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Wilhelm Gustloff: 9000 died (5000 were children) when the Soviets torpedoed the German troop ship

Nick Knight
News of the Gustloff’s sinking is not reported within the remains of the Third Reich. Obviously Hitler can not bear to bring more bad news to his collapsing regime. With the exception of minor mention in a couple of newspapers, it also remains largely unreported in western Allied countries.

 In under 50 minutes time, the Gustloff was gone, taken beneath the icy black waters of the Baltic, and with her, 9,343 men, women and children while 1,239 people were saved by a number of German ships in the area. Torpedoboot T-36 rescued 564 people, Torpedoboot Löwe 472 people, Minensuchboot M387 98 people, Minensuchboot M375 43 people, Minensuchboot M341 37 people, steamer Gottingen saved 28 people, Torpedofangboot TF19 saved 7, freighter Gotland 2 people, and Vorpostenboot 1703 saved one person, a 1 year-old child.

In under 50 minutes, the Gustloff was gone, taken beneath the icy black waters of the Baltic, and with her, 9,343 men, women and children while 1,239 people were saved by a number of German ships in the area. Torpedoboot T-36 rescued 564 people, Torpedoboot Löwe 472 people, Minensuchboot M387 98 people, Minensuchboot M375 43 people, Minensuchboot M341 37 people, steamer Gottingen saved 28 people, Torpedofangboot TF19 saved 7, freighter Gotland 2 people, and Vorpostenboot 1703 saved one person, a 1 year-old child.

It is still the case – the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff remains the biggest maritime disaster in history. Over 9,000 people – mostly women and children – perished in the Baltic Sea when a Soviet submarine fired three torpedoes into the port side of the Gustloff on January 30, 1945.

When Adolf Hitler launched the Wilhelm Gustloff from the seaside city of Hamburg on May 5, 1937, hundreds of German workers and Nazi party officials gathered to witness the spectacle. Flags and swastika banners festooned the quay and arms raised in the notorious Heil Hitler salute as the ship sailed forth showing an uneasy world the full industrial might of Nazi Germany.

When Adolf Hitler launched the Wilhelm Gustloff from the seaside city of Hamburg on May 5, 1937, hundreds of German workers and Nazi party officials gathered to witness the spectacle.
Flags and swastika banners festooned the quay and arms raised in the notorious Heil Hitler salute as the ship sailed forth showing an uneasy world the full industrial might of Nazi Germany.

The Gustloff had been envisioned as one of the most luxurious cruise-ships of the day. She was to have large communal halls and open decks so that passengers could make optimum use of the space offered by the ship. As near as was possible, her cabins were all to be the same size. This was the same for both passengers and crew, to create a feeling of equality onboard ship…although only the passenger cabins would be permitted to have oceanfront views. To continue the feeling of equality, there would only be one class onboard ship – the cruise-class.

News of the Gustloff’s sinking is not reported within the remains of the Third Reich.  Obviously Hitler can not bear to bring more bad news to his collapsing regime.  With the exception of minor mention in a couple of newspapers, it also remains largely unreported in western Allied countries.

News of the Gustloff’s sinking is not reported within the remains of the Third Reich. Obviously Hitler can not bear to bring more bad news to his collapsing regime. With the exception of minor mention in a couple of newspapers, it also remains largely unreported in western Allied countries.

The Wilhelm Gustloff was 684ft long (nearly a full 200ft shorter than the Titanic), she weighed 26,000GRT (Gross Registered Tons), a little more than half of the Titanic and she carried 417 crew and 1,460 passengers, making for a total complement of 1,877. By comparison, the Titanic could take over three thousand passengers and crew. She had eight decks, a top speed of fifteen knots (18mph) thanks to two propellers and engines capable of producing 9,500hp. She had twenty two lifeboats and twelve transverse bulkheads creating thirteen watertight compartments

With all these characteristics, Hitler hoped that the Wilhelm Gustloff would be a floating pleasure-ship, taking Germans all around Europe. She would be comfortable, open and safe to travel on and would be a symbol of German superiority and ingenuity. She was designed to be a cruise-ship for the masses, for ordinary German working men and women, a sign that the Fuhreur and the Reich cared about the ordinary, hardworking German citizen. To the German worker, the Gustloff was to be the ultimate prize and reward as a holiday for all his hard work. But sadly, it was not to be. During the summer of 1939, she was pressed into service to bring the Condor Legion back from Spain after the victory of theNationalist forces under General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War. From September 1939 to November 1940, she served as a hospital ship, with her official designation being Lazarettschiff D.

