The Wilhelm Gustloff

The Wilhelm Gustloff, a KdF 1 cruise ship pressed into service to aide the German war effort, was preparing to leave the port of Gdynia 2. Loaded with upwards of 10,000 people aboard, it was torpedoed by the Soviet submarine S-13 on January 30th, 1945.Germany and the Soviet Union were the bitterest of enemies. Do any amount of research into German POWs in the hands of Soviets and the Germans will gladly say that they would have done almost anything to be a prisoner of the Americans or British. The Soviets took a particular pleasure in their hatred of Germans, doling out vengeance with little thought. Stalin felt that because of the horrors that Germany had brought upon the Soviet people, it was not surprising, and acceptable, for the Red Army to behave as they did toward the German people.

Against the backdrop of this knowledge, Germans were fleeing the advancing Soviet army as fast as they could. The Wilhelm Gustloff was there in Gdynia to help with the evacuation as part of Operation Hannibal. 3 Commanded by Friedrich Petersen, the Wilhelm Gustloff began taking refugees aboard on January 28, 1945, with a launch time 48 hours from then. After launch they were to head to Kiel. 4

Armed guards allowed passengers on in an orderly fashion, even though panic had taken over the harbor. The mob mainly consisted of women, children and old men, as the SS was combing the crowd for men to fight the advancing Red Army. As the 30th approaches the throng became more panicked, mothers and children became separated, shoving caused some to fall overboard into the icy waters below, hysteria was setting in as the last remaining avenues of escape dried up.

At around 12:30 pm, the Wilhelm Gustloff weighed anchor and left Gdynia with their escort, a small torpedo boat, the Löwe. The sailing was anything but smooth. Rough seas, snow and hail pelted the ship, while on the bridge the crew debated the best course of action to take. Route, optimal speed and whether the Gustloff should be following a zigzag course to avoid detection were all topics of discussion. Shortly after 6 pm the crew was alerted that convoy of minesweepers was approaching them from the opposite direction. In order to avoid a collision, shouldn’t the ships running lights be turned on? The decision, which would prove fatal, was that they should.

Near 8 pm that night the crew of the Soviet submarine S-13 spotted the lights of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Captain Alexander Marinesko gathered his officers together and formulated their plan off attack on the huge ship. Because of ice, the Löwe’s anti-submarine sonar was disabled, forcing lookouts on both ships to rely on sight to spot submarines, which allowed the S-13 to get in close to both ships. Shortly after 9 pm Captain Marinesko orders 4 torpedoes to be launched at the Wilhelm Gustloff (only 3 worked properly), each hitting the starboard side of the cruise ship. Passengers were caught off guard, as most believed that the worst of their journey had passed.

The 3 torpedoes had hit the front of the ship, midship where the swimming pool was, and the rear of the boat near the engine room, knocking out all power on board the ship. Because of this the radio room operator had to use an emergency transmitter to transmit the SOS distress signal. Complete chaos ensued as the ship descended into anarchy. An hour and 10 minutes after the first torpedo hit at 9:16 pm, the Wilhelm Gustloff slipped beneath the waves of the Baltic, taking thousands of people with it. Some survivors flailed in the icy water attempting to climb into life boats, only to be beaten back by those occupying them.

The Löwe was able to pick up 472 passengers from the water, while another torpedo boat, the T-36, was able to pick up 564. The minesweepers which were feared to cause a collision arrived and picked up an additional 179 people from the water, eventually bringing the combined total of rescued to approximately 1,230. All in all, 9,500 people would perish in the sinking, making the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff the worst maritime disaster in history. 5

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