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Wilhelm Gustloff

Created: 27 February 2005 Updated 6th November 2010

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Pre war Wilhelm Gustloff. Image: Gordon Duncan. Right: Wilhelm Gustloff in Gotenhafen - January 1945

This is a story well documented on the internet, but with many different versions, of a maritime disaster of which I knew nothing at all. The Nazi's kept it quiet for obvious reasons and to the Allies it was of no consequence. The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff and of a staggering 10,614 probable passengers!! This is the largest estimate as many of the passengers were undocumented by the normally fastidious Germans. The ship docked in January 1945 at Gotenhafen (Gdynia), Poland to remove German refugees from the path of the oncoming Soviet Red Army. Its mission was to take these refugees to Keil in Germany. When she set sail the specifications of the ship were such that she was built to comfortably house 1850 passengers and a crew of 400, carrying an estimated 600 tons of humans settled the ship an estimated extra 15cm in the water. Some original estimates included amongst the passengers, 918 naval officers and men, 373 German Women Naval Auxiliaries, 162 wounded soldiers of whom 73 were stretcher cases, and 173 crew, all fleeing from the advancing Red Army.

The ship was built in 1937 as a luxury liner, by Blohm & Voss, Hamburg, and carrying the name of a murdered Swiss Party official and the Swastika on her funnel, she weighed approx 25500 tons and a length of 650 feet, as the crown jewel of the Kraft durch Freude or Strength through Joy Nazi Organization (KdF). Deutsche Arbeitsfront, Hamburg were her owners. She had a sister ship, the Robert Ley. The Wilhelm Gustloff was named after a man considered by some during that time to be a German martyr. Wilhelm Gustloff had been the leader of the Party in Switzerland and he was murdered in 1936. His name was chosen for the largest liner of the KdF fleet and in 1937 when it was launched, his widow christened the bow on its maiden voyage. Images of the ships interior can be found here:


Newsweek magazine called it the "German Titanic - It was the worst tragedy in maritime history, six times more deadly than the Titanic. When the German cruise ship Wilhelm Gustloff was hit by torpedoes fired from a Soviet submarine in the final winter of World War II, more than 10,000 people--mostly women, children and old people fleeing the final Red Army push into Nazi Germany--were packed aboard. An ice storm had turned the decks into frozen sheets that sent hundreds of families skidding into the frigid Baltic Sea as the ship listed and began to go down. Others desperately tried to dislodge lifeboats that were frozen tight".

She was also used as a troopship during the Spanish Civil War and as a hospital ship and a floating barracks for U Boat crews. Shortly after noon on January 30th 1945, the Wilhelm Gustloff slipped her moorings and put to sea.  30 kms off the Polish coast the Wilhelm Gustloff was spotted by a Soviet submarine, the S-13, commanded by  Alexander Marinesko, (note 1 below) and was hit by three torpedoes at 9:08pm, January 30th, 1945 Gotenhafen time, , 11:08pm Moscow time, the first struck near the bow, and, as she went down bow first, was probably the shot that actually sank her, the second just aft of the first by the E Deck swimming pool and the third amidships in the Machine Room. The Wilhelm Gustloff was not marked up as a refugee ship nor as a hospital ship and carried anti aircraft armaments. At that time she was being operated by the Kreigsmarine as a Troopship. Anti torpedo measures had not been considered by the Captain. Some sources believe that a small minesweeper accompanied the Wilhelm Gustloff, others state she sailed alone. When the ship sank, people estimated around 6000 people were on board, the post war German military later raised this to 8000 and a survivor estimated 9000. What is known is that only 996 people were rescued. 400 members of the Women's Auxiliary of the Kreigsmarine were sitting in the empty swimming pool when the second torpedo hit, killing them almost instantly.