You would think S-13 Captain Marinesko’s troubles with the NKVD (eventually to become the KGB) would fade now that he has scored the biggest target in history.  Moreover, he manages to sink one more significant target on February 9, 1945 before returning to base (the Steuben  - over 15,000 tons and 3,000 lives sinking in only seven minutes).  But Marinesko is not declared a “Hero of the Soviet Union ” like some of his counterparts who have achieved less.  He has become a marked man – his character deemed less than compatible with the Soviet ideal

You would think S-13 Captain Marinesko’s troubles with the NKVD (eventually to become the KGB) would fade now that he has scored the biggest target in history. Moreover, he manages to sink one more significant target on February 9, 1945 before returning to base (the Steuben – over 15,000 tons and 3,000 lives sinking in only seven minutes). But Marinesko is not declared a “Hero of the Soviet Union ” like some of his counterparts who have achieved less. He has become a marked man – his character deemed less than compatible with the Soviet ideal

Beginning on 20 November 1940, the medical equipment was removed from the ship and she was repainted from the hospital ship colors of white with a green stripe to standard naval grey. As a consequence of the British blockade of the German coastline, she was used as an accommodations ship (barracks) for approximately 1,000 U-boat trainees of the 2nd Submarine Training Division in the port of Gdynia, which had been occupied by Germany and renamed “Gotenhafen“, located near Danzig. In 1942, SS Cap Arcona was used as a stand-in for RMS Titanic in the German film version of the disaster. Filmed in Gotenhafen, the 2nd Submarine Training Division acted as extras in the movie.Wilhelm Gustloff sat dockside for over four years, until she was put back in service to transport civilians and military personnel as part of Operation Hannibal.

Operation Hannibal was the naval evacuation of German troops and civilians from Courland, East Prussia, and Danzig-West Prussia as the Red Army advanced. Wilhelm Gustloffs final voyage was to evacuate German refugees and military personnel as well as technicians who worked at advanced weapon bases in the Baltic from Gdynia, then known to the Germans as Gotenhafen, to Kiel.

The ship’s complement and passenger lists cited 6,050 people on board, but this did not include many civilians who boarded the ship without being recorded in the official embarkation records. Heinz Schön, a German archivist and Gustloff survivor who carried out extensive research into the sinking during the 1980s and 1990s, concluded that Wilhelm Gustloff was carrying a crew of 173 (naval armed forces auxiliaries), 918 officers, NCOs, and men of the 2 Unterseeboot-Lehrdivision, 373 female naval auxiliary helpers, 162 wounded soldiers, and 8,956 civilians of which an estimated 5,000 were children, for a total of 10,582 passengers and crew. The passengers besides civilians included Gestapo personnel, members of the Todt organization and Nazi officials with their families.

Capt. Alexander Marinesko, the Soviet submarine-commander who torpedoed the Gustloff was shunned by almost everyone, even in Russia! Within years of his successful action against the Gustloff, Marinesko had been… – Discharged from the Soviet Navy. – Arrested and sent to Siberia for three years’ hard labour. – Diagnosed with cancer. – Reinstated with his title of captain. – Given a military pension. – Given a ceremony honouring his actions during the Second World War. Just three weeks after these last three incidents, Marinesko died, in October of 1963. He was fifty years old.

Capt. Alexander Marinesko, the Soviet submarine-commander who torpedoed the Gustloff was shunned by almost everyone, even in Russia. Within years of his successful action against the Gustloff, Marinesko had been…
– Discharged from the Soviet Navy.
– Arrested and sent to Siberia for three years’ hard labour.
– Diagnosed with cancer.
– Reinstated with his title of captain.
– Given a military pension.
– Given a ceremony honouring his actions during the Second World War.
Just three weeks after these last three incidents, Marinesko died, in October of 1963. He was fifty years old.

