Deadliest Disaster At Sea : MV Wilhelm Gustloff

“Über 9000” (About 9,000) portrait of the Wilhelm Gustloff by Sejar Bekirow. (Image courtesy of Sejar Bekirow)
© Sejar Bekirow and and all rights reserved

Deadliest Disaster At Sea : MV Wilhelm Gustloff On January 30th, 1945, while evacuating Nazi officials, military personnel and thousands of civilian refugees from Courland and the Polish Corridor ahead of the advancing Red Army, the German liner Wilhelm Gustloff was sunk.

Built at the Hamburg shipyard Blohm & Voss; the same yard as battleship Bismarck, Gustloff cost 25 million Reichsmark in 1936.

The bottom of the hull
Wilhelm Gustloff under construction at Blohm & Voss Hamburg, Germany.
Launch day : May 5, 1937

Hitler wanted a fleet of cruise ships for members of the party and to provide positive pr for the Third Reich, when Germany wanted to annex Austria, Austrian citizens were treated to trips on her in an attempt to curry their favor. Hitler had not received 50% of the vote when he came to power and was always attempting to bring more supporters to the Third Reich.

By 1939 she sailed as a hospital ship to assist in the war effort with the designation Lazarettschiff D. She would lose her original colors for a grey coat of paint when she became a troop barracks for U-boat trainees.

Most of Gustloff’s estimated 10,000 passengers—which included U-boat trainees and members of the Women’s Naval Auxiliary—would die just hours after boarding.

Operation Hannibal

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H27992 / Sönnke, Hans / CC-BY-SA 3.0

With the Red Army advancing on the German position in Poland and the baltic states, evacuation efforts code named Operation Hannibal included Gustloff to get German citizens back to Germany.

On that fateful night, the ship was overloaded when it left the dock at Gotenhafen. (then in East Prussia, now Gdynia, Poland).

“They said to have a ticket to the Gustloff is half of your salvation.”

Ship passenger Heinz Schön recalled in an episode of the early 2000s Discovery Channel series “Unsolved History.” “It was Noah’s Ark.” 

As she had been armed with anti-aircraft guns, the Gustloff was no longer marked as a hospital or civilian ship and therefore was a legitimate target. Furthermore, she was supposed to have two torpedo boat escorts, but one encountered engine issues and had to turn back.

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In addition, her captain ignored military advice to sail in shallow waters near shore. The captain chose deep water to avoid mines, and furthermore used navigation lights illuminating the target for the Soviets.

Not knowing that the ship was carrying civilians, the crew of the Soviet submarine S-13 fired three torpedoes into the ship’s port side. 

Similar to the sinking of the Lusitania, it has been confirmed she was indeed carrying munitions. Consignments of shell casings have been found at the wreck site, so she too was legitimate.

Like the Lusitania, the Gustloff was a passenger ship which became a ship of war when hostilities began. Also like Lusitania, Gustloff sailed under conditions inviting disaster, in her case painted military gray. Without Red Cross markings, and unlit, when boats of that description were spiriting German troops out of besieged East Prussia. 

Just forty minutes after being struck by three torpedoes. Gustloff rolled onto her side and sank quickly in the Baltic’s icy waters. Some 9,400 passengers, almost half of them children, perished out of the possibly 10,600 aboard. 

1,200 people were rescued from the freezing sea by other German ships in the area. There were not nearly enough lifeboats as the boat was severely overloaded. 

Most were innocent, and suffered horribly owing to the crimes and acts of aggression committed by the Third Reich. To this day, the sinking, though widely unknown to the general public, remains the deadliest in maritime history. 

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Deadliest Disaster At Sea : MV Wilhelm Gustloff