Disasters at sea will always be famous. The R.M.S. Lusitania, the R.M.S. Titanic, the H.M.H.S Britannic and the Oceanos, to name but a few. And they’re all famous for different reasons – War, luxury, mischance, cowardice and bravery…and yet, none of these is the biggest maritime disaster of all. No, not even the Titanic, which this year commemorates the 99th anniversary of its sinking.
This unfortunate honour: The biggest maritime disaster in the world to date, goes to the ill-fated German ocean-liner, the M.V. Wilhelm Gustloff.
What was the Wilhelm Gustloff?
The M.V. (motor vessel) Wilhelm Gustloff was built between 1936 and 1938. Originally, she was a cruise-ship and was named for the asassinated leader of the Nazi Party in Switzerland, who was killed just months before construction was due to begin. The Gustloff was launched on the fifth of May, 1937 in Hamburg, Germany.
Photograph of the Gustloff being launched
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.
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.
In the company of the captain, Hitler (extreme left) tours the recently-completed Wilhelm Gustloff in 1938
Wilhelm Gustloff – Hospital Ship
Whatever Hitler’s plans were for the Wilhelm Gustloff, they barely reached fruition, if indeed they ever did. Barely a year after the ship’s maiden voyage on the Thursday of the 24th of March, 1938, Germany would be plunged into the hell of the Second World War and all thoughts of the Wilhelm Gustloff being the People’s Cruise-Ship were smashed to pieces.
Once the pride of the German KdF (Kraft Durch Freude, “Strength through Joy”) shipping fleet, after several successful cruises throughout 1938 and early 1939, the Wilhelm Gustloff was turned over to the German navy, the Kriegsmarine in September 1939 with the outbreak of World War Two.
In the German Navy, the Wilhelm Gustloff was turned into a hospital ship, a role which she played from September 1939 until November of 1940. After that, she became a floating barracks for German U-boat crews.
The Wilhelm Gustloff as a hospital ship off the coast of Oslo, Norway; 1940
Operation Hannibal and the Last Voyage
For four years, between 1941-1945, the Gustloff had remained at anchor. During this time, it was used mostly to house sailors and submariners, but by 1944 and the Invasion of Normandy in June of that year, the War started going bad for Germany, especially on the Eastern Front. Operation Barbarossa, the attempt by Hitler to invade the Soviet Union, was a complete disaster and now the Russians wanted revenge. By January 1945, the German army was fighting off Italy, Russia, England, America, Commonwealth troops, Free French fighters and resistence-fighters on almost every front imaginable and it was rapidly losing the war.
As the Russian army pushed westward across Eastern Europe towards Poland, Operation Hannibal was executed.
Operation Hannibal was nothing less than the biggest seaborne evacuation in military history. It even eclipsed the famous Dunkirk Evacuation when the “little ships” were used to evacuate Allied soldiers from the beaches of France in 1940. In total, Operation Hannibal was going to try and evacuate about one and a quarter to two million people in roughly a thousand ships over the course of fifteen weeks.
One of those ships, was the M.V. Wilhelm Gustloff.
On the 22nd of January, 1945, the Wilhelm Gustloff is given the order to prepare to take on thousands of escaping German refugees. Many are women, children and wounded soldiers. German civilians are terrified of what retributions the Russians might unleash as they sweep westwards and many want to escape back to Germany as fast as possible. The Wilhelm Gustloff is at anchor in the port city of Gdynia, German-Occuped Poland. The crew are worried. Apart from the fact that they have to house so many thousands of people, they are worried about the mechanical strain; the Gustloff’s engines have been cold for the past four years while it was in harbour, and there is no time to run the necessary maintenance and safety-checks.
On the 28th of January, the Gustloff’s crew receive the order to prepare for evacuation. Thousands of refugees, mostly sailors, nurses, civilians and wounded soldiers file onboard, each person bearing a permit of travel that allows them refugee status and permission to board the Gustloff.
Gustloff’s last voyage took place on the 30th of January, 1945. On this day, the ship is ordered to raise anchor and steam westwards towards the German city of Kiel. The official passenger manifest lists about 3,000 people onboard (the Gustloff is rated to carry only 1,800 passengers and crew), but even this is not even close. In the panic of evacuations, thousands of people who aren’t supposed to be there, force their way onboard the already dangerously overcrowded ship. Even as the Gustloff leaves the harbour, people are offloaded onto the ship from harbour-tugs which pull up alongside while their passengers climb on, using the ship’s boarding-stairs. In total, the Gustloff is carrying about ten and a half thousand people.
January 30th, 1945. The Gustloff leaves Poland. This is the last photograph ever taken of the ship
Onboard the Gustloff, things are far from easy. The ship is crammed so far beyond capacity that even with extra safety-equipment onboard, there is only enough lifeboats, flotation-vests and life-rings for less than half the ship’s full complement of passengers and crew. The passenger-quarters are so full that any space at all is fair-game as a sleeping-area during the voyage back to Germany.
On the bridge, the Gustloff is in the combined command of four captains, three civilian captains and one military one. They argue constantly on the best precautions to take. Do they turn off the ship’s lights to prevent detection? Do they stay near the coast where Soviet submarines will find it harder to patrol? Do they go into deeper water away from the shoreline where lights from cities will certainly outline the shape of the ship? Do they go straight ahead to make the most of what short time they have, or do they steer a conventional wartime zig-zag course to try and throw off enemy submarines who might try and torpedo them?
The only thing that the captains seemed to agree on was that their escort was wholly inadequate. All they had was one torpedo-boat, the Lowe, to protect them from the formidable force of the Russians and anything that they could throw against them. The ship was a sitting duck.
