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9,500 Died on the Wilhelm Gustloff, and Nobody Cared.

Updated on August 28, 2016
The Wilhelm Gustloff as a hospital ship in 1939.
The Wilhelm Gustloff as a hospital ship in 1939.

A Mysterious Tragedy

Imagine a maritime disaster so great that its loss of life is worse than the Titanic, Lusitania and Empress of Ireland combined. So catastrophic in fact, that it is simply too painful to remember. Like an oppressed memory, the MV Wilhelm Gustloff remains lost in the dusty pages of history as the greatest single marine disaster in the history of civilization. Where over 9,500 people would perish in less than an hour; and that's just an estimation. The chaos surrounding the disaster and the events leading to it, leave the Gustloff as much a mystery as a tragedy.

She was filled with German refugees attempting to flee the encroaching Red Army as it drove Nazi forces back from Russia. A Soviet submarine would fire three torpedoes into her side, sending her to the bottom. Only 996 people would survive out of the estimated 10,000 aboard.

The ceremonious launching of the Gustloff in 1937.
The ceremonious launching of the Gustloff in 1937.

Specs

Original Operator: Hamburg-America Line

Launched: May 1937

Length: 684 feet

Weight: 25,484 gross tons

Capacity: 1,465 passengers

  • Adolf Hitler visited the ship exactly once, for a post maiden voyage inspection.
  • The ship carried 65,000 passengers in her lifetime.

The Ship

Was built as the flagship of Nazi Germany's cruise industry, the first purpose built cruise ship of a country intent on flaunting its power after decades of economic struggle after World War I. At 681 feet, she wasn't the biggest vessel in the world but the Nazi party packed her full of luxuries and features not seen in larger vessels of the day. Features like equal cabin space regardless of class or crew and large open decks and spaces to allow for free flow of people to every corner of the ship.

To her government, she was the perfect propaganda tool. On one hand, she brought hope to Germany's working class, a message that socialism cared about its citizens and on the other, she could prove to the rest of the world that Germany was an economic superpower. Ultimately her creation was a smoke screen for a country preparing for war.

Nearly a year after her launch in 1937 the ship set sail on her maiden voyage. She was filled with a carefully screened passenger list solely designed to maximize its propaganda ability on its three day cruise. As Germany was preparing to annex Austria into the Third Reich, 2/3 of the Gustloff's passengers were Austrian, a move to promote support. The remainder of the passengers consisted of 300 carefully selected girls and over 165 reporters. The voyage concluded with great fan fare and publicity.

For the next year, the Wilhelm Gustloff served as the flagship of Germany pleasure cruising. She proved cruise vacations for thousands of German workers. At just a fraction of the price a cruise would cost in other parts of Eurpoe, the ship saw tremendous success with voyages in the North Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.

A rare photo of the Wilhelm Gustloff as a pleasure cruise ship. She would spend most of her short life as a military vessel.
A rare photo of the Wilhelm Gustloff as a pleasure cruise ship. She would spend most of her short life as a military vessel.

Military Service

Like so many vessels of her size and type, the preparation of World War II would send the Wilhelm Gustloff into military service and a variety of other uses that she wasn't designed for. The Kriegsmarine summoned her for a troop transport in 1939. She would fiery 1,400 German soldiers and supplies from Spain after its civil war. This would be the only time she would serve as a troop transport. She was then summoned as a floating dormitory for German gymnasts in 1939 for several weeks. She would return to pleasure cruising only briefly in August 1939, completing four voyages. Her fifth voyage was cut short after she received ordered to report to Hamburg just as Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939.

World War II saw the Wilhelm Gustloff becoming a hospital ship for the German Wehrmacht. Renamed Lazarettschiff D and painted in hospital colors, she was prepped with 500 beds. Her first patients were 650 polish soldiers from the invasion of Poland. Until 1940 the Gustloff remained docked in the Gulf of Danzig where it served the eastern war front. In 1940 she steamed to Norway where she docked in Oslo. She treated casualties as Norway surrendered to Germany.

Germany's failed invasion of England sent the Wilhelm Gustloff back to the Gulf of Danzig where she would remain for next four years. Stripped of her hospital equipment, she was converted into floating barracks for the U-Boat training academy. She would not sail again until Operation Hannibal, the beginning of the end for the ship.

