The World’s Worst Maritime Disaster – the Nazi’s Wilhem Gustloff

MS Wilhelm Gustloff in port
MS Wilhelm Gustloff in port before World War II

The sinking of MS WILHELM GUSTLOFF was the worst maritime disaster in the history of the world, with more dead then the Titanic AND Lusitania combinedNever heard of it?  Not surprising, as it was a German refugee ship, fleeing the advancing Russians near the end of World War II.

It sank in the Baltic Sea after being torpedoed by the Soviet submarine S-13 on a freezing, wintery night, January 30, 1945. The WG’s final voyage was part of a German evacuation operation.  It was sunk while evacuating Nazi officials, military personnel, wounded soldiers and thousands of civilian refugees.  Amongst them are 4 thousand infants, children and youths on their way to safety in Kiel, far from the Eastern Front. The former ‘East Prussia’ was rapidly being surrounded by the advancing Soviet Red Army.

The Wilhem Gustloff was filled to the bursting point with over 10,000 panicked Germans fleeing the approaching Russian military.  The vessel was designed to hold a maximum of 1,880 passengers and crew. In the dead of night, in the Baltic Sea, the WG was hit by three torpedoes from the S-13 and sank in just an hour.

An estimated 9,400 people perished, over half of them children and infants.

At the beginning of the war, the German cruise ship was requisitioned into the German Navy. In 1940, it was repainted from pleasure ship white to naval grey and assigned as a floating barracks in the port of Gdynia, located in Nazi occupied Poland, formerly East Prussia.  And that’s where it floated until 1945, when it became an escape vessel for German citizens and Nazis in Operation Hannibal.

On Tuesday, January 30th, temperatures of 0 degrees F (-18C) grip the Oxhöft Pier in Gotenhafen (Gdynia).  For the first time in four years, the captain will order the sleeping engines to start. Icebreaker ships work to carve a narrow path through the frozen Bay of Danzig to allow them passage through the winter waters of the Baltic Sea.

On the bridge, two senior officers command the ship, Friedrich Petersen, captain of the Gustloff and Lieutenant Commander Wilhelm Zahn, head of the naval division of 2000 men who occupied the ship for the last 4 years.  The two officers butt heads immediately and cannot agree on much.  Two young captains from the local merchant marine are also on the bridge, adding their voices to the mix.

The Wilhelm Gustloff was far from ready for such any voyage. Most critically, 10 of her 22 lifeboats were missing. After 4 years as a floating barracks, they’d gone missing – requisitioned for other harbor duties. Captain Petersen ordered the crew to search the docks, rounding up boats, dinghies, anything that floated, and strapping them down on the Sun Deck. The Captain worried the unused engines would even turn over!

Down in the streets, people flooded into Gotenhafen, tired and desperate refugees waiting their turn to climb the gangplank to safety.  The deep booms of the Red Army artillery could be heard in the distance, causing panic to set in amongst the crowd.  Rumors spread amongst the refugees that the Russian soldiers committed unspeakable atrocities on the German people they captured.  Families bartered what they had, pleading for precious boarding passes. Mothers with babies and small children were given preference. ​​

​At the docks, a mass of humanity rush up the gangplanks and onto the Wilhelm Gustloff.

High level Nazi officers demand entry, threatening sentries with death. By nightfall, tickets and boarding passes were no longer checked as the crowd forced its way onto the docks. The Gustloff’s First Officer could no longer maintain control and count the thousands of bodies streaming onto his ship. The true number of those on board that day will never be known.

Once on the Wilhelm Gustloff, refugees had to navigate standing room only lounges and crowded passageways on every single deck. The spacious upper deck rooms were turned into infirmaries for the wounded soldiers. The Arbor was turned into a maternity ward due to the high number of pregnant women on board. Every possible space on the ship is occupied.