The Lowe, originally a torpedo-boat in the Royal Norwegian Navy. It was captured by the Germans in 1940 and was returned to the Norwegians in 1945 at the end of the War
With such disagreements over defensive actions and with such a useless escort-vessel, the Wilhelm Gustloff was easy pickings for the Russian submariners who hunted down fleeing German shipping. The submarine that’s after the Gustloff is the S-13, under the command of Capt. Alexander Marinesko.
Just before 8:00pm on the 30th of January, the S-13 spots the Wilhelm Gustloff. It’s in deep water with all its lights on, as a warning to other shipping, but to the crew of the Russian submarine, it’s a big, fat target. For a whole hour, Capt. Marinesko orders that no actions be taken. The Wilhelm Gustloff is a big prize and the Russians must be patient, lining up the perfect shot before they try and take the ship down.
Eventually, shortly after 9:00pm, Capt. Marinesko gives the order to fire. The S-13 lets loose three of a possible four torpodoes into the water. The fourth torpedo misfires and jams in its torpedo-tube. Quick thinking on the part of the S-13’s crew prevents the malfunctioning torpedo from exploding and destroying the submarine. The captain has no idea what his target is because it’s so dark outside. All he knows is that it’s a big German ocean-liner with all its lights on.
At 9:16pm, disaster strikes.
The first torpedo slams into the Wilhelm Gustloff, forward of the bridge, blowing a hole in her port bow. The second torpedo strikes the ship further back, below the ship’s swimming-pool. The third torpedo hits the vessel amidships, destroying the engine-rooms.
To prevent the ship from sinking, the captains order all watertight doors to be closed at once. This unwittingly drowns many of the ship’s crew who would have been essential in manning lifeboats and organising evacuations. The second torpedo kills hundreds of the Women’s Naval Auxilliary who have used the empty ship’s swimming-pool as a sleeping-area. The third torpedo arguably creates the most damage of all.
By striking the ship’s engine-room, the third torpedo simultaneously disables the ship and isolates it from the outside world. With the engines crippled, the Wilhelm Gustloff is unable to move, but even more unfortunately, the damaged engines will no longer power the ship’s generators – all electrical power, from lights to telephones and even the ship’s wireless radio, suddenly lose power, plunging everything into darkness. If not for the ship’s emergency generator (for the wireless-room only), the Gustloff would have sunk without anyone knowing what had ever happened to it.
Although the wireless-radio is still operational (if just barely), its transmission range is only two kilometers. Within that radius, only the Gustloff’s escort-vessel, the Lowe, picks up the ship’s desperate S.O.S message. It immediately steams towards the ship.
Onboard the Gustloff, panic reigns supreme.
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.
In the chaos, only one lifeboat is lowered successfully. Most people just jump or slide into the water where lifebelts provide little protection against the freezing water. People jumping into the water wearing one of the few life-vests that are available are susceptable to broken necks. As their bodies hit the water and sink, their chins hit the floating vest, whipping their heads back and causing spinal injuries. What few lifeboats are lowered are done so incorrectly or haphazardly, causing them to break free from the ship and crash into the water. At least one lifeboat is smashed to pieces when an anti-aircraft gun on the boat-deck breaks loose as the Gustloff continues a steady list to port.
The Gustloff’s woefully underpowered wireless set only manages to raise the Lowe, the Gustloff’s one and only escort-vessel, which is able to reach the stricken cruise-ship’s side within fifteen minutes. She manages to rescue 472 people in the water and in lifeboats. The Gustloff continues to sink. The severe list to port means that it becomes impossible for people to get out of the ship. Stairways and corridors are packed with panicking passengers who can’t find their way up to the boat deck due to the lack of lights and the inability to climb the stairs due to the tilting of the ship. Soon, it is a case of “Every man for himself” as people take their lives in their hands and fight to find any way off the ship and on to safety. Soldiers and sailors shoot their own families and then commit suicide rather than freeze to death in the water. Firearms are also used by the ship’s officers to try and maintain order on the boat deck, but in a scenario where even the “Birkenhead Drill” (more famously known as “Women and Children First”) is being ignored by everyone, they do little more than add more panic to the already frantic situation unfolding all around them.
In less than forty-five minutes, the Gustloff had been struck by three torpedoes, it had listed to port, capsized and finally, vanished beneath the waves.
In total, nine ships and boats of varying sizes rush to the Gustloff’s aid. Between them, they save a total of 1,252 people. The last person to be rescued was a baby which was found alive in one of the Gustloff’s lifeboats, seven hours after the ship went down. Of approximately 10,500 people onboard the Gustloff, anywhere from 9,200 to 9,500 people (the exact figure is unknown because no official record exists of how many people were really onboard) either drowned inside the Gustloff when it went down, or froze to death in the water trying to escape. It remains to this day, the biggest loss of life at sea from a single disaster.
The Aftermath of the Sinking
Despite the appalling loss of life, the Wilhelm Gustloff is probably the most forgettable and unknown maritime disaster in the world. The reasons for this are numerous and some of them are more obvious than others.
– The Wilhelm Gustloff sunk during the dying months of the Second World War. There was little interest in the popular news press about anything that wasn’t directly related to an eventual Allied victory in Europe.
– The Gustloff was an ‘enemy ship’ carrying ‘enemy soldiers’ and civillians. It wasn’t in the best interests of the Allies to take notice, or care.
– Dozens of ships were being sunk every day during the War. One more barely made a difference.
– The German government, already aware that their country would lose the war, suppressed the news, fearful of what it would do to already-shattered German morale.
– The Gustloff carried no famous celebrities, unlike the Titanic, which carried nearly all the movers-and-shakers, socialites and big businessmen of the Edwardian era.
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.
Today, the Wilhelm Gustloff is a protected war-grave. It lies in 44 meters of water, off the northwest coast of Poland.