The ship left Gotenhafen early on 30 January 1945, accompanied by the passenger liner Hansa, also filled with civilians and military personnel, and two torpedo boats. Hansaand one torpedo boat developed mechanical problems and could not continue, leaving Wilhelm Gustloff with one torpedo boat escort, Löwe. The ship had four captains (theGustloff‘s captain, two merchant marine captains and the captain of the U-Boat complement housed on the vessel) on board, and they could not agree on the best course of action to guard against submarine attacks. Against the advice of the military commander, Lieutenant Commander Wilhelm Zahn (a submariner who argued for a course in shallow waters close to shore and without lights), the Gustloff‘s captain—Friedrich Petersen—decided to head for deep water which was known to have been cleared of mines. When he was informed by a mysterious radio message of an oncoming German minesweeper convoy, he decided to activate his ship’s red and green navigation lights so as to avoid a collision in the dark, making Wilhelm Gustloff easy to spot in the night.

As Wilhelm Gustloff had been fitted with anti-aircraft guns, and the Germans, in obedience to the rules of war, did not mark her as a hospital ship, no notification of her operating in a hospital capacity had been given and, as she was transporting military personnel, she did not have any protection as a hospital ship under international accords.

The sinking…
Official bulletins in the Soviet Union make no mention of it.  It seems profile on the tragedy was doomed right from the start. Ironically, the only known high-profile mention of this tragedy is a front-page newspaper story in Nachrichten für die Truppe (News for the Troops) - an allied propaganda newspaper dropped out of bombers over remaining pockets of German soldiers as the war nears its end.

Official bulletins in the Soviet Union make no mention of it. It seems profile on the tragedy was doomed right from the start. Ironically, the only known high-profile mention of this tragedy is a front-page newspaper story in Nachrichten für die Truppe (News for the Troops) – an allied propaganda newspaper dropped out of bombers over remaining pockets of German soldiers as the war nears its end.

Sinking

The ship and her escorting torpedo boat were soon sighted by the Soviet submarine S-13, under the command of Captain Alexander Marinesko. The submarine sensor on board the escorting torpedo boat had frozen, rendering it inoperable as had Wilhelm Gustloffs anti-aircraft guns, leaving the vessels defenceless. Marinesko followed the ships for two hours before launching three torpedoes at Wilhelm Gustloffs port side about 30 km (16 nmi; 19 mi) offshore between Großendorf and Leba soon after 21:00 (CET), hitting it with all three (Marinesko intended to fire four torpedoes but the fourth misfired and the crew had to disarm it)  The first torpedo (with text written on it: “For the Motherland”) struck near the port bow. The second torpedo (“For the Soviet people”) hit just ahead of midships. The third torpedo (“For Leningrad”) struck the engine room in the area below the ship’s funnel, cutting off electrical power to the ship. Wilhelm Gustloff took a light list to port and settled rapidly by the head. The fourth torpedo (disarmed) was named “For Stalin”.

The first torpedo caused the watertight doors to seal off the bow which contained the crews’ quarters where off-duty crew members were sleeping. The second torpedo hit the accommodations for the women’s naval auxiliary (located in the ship’s drained swimming pool); only three of the 373 quartered there survived. The third torpedo was a direct hit on the engine room, cutting all power and communications. Reportedly, only one lifeboat was able to be lowered, the rest had frozen in their davits and had to be broken free with some lost when they fell or capsized as a result of the panic. The water temperature in the Baltic Sea at that time of year is usually around 4 °C (39 °F); however, this was a particularly cold night, with an air temperature of −18 to −10 °C (0 to 14 °F) and ice floes covering the surface. Many deaths were caused either directly by the torpedoes or by drowning in the onrushing water. Others were crushed in the initial panic on the stairs and decks, and many jumped into the icy Baltic. The majority of those who perished succumbed to exposure in the freezing water.

