tickets. After a while, the crowd became uncontrollable, and the crew was unable to check all the tickets and the ship became overcrowded with passengers. Many were left behind in the harbor. Upon departure, it was carrying around 10,000 passengers, approximately 6-7 times more than its designated capacity. In light of the number of actual passengers, there was an insufficient number of lifeboats and lifejackets on board. Some makeshift rafts were added in a hurry. People were lying and standing everywhere on the corridors and the halls of the ship. Many old people and small children could not make it to the restrooms and the smell was getting worse by time. Still, people felt they were in safety finally. It was the day of the 20th anniversary of Hitler’s rise to power (Read our earlier article – Becoming Führer) and the passengers had to listen to the radio speech of the Führer calling on Germans to hold out and fight until final victory.

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Friedrich Petersen, captain of the Wilhelm Gustloff (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Friedrich Petersen, captain of the Wilhelm Gustloff (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Captain Petersen had to decide which route to take. He could sail either close to the coast which was probably mined or in deep-water which was clear of mines but where Soviet submarines could be looking for prey. He chose the latter and sailed into the freezing Baltic Sea, the gale, and the heavy snowfall. They were informed that a small group of minesweepers was in the vicinity and the captain decided to turn on the navigation lights temporarily to make them seen to other German ships in the dark. This was a fatal move since they got spotted by the Russian submarine S-13, led by Captain Alexander Marinesko. Soviet submarines reached limited success so far in the region and he was eager to sink some ships. He had also a strong personal motivation since was facing a court martial due to his problems with alcohol and prostitutes, and this seemed his last chance to redeem himself. The submarine launched four torpedoes at the ship and three of them hit the Wilhelm Gustloff. Many passengers died instantly in the lower decks. Horrific scenes unfolded in the chaos and screaming as thousands of people tried to get to the deck. Most of the lights went out and only the emergency lights helped people to find a way out. Many of those who fell in the crowd were trampled to death. As the ship started to sink, pieces of furniture and equipment crushed several refugees.

The Soviet S-13 submarine on a Russian stamp (Photo: Wikipedia, public domain)
The Soviet S-13 submarine on a Russian stamp (Photo: Wikipedia, public domain)

The evacuation was made even more difficult by many unfortunate events. The first torpedo had hit the bow, killing most of the crew members who would help launch the lifeboats. On top of that, a large portion of the lifesaving equipment was frozen to the deck and, despite the orders, many of the passengers had taken off their lifejackets on the crowded corridors of the ship following departure. Some of the soldiers who saw that the situation was hopeless started to shoot their family members and committed suicide eventually. There was a desperate fight to get on the lifeboats and rafts, many who fell into the ice-cold water from the sinking ship were pushed back from the overcrowded boats thus destined to die of hypothermia in a couple of minutes. The escort ship Löwe managed to rescue several hundred people from the sea but had to leave once it became fully loaded. Other ships came to the rescue, too. The cruiser Admiral Hipper had already almost 2,000 additional passengers on board and was afraid of subsequent submarine attacks and thus sailed away. Allegedly, one of the minesweepers dropped depth charges against submarines which killed even more people waiting to be rescued from the water. As opposed to naval traditions, the captain of the Gustloff was among the first ones to leave the sinking ship and was taken on board in dry clothes by a torpedo boat.
 
At dawn, the last rescue ships found complete silence on the scene with wreckage, dead people and their belongings floating around in the water. By then, there were also many refugees frozen to death and covered in snow in lifeboats.  By chance, a rescue team found a little baby in woolen bundle among dozens of dead in one of the boats and a petty officer adopted him and brought him up as his own son. Approximately 1,200 survived out of the more than 10.000 passengers, bringing the death toll to over 9,000, half of which were children and babies. After the war, many surviving parents and orphans were looking for their lost family members, some even managed to reunite with their families.

Refugees arriving from East Prussia at a harbor taken already by the Allies (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Refugees arriving from East Prussia at a harbor taken already by the Allies (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Sinking the Gustloff was considered a legal act of war since the vessel was armed with anti-aircraft guns, was carrying military personnel, and was not sailing under the red cross. She was not the only ship to be sunk. According to reports, somewhere between 150-250 vessels were lost during the operation. The same Soviet S-13 submarine sunk another ship: on the night of February 9, the General von Steuben, a former passenger liner used as transport ship, sailed from Pillau with around 4,000 mostly military personnel, heading for Świnoujście (Swinemünde in German) in Poland. 650 passengers survived the attack. Later, on April 16, the Goya, a former Norwegian freighter seized during the invasion of Norway, was sunk by L-3, a Soviet minelayer submarine commanded by Vladimir Konovalov. The ship was designed to accommodate 850 passengers but now it was overcrowded with more than 7,000 refugees and wounded. Since she sank in four minutes, most of the 7,000 passengers died in their sleep. Only around 180 people survived the attack.

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The German ships General von Steuben and the Goya (Photos: Bundesarchiv)

The two Soviet submarine captains had an interesting afterlife. Alexander Marinesko, the commander of the S-13, became the most successful Soviet submarine commander in terms of gross register tonnage, but due to his problematic personality, he was downgraded in rank and dishonorably discharged from the navy in 1945. He died on November 25, 1963, from cancer. He was posthumously awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990. A street in St. Petersburg and the Museum of Russian Submarine Forces was named after him. Monuments are dedicated to him in a series of Russian cities. As opposed to Marinesko, Vladimir Konovalov, the commander of the L-3 submarine was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union for an exemplary wartime record shortly after the war in 1945. He was promoted to rear admiral later and died in a stroke in 1967. Interestingly, in the book and its film adaptation The Hunt for Red October, the fictional Soviet Alfa class nuclear submarine was named after him.

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Russian submarine commanders Alexander Marinesko (S-13) and Vladimir Konovalov (L-3) (Photos: www.en.topwar.ru, jewmil.com)

In addition to the Soviet bombardment, the port of Gdynia was demolished by the retreating Germans and the entrance of the harbor was blocked by the scuttled German battleship Gneisenau. After the war, the shipwrecks were plundered. The wrecks of the three vessels mentioned above have been declared war graves and, to save them from treasure hunters, it is forbidden to dive in their vicinity.
 
Operation Hannibal and the disaster of the Wilhelm Gustloff remains relatively unknown among the public, which is somewhat understandable considering that it happened at the end of the war and that the casualties were German citizens of the Nazi Third Reich. Still, Operation Hannibal was one of the largest emergency evacuations by sea in history, exceeding the well-known Operation Dynamo, the British evacuation of Dunkirk (Read our earlier article – The miracle of Dunkirk), both in terms of length and the number of people rescued. Dynamo lasted for 9 days and around 338,000 men were evacuated, while Hannibal lasted for 115 days and resulted in the evacuation of more than 2 million refugees and soldiers. An estimated 1 percent of the evacuees lost their lives in the latter. The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff constituted the largest number of casualties in a single ship sinking in maritime history, greatly surpassing the disaster of the Titanic or that of the Lusitania.
 
Günter Grass, the Danzig-born Nobel Prize recipient German author published a novel called Im Krebsgang (Crabwalk) in 2002. The plot is about a German family whose life is influenced by the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff at the end of the 20th century.

The cover of the Crabwalk novel of Günter Grass (Photo: Steidl)
The cover of the Crabwalk novel of Günter Grass (Photo: Steidl)
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