Wilhelm Gustloff's Promenade Deck clearly showing the lifeboats  - the Wilhelm Gustloff at sea

As the passengers fought to gain the lifeboat decks, killing many in the ensuing stairwell crushes, they found that the lifeboats had not been swung out, the task of the crew in such an event. The crew had vanished after the first hit. Many hundreds of people died in the freezing Baltic waters but the vast majority went down with the ship. George Duncan, in his website writes the following:

"Indescribable panic reigned as the ship listed and sank in about ninety minutes near the Danish island of Bornholm. Rescue boats picked from the stormy seas 964 survivors, many of whom were landed at Sassnitz on the island of Ruegen and taken on board the Danish hospital ship Prince Olaf which was anchored in the harbour."

Karl Hoffmann, survivor: "The surging mass of people attempted to storm the lifeboats, hardly anyone hearing the command: "women and children first." "  A female survivor stated that she saw the ship,"settle at the bows and do down, bow first, like an arrow".

Refugees were fleeing a vengeful Soviet Army driving relentlessly westwards on the words of  Ilya Ehrenburg:

Kill! Kill! In the German race there is nothing but evil; not one among the living, not one among the yet unborn but is evil! Follow the precepts of Comrade Stalin. Stamp out the fascist beast once and for all in its lair! Use force and break the racial pride of these German women. Take them as your lawful booty. Kill! As you storm onward, kill, you gallant soldiers of the Red Army.

What exactly were these people running from? Not every Russian soldier was a butcher or a rapist, of course: just most of them. A few of them still had a sense of morality and decency which even Communism had not destroyed. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was one of these. He was a young captain in the Red Army when it entered East Prussia in January 1945. He wrote later in his Gulag Archipelago:

All of us knew very well that if the girls were German they could be raped and then shot. This was almost a combat distinction.

In one of his poems, "Prussian Nights," he describes a scene he witnessed in a house in the East Prussian town of Neidenburg:

Twenty-two Hoeringstrasse. It's not been burned, just looted, rifled. A moaning by the walls, half muffled: the mother's wounded, half alive. The little daughter's on the mattress, dead. How many have been on it? A platoon, a company perhaps? A girl's been turned into a woman, a woman turned into a corpse. . . . The mother begs, "Soldier, kill me!"

For his failure to take Ilya Ehrenburg's directive to heart, Solzhenitsyn was reported by the political commissar in his unit as not being Politically Correct and was packed off to the gulag: that is, to a Soviet concentration camp.

Divers went down to survey the wreck of the Wilhelm Gustloff not so long ago and found that the complete central portion of the ship was a collapsed mangled mass of twisted metal. The torpedoes could not have done such damage nor could the depth of water, she was not that far down! So, what caused the collapse of the superstructure? Apparently, in the cold War, Soviet divers had found the wreck, identified it, and set demolition charges on the wreck in order to destroy it. Why? Some think it may have been because she could have been carrying looted Russian treasures, which she wasn't, others state it was simply underwater demolition practice. 

An artists impression of what the hulk now looks like

Underwater photographs of the wreck can be viewed on the following site: - Includes a downloadable virtual tour of the ship

1939 and as a hospital ship

Note 1: Who later sank the General von Steuben, approx 5500 dead, this single Russian sailor was responsible for the deaths of over 15000 Germans both civil and military. See Steuben.

Captain Alexander Marinesko was a loner, a renegade, who disliked authority and frequently became insubordinate to his superiors. After WW2 he was dismissed in spite of the fact he held the Combat Order of the Red Banner. He found work at a Blood Transfusion Clinic but quarrelled with staff who later accused him of theft. He served 18 months in a Labour Camp. He died of cancer in 1963. In 1990 President Gorbachev ensured his legacy with the posthumous award of the Hero of the Soviet Union. Commanding the S-13, armed with  533 calibre torpedoes, his record of 40,000 on a single patrol will never, ever, be beaten. He was born in the Ukraine, he is survived by his daughter Tatiana who lives in Kronstadt.

Marcin Jamkowski wrote an article on the Gustloff in the Feb 2005 edition of the National Geographic. This was not used in my research as I only found the article in 2010.

A later sinking, the Goya, also by Russian submarine, took 6000-7000 people down with her.

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