Image: Portrait of the Wilhelm Gustloff at Gotenhafen (Gdynia), Poland loading refugees by Klaus-Rainer Forst.(Klaus-Rainer Forst and www.naval-art-images.com© Klaus-Rainer Forst all rights reserved)
As millions of Germans fled west from the eastern side of the Nazi Reich (now largely Poland and the Baltic states) many gathered in the Baltic ports hoping to find a ship that would take them out of the grasp of the advancing Soviets. The Kriegsmarine now launched Operation Hannibal, a massive shipping evacuation of nearly a million civilians. German warships cleared mine free lanes in the sea and bombarded Soviet positions on the shore to prevent the Red Army reaching the ports. The German Navy fired more shells during the remaining 15 weeks of war than they had in the preceding five years.
The German cruise ship Wilhelm Gustloff, with cabins for 1,465 people was brought back into service after having being used as a floating barracks. On 30 January she was crammed with over 10,000 people desperate to escape the Red Army. No passenger list was completed in these chaotic times – but as well as many wounded and a large contingent of female naval auxiliary staff, there was a high proportion of women and children. Perhaps as many as 5,000 children were on board.
There were disputes between the various senior officers on board the ship, both military and civilian, about the best route to take, whether to avoid mines or submarines. There were military units on board and the Germans did not seek to claim she was a hospital ship, which might have been lit as such. However there is confusion as to why the ship was displaying some lights.
The Wilhelm Gustloff had been attacked by Soviet submarine S-13 commanded by Alexander Marinesko. The three torpedoes which struck hit; the off duty crew quarters, the section of the ship where the female naval auxiliaries were housed – killing the majority of them, and the engine room, completely disabling the ship. The air temperature was −18 to −10 °C (0 to 14 °F) and there was ice on the sea. The ship began to list immediately and took forty minutes to sink.
A total of 1,252 people were saved from the Wilhelm Gustloff, a remarkable achievement in the circumstances. However it has always been believed that between 7,000 – 9,000 people did not survive and the latest research puts the figure at 9,343. By a wide margin this makes it the largest loss of life resulting from the sinking of a single vessel in maritime history.
Read more here: WWII History Today