The last known photo of the Wilhelm Gustloff as she leaves Danzig. This photo provided a key clue to historians. The ship is riding very low in the water, evidence of it's overcapacity.
The last known photo of the Wilhelm Gustloff as she leaves Danzig. This photo provided a key clue to historians. The ship is riding very low in the water, evidence of it's overcapacity.

Operation Hannibal

1945 brought chaos to the once stable region of the Baltic Sea. With German defeat now apparent, full fledge panic gripped East Prussia. The dreaded Red Army, hell bent on revenge after Germany's attempted invasion of Russia was overwhelming the Nazi war machine. Media coverage of the Red Army only intensified the panic and the Germany Navy initiated Operation Hannibal, the escape procedure for all Germans. The Wilhelm Gustloff, along with every available ship, big or small, received orders to begin preparations to evacuate.

Thousands upon thousands of refugees, most of them women and children, flooded the harbor. The Gustloff was reserved for the 'privileged', families of military officers, the Women's Naval Auxiliary, and those with political and monetary influence. In the chaos of the event, no official numbers were kept of how many boarded the ship. Eyewitness accounts and military reports describe every possible space aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff being stuffed including the swimming pool, corridors, engine rooms and cargo holds. Experts estimate that as many as 10,000+ were stuffed into a ship only designed for a fraction of that.

Setting sail on January 30, 1945 marked the very last time the Wilhelm Gustloff would leave port. Even as she pulled away from the dock, hysterical people rushed the sides. Nets and gangways pulled even more aboard. Extremely over capacity, the vessel left Danzig.


Captain Alexander Marinesko of the S-14
Captain Alexander Marinesko of the S-14
A typical Soviet submarine from World War II.
A typical Soviet submarine from World War II.

Torpedoed!

Singing the death song of the Wilhelm Gustloff is rogue Soviet submarine captain, Alexander Marinesko. A violent and impulse alcoholic with a temper, he employed tactics that even the Soviet Military considered treacherous. Already facing a court marshal for his antics on shore, Marinesko's days as a submariner were numbered. When he entered the Baltic Sea looking for targets, he caught site of the Gustloff, an ominous one. Rather than informing Soviet command as per protocol, he ordered an attack.

A deafening explosion rocks the Gustloff as the first torpedo scores a direct hit in the port bow, the crew quarters most of whom were asleep. Just a few minutes later, the second strikes amidships, under the swimming pool where over three hundred women were housed. Finally, the third hits the engine room, killing all power, communications and rendering the ship motionless.

Within minutes, seawater is pouring into the lower decks. The quick thinking captain orders the watertight bulkheads sealed but the damage is across too great an area to make any difference. Panic prevents any hope of an orderly evacuation. As the first torpedo hit kill most of the crew, those who remained were left with the hopeless task of saving nearly 10,000. The ship was neither equipped nor trained for such an event. Only a handful of lifeboats actually make it to the sea, most are either capsized or crushed by falling wreckage. In less than one hour, the Gustloff founders taking over 9,500 souls with it.

An artist's depiction of the Wilhelm Gustloff first torpedo hit from the S-14 Soviet Submarine.
An artist's depiction of the Wilhelm Gustloff first torpedo hit from the S-14 Soviet Submarine. | Source

Aftermath

When the Titanic sank in 1912, it became world news in just a matter of hours. When than Wilhelm Gustloff went down, it was almost immediately forgotten. In fact, German media never ran a single story on the disaster. It went largely unnoticed in the western allied nations too, save for maybe a small time newspaper column ran the story. The Soviet Union made no mention of it in any of it's official reports. Instead, the maverick captain Alexander Marinesko was court marshaled dishonorably discharged from the Soviet Navy six months after the sinking.

Even today, the German population does not actively commemorate the disaster. There is no memorial to the victims who died. In Russia, the only incarnation of the sinking that is told changes the details of who was on board the Gustloff, soldiers rather than refugees.

Today the Wilhelm Gustloff still lies at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. The wreck is largely an unrecognized mass of twisted steel. In the 1950s, the Soviet military raided and destroyed most of the wreck with explosives searching of post-war spoils.

As with all military vessels, the wreck is now deemed a gravesite and is therefore off limits to all diving except by special permission.

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