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Worst ever maritime loss – the Wilhelm Gustloff

May 5, 1937: As Adolf Hitler watches Wilhelm Gustloff's widow, Hedwig Gustloff, breaks a bottle of champagne on the bow christening the ship at the launch ceremony. The ship is named after the former head of the Swiss Nazi Party who was assassinated in 1936.
May 5, 1937: As Adolf Hitler watches Wilhelm Gustloff’s widow, Hedwig Gustloff, breaks a bottle of
champagne on the bow christening the ship at the launch ceremony. The ship is named after the former head of the Swiss Nazi Party who was assassinated in 1936.

As millions of Germans fled west from the eastern side of the Nazi Reich (now largely Poland and the Baltic states) many gathered in the Baltic ports hoping to find a ship that would take them out of the grasp of the advancing Soviets. The Kriegsmarine now launched Operation Hannibal, a massive shipping evacuation of nearly a million civilians. German warships cleared mine free lanes in the sea and bombarded Soviet positions on the shore to prevent the Red Army reaching the ports. The German Navy fired more shells during the remaining 15 weeks of war than they had in the preceding five years.

The Nazi cruise ship Wilhelm Gustloff, with cabins for 1,465 people was brought back into service after having being used as a floating barracks. On 30 January she was crammed with over 10,000 people desperate to escape the Red Army. No passenger list was completed in these chaotic times – but as well as many wounded and a large contingent of female naval auxiliary staff, there was a high proportion of women and children. Perhaps as many as 5,000 children were on board.

There were disputes between the various senior officers on board the ship, both military and civilian, about the best route to take, whether to avoid mines or submarines. There were military units on board and the Germans did not seek to claim she was a hospital ship, which might have been lit as such. However there is confusion as to why the ship was displaying some lights.

Paul Vollrath was the senior second officer on the Wilhelm Gustloff:

I was on watch from 16.00 to 20.00 hours and up to that time nothing really happened. But when darkness fell, shortly after 4 p.m., I noticed that the steaming and position lights had been turned on. This is normally the duty of the officer of the watch and I stormed into the wheelhouse to demand an explanation and was told that a convoy was expected ahead of us on a converging course and to avoid collision the lights had been turned on. I had never heard such nonsense during all my war time career; no lights, absolutely no lights were to be shown under any circumstances and the fact that perhaps we might run the risk of colliding with another ship in the dark did not worry me as much as showing tell-tale lights to prowlers. We might as well have smoked openly on deck.

Anyway I strongly objected to this and eventually the steaming lights were turned off. At 20.00 I was relieved and before leaving the bridge I passed on course and all other details to the next officer of the watch. Shortly before a German aeroplane passed nearby and we exchanged recognition signals and I was wondering why that had been done.

The command position was rather confused. Here was a merchant ship, with a merchant crew, assisted by naval personnel and all sorts of suggestions were passed on – suggestions made by naval personnel. In short disagreement between the two commands was in evidence, which certainly did not help.

Our supper was brought up into our cabins, as that was about the only place left, since the whole ship was taken up by refugees and naval personnel. After supper we talked shop for a little while and at about 21.00 hours the two officers of my watch left for their own quarters to retire.

At 21.09 I was just about to swing myself into the bunk, of course, fully dressed, when we received the first hit. ‘Mine’ was my immediate reaction but shortly after that a second and third explosion almost tore the ship apart. There was no doubt any longer, these were torpedoes.

Wilhelm Gustloff in Gotenhafen (Gdynia), Poland in 1942. Gotenhafen would be the last port the Wilhelm Gustloff would sail from.
Wilhelm Gustloff in Gotenhafen (Gdynia), Poland in 1942. Gotenhafen would be the last port the Wilhelm Gustloff would sail from.

The Wilhelm Gustloff had been attacked by Soviet submarine S-13 commanded by Alexander Marinesko. The three torpedoes which struck hit; the off duty crew quarters, the section of the ship where the female naval auxiliaries were housed – killing the majority of them, and the engine room, completely disabling the ship. The air temperature was −18 to −10 °C (0 to 14 °F) and there was ice on the sea. The ship began to list immediately and took forty minutes to sink.

Helga Knickerbocker was fleeing from Konigsberg with her aunt and sister. When they first saw the size of the Wilhelm Gustloff her sister had said:

a nice ship to be torpedoed, but better to drown than to fall into Russian hands

After the torpedoes struck they managed to get up on deck despite people climbing over them as they crawled up the stairs. Then they saw ‘frames’ or rafts being dropped into the sea:

My sister went over the railing and let herself down on the rope, where the lifeboat went down on. We had doubled our clothes after we go back from our first attempt to get to Berlin. I still see my sister’s skirt from her dress floating in a circle around her, then I thought about her riding boots she had on, and then, the water must be icy.

When I got on that rope down, her “frame” had drifted away. So I took the next “frame”, pushed myself up on it and looked for my sister all around. My aunt was still standing on the railing. Then I saw my sister with her waist out of the water, her heavy self-knitted sweater, green with white stripes showed off clear by night.

Then I saw the lights from the ship flare up. People screamed. The tail went up and the ship was gone.

The waves were high and it was -18º Celsius. We had to balance our “frame” so we would not turn over. Someone called, “Boys, don’t forget to move your legs!” After a while, “frames” were floating by empty. We had been 18 sitting or hanging on the raft. Now I counted 4 seamen. Their uniforms were hard as a board (frozen). Our “icicle hair” started to dry.

The young man next to me had fallen inside the net. He stared at me and saliva came out of his mouth. I tried to lift him up, but couldn’t. Across from me was a young seaman. He begged his comrades for one cigarette and told us about his daughter that had been born on Christmas and that he had not seen her. Then he fell backwards into the water. Finally he was gone.

The remaining other two started to talk very negative – how our feet will be amputated, etc., etc. Then they complained about my feet. I tried to move to hold them still. I bumped against theirs and that hurt. One said he had been torpedoed before and said it had never taken this long to be rescued. Waterbombs were being detonated under us.

Finally we saw searchlights on the horizon. We yelled and waved our arms. Finally they came near us and called with the bullhorn. They had to turn around to get us from the right angle to the “frame”. There my two companions complained again. But the rescuers kept their word.

Helga Knickerbocker never saw her aunt or sister ever again.

Read the whole of these accounts and others at the comprehensive memorial site Wilhelm Gustloff.com

The BBC Radio programme ‘Witness’ has an interview with survivor Horst Woit who was ten years old at the time. He vividly describes his traumatic experiences getting into one of the few remaining life boats with his mother.

A total of 1,252 people were saved from the Wilhelm Gustloff, a remarkable achievement in the circumstances. However it has always been believed that between 7,000 – 9,000 people did not survive and the latest research puts the figure at 9,343. By a wide margin this makes it the largest loss of life resulting from the sinking of a single vessel in maritime history.

Captain Alexander Marinesko, commander of the S-13.
Captain Alexander Marinesko, commander of the S-13.

Soviet submarine captain Alexander Marinesko was to sink another German cruise liner, the SS General von Steuben, eleven days later, killing at least another 3,000 people. In terms of numbers of casualties caused he is by far the most lethal submarine commander in history, as well as being the most successful Soviet submarine commander in terms of gross registered tonnage (GRT) sunk. However he had a significant drink problem and was not regarded as suitable to be a ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ at the time. He received the award posthumously after his death in 1963.

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