Whatever people are not immediately killed or drowned in the opening minutes of the attack are now desperate to get off the ship. There are barely enough lifejackets to go around and certainly not enough lifeboats. The three huge holes in the ship’s hull causes a dangerous list to Port and the ice on the ship’s boat-deck sends many people sliding into the freezing January waters. Whatever lifeboats there are, become next to useless because they are frozen to their davits by the freezing temperatures. Any crew who might be able to free them and lower them safely are probably dead already, trapped inside the ship’s hull.

Whatever people are not immediately killed or drowned in the opening minutes of the attack are now desperate to get off the ship. There are barely enough lifejackets to go around and certainly not enough lifeboats. The three huge holes in the ship’s hull causes a dangerous list to Port and the ice on the ship’s boat-deck sends many people sliding into the freezing January waters. Whatever lifeboats there are, become next to useless because they are frozen to their davits by the freezing temperatures. Any crew who might be able to free them and lower them safely are probably dead already, trapped inside the ship’s hull.

Less than 40 minutes after being struck, Wilhelm Gustloff was lying on her side and sank bow-first, in 44 m (144 ft) of water.

German forces were able to rescue some (a total of 1,252) of the survivors from the attack: torpedo boat T-36 rescued 564 people; torpedo boat Löwe, 472; minesweeper M387, 98; minesweeper M375, 43; minesweeper M341, 37; the steamer Göttingen saved 28; torpedo-recovery boat (torpedofangboot) TF19, seven; the freighter Gotland, two; and patrol boat  V1703 was able to save one baby.

All four captains on Wilhelm Gustloff survived her sinking, but an official naval inquiry was started only against Wilhelm Zahn. His degree of responsibility was never resolved, however, because of Nazi Germany’s collapse in 1945.

The Losses

The figures from the research of Heinz Schön make the total lost in the sinking to be 9,343 total, including about 5,000 children.[

Heinz Schön’s more recent research is backed up by estimates made by a different method. An episode of Unsolved History that aired in March 2003  on the Discovery Channel program undertook a computer analysis of her sinking. Using software called maritime EXODUS  it was estimated 9,400 people died out of more than 10,600 on board. This analysis considered the passenger density based on witness reports and a simulation of escape routes and survivability with the timeline of the sinking.

Many ships carrying civilians were sunk during the war by both the Allies and Axis. However, based on the latest estimates of passenger numbers and those known to be saved, Wilhelm Gustloff remains the largest loss of life resulting from the sinking of one vessel in maritime history. Günter Grass, in an interview published by The New York Times in April 2003, “One of the many reasons I wrote Crabwalk was to take the subject away from the extreme Right…They said the tragedy of Wilhelm Gustloff was a war crime. It wasn’t. It was terrible, but it was a result of war, a terrible result of war.”

Today, the Wilhelm Gustloff is a protected war-grave. It lies in 44 meters of water, off the northwest coast of Poland.

Today, the Wilhelm Gustloff is a protected war-grave. It lies in 44 meters of water, off the northwest coast of Poland.

About 1,000 German naval officers and men were aboard during, and died in, the sinking of the Gustloff. The women on board the ship at the time of the sinking were inaccurately described by Soviet propaganda as “SS personnel from the German concentration camps”. There were, however, a number of female naval auxiliaries amongst the passengers.

On February 10, just 11 days after the sinking, S-13 sank another German ship, General von Steuben, killing about 3,000 people.

Before sinking Wilhelm Gustloff, Alexander Marinesko was facing a court martial due to his problems with alcohol and was thus deemed “not suitable to be a hero” for his actions and was instead awarded the Order of the Red Banner. Although widely recognized as a brilliant commander, he was downgraded in rank to lieutenant and dishonorably discharged from the navy in October 1945. In 1960 he was reinstated as captain third class and granted a full pension. In 1963 Marinesko was given the traditional ceremony due to a captain upon his successful return from a mission. He died three weeks later from cancer. Marinesko was posthumously awarded Hero of the Soviet Union by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990