When the subject of maritime disasters at sea arises, the first name that almost always comes to mind is Titanic. With a loss of 1,500 souls, some of them very famous like John Jacob Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim, the story has been retold in several dramatic films. With all the books and films about Titanic, it’s no wonder we visualize those last dramatic cinematic moments as the broken ship sinks into the nighttime sea and the glow from the port lights go dark. The fact is that on January 30, 1945 a similar ship went down with a loss of lives six times that of Titanic.
The MV Wilhelm Gustloff was built for an organization called the Kraft Durch Freude (strength through joy) in 1937. The original plan was to name the ship, Adolf Hitler but the furor changed his mind when he attended the memorial service for a slain leader of the National Socialist Party’s Swiss branch. Wilhelm Gustloff was assassinated by a Jewish medical student in 1936. MV Wilhelm Gustloff was the first purpose-built ship for the German Labor Front. The idea was the ship would provide recreation and cultural activities for German functionaries and workers. It was a kind of sea going public relations organization.
Wilheim Gustloff was a cruise ship of 684 feet in length. She displaced 25,484 GRT, the beam was 77ft 5 inches and her draught was 21.4 feet. There were five decks with 489 cabins. Propulsion was provided by two diesel engines, which produced 9,500hp and a speed of 17.8 mph. Her cruising range was 12,000 nautical miles. She was built at the Blohm and Voss shipyards in Hamburg, Germany and launched on May 5th, 1937. The ship, after completing sea trials, was handed over to her new owners on March 16th, 1938. The shipyard was founded in Hamburg in 1877 to specialize in steel-hulled ships, its most famous product is the World War II battleship Bismarck. The shipyard is still in active operation after nearly a century and a half of building steel hulled ships.
The itinerary included concerts, cruises and all sorts of gala holiday trips. It was designed to provide a positive image of the Third Reich. In March of 1938, MV Wilhelm Gustloff was assigned a cruise with Austrian passengers in an attempt to persuade them to vote for the annexation of Austria by Germany. In April of 1938, she left Hamburg for England where she anchored out beyond the three-mile limit offshore of the docks at Tilbury. She anchored and remained in international waters. Small boats were sent in to transport 1,172 German and 806 Austrian who were eligible voters to have the opportunity to vote. They were then transported back to Tilbury. There were 1,968 votes for the union and 10 votes against. She returned to Hamburg on April 12th.
MV Wilhelm Gustloff happened to be the nearest ship when the 1,836 coal freighter Pegaway broadcast an SOS. She was 20 miles northwest of the island of Terschelling in the West Frisian Islands group off the coast of the Netherlands. By 7:45 a.m. all crews member were safe aboard the MV Wilhelm Gustloff. The ship completed some fifty cruises during her period as a cruise ship.
In June of 1939, she converted to transport the Condor Legion back from Spain following the victory of the Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War. Her final voyage as a transport was during what was dubbed operation Hannibal. It was a naval evacuation of German troops and civilians, many of whom worked at the advanced weapons bases in the Baltic form Gdynia/Goethean to Kiel. In an effort to escape the advance of the Red Army, she evacuated military personnel and technicians from Courland, East Prussia, and Danzig-West Prussia. In September she served as a hospital ship until 1940. At that time, she was designated as an accommodation or barrack ship for roughly 1,000 U-boat crew trainees at the port of Gdynia. She was out of service from November 1940 to 1945. Then in October of 1944, the Russian Army had smashed through the German defense line in East Prussia. As the Russians rolled through they murdered, raped and pillaged their way across the country. In freezing temperatures, thousands fled west to the docks at Gotenhafen, Today it is called Gdyan, Poland). Frostbitten and starving they begged for passage on the former luxury line MV Wilhelm Gustloff. Over 10,000 soldiers and desperate civilians were allowed to board the ship which was originally built to accommodate about 1,900 people. The Russians were fast approaching. The ship set sail just past noon. All aboard were confident they had escaped the wrath of the murderous Russian troops who took no quarter.
Then out in the Gulf of Danzig, a Russian S-13 submarine under the command of Capt Alexander Marinesko lay in wait for any enemy shipping. Then on the cold winter evening of January 30th, 1945 the command “up periscope” echoed through the sub. The Captain scanned the nighttime horizon and spotted the Gustloff. Captain Marinesko knew the Gustloff had been converted from a passenger liner to a troop ship. He assumed it carried German soldiers. In fact, there were 9,000 civilians onboard including 5,000 children.
Perhaps unaware of the civilians on board, Captain Marinesko decided the Gustloff was fair game. It was, after all, a navy ship painted gray and known to carry troops. A little after 9 p.m., the S-13 fired three torpedoes at the Gustloff The blast to the port side of the liner was devastating. The Gustloff began to list causing passengers to fall in their frenzy to reach the upper deck. Passengers who were able to get to the lifeboats could not lower them because the davits were frozen over. Within an hour the Gustloff sunk beneath the waves. The screams and cries of the doomed aboard were snuffed out as the frigid water covering the ship.
The man responsible for sinking the Gustloff was born in 1913 to a Romanian sailor and a Ukrainian woman. Captain Marinesko was raised in Odessa, a port on the northwest shore of the Black Sea. Marinesko started out in the Soviet merchant fleet then later joined the Russian Navy. Over a period of time, he moved up through the ranks until he commanded a submarine, the S-13 S-Class sub, built in Russia. Perhaps the fact that Marinesko was facing a court martial may have been a contributing factor in his misguided decision to torpedo a ship carrying civilians and then he attempted to sink the rescue craft coming to the aid of the sinking ship. In 1945, he faced a court martial following a forbidden New Year’s Eve tryst with a Swedish national. The Captain is reported have been desperate to salvage his career. And the 32-year-old captain was determined to sink anything German. When he spied the Gustloff in his periscope on the night of Jan. 30, he ordered an attack without hesitation.
Miraculously rescue ships arrived and managed to pick up 900 survivors, but rescue efforts were soon called off when one of the rescue ships missed being hit by enemy torpedoes by just inches.
It has been 75 years since what is the worst maritime disaster in history occurred. It is also probably the least known maritime disaster in the annals of those men and women who go down to sea in ships.