The Gustloff would be leaving in a small convoy of 3 other smaller ships on their way to Kiel in western Germany.  With fueling complete, her Chief Engineer turned on her dormant engines for the first time since 1940. Even after being silent for so long, her engines churned to life and black smoke begin belching out of her single funnel.  Finally, at 12:15am, the Wilhelm Gustloff began to pull away from Oxhöft Pier.

Below deck, thousands of passengers attempt to settle in to their assigned areas.  All are instructed over loudspeakers to wear the lifejackets and under no circumstances remove them. Above deck, wind and snow pelt the decks. The seas become rough as the quiet bay is left behind. Seasickness begins to set in. Unable to relieve themselves overboard, onboard toilets quickly become clogged.  The growing stench overwhelming.

Refugees find an area of the ship to hunker down for the voyage. Cabins usually assigned 4 passengers were cramped with triple that number. Hallways only 6 feet across were virtual log jams of humanity. The Gustloff’s restrooms were quickly maxed out and clogged. Excrement flowed out of the toilets and spilled to floors. Combined with the heat, sweat, and filth of those who hadn’t bathed in weeks, the smell was suffocating. Even so, it was a small price to pay for their safety.

On the bridge, heated arguments continued among the four captains.

They debated the route, the speed, and the course. One thing they all agreed on: the minimal escort provided by the German Navy was not enough.  The Gustloff is accompanied only by the Hansa (another smaller ocean liner) and two aging torpedo boats.  Soon the Hansa radioed that she was having engine trouble and had to turn back. Next, the TF-1 torpedo boat had the same issue and also had to turn around. It was now just the WG and Löwe left to finish the journey.

Petersen and Zahn argue over their course to Kiel. They could sail close to the shore, where there was danger of mines, but the waters were too shallow for Russian subs. OR they could use the shipping channel where there would be no mines, but Soviet submarines could be lurking.  Wrongly assuming that submarines could not operate in such foul winter weather, Captain Peterson ordered them into the open channel.

They next argued over running lights, ON to avoid collisions with other ships or OFF to avoid detection by submarines.  Zahn wanted to follow standard war protocol and run dark.  However they’d received a radio message that a convoy of minesweepers was also in the channel, so the Captain ordered the lights turned on.  Unfortunately, a second radio message, stating that enemy submarines were also spotted in the area, did to not get through due to the storm.

Approximately 1½ hours after leaving port, the Gustloff settles into a course farther away from the coast in a mine swept channel – Lane No. 58. They also decided that rather than a zig-zag pattern to confuse subs, the ship would run a straight line course to reach Kiel as fast as possible. All of these decisions sealed the Wilhelm Gustloff’s fate.

​ The weather deteriorated as the two ships pressed on. Heavy snowfall was mixed with hail pelting the ships. The wind howled at near gale strength. Foam from breaking waves is blown onto anyone standing on the decks, where the temperature is far below zero. As cold as the weather was, few could stand for long on her decks.

In the meantime, Soviet submarine captain Alexander Marinesko slips the S-13 into the Gulf of Danzig. Having patrolled with other Russian submarines off the coast, opportunities were scant. Aware of German activity around ports in the Danzig , he hopes for better odds. Given the heavily mined Gulf, it is a calculated risk for the bold captain and his crew of 47 men.

Despite the bitter cold outside, heat and humidity from thousands of bodies rises below decks. Many ignore the Captain’s order to keep lifejackets on – a risk they’re willing to take to for some comfort. Cries from the thousands of miserable and unhappy children fill the corridors.  Soup and sandwiches are offered to those able to keep it down.  Some are even lulled to sleep. The Hitler Suite, meant for the Führer, is occupied by the Gotenhafen mayor and his family. ​

Sometime before 8pm, the first officer on the S-13 submarine spots lights on the distant horizon.

Captain Marinesko quickly makes his way up to the conning tower. When the snow clears, he spots the silhouette of an enormous ocean liner, with its lights showing!  He decided with excitement that it was about 20,000 tons. He felt quite sure it was packed with German men who had trampled Mother Russia and were now fleeing for their lives. It had to be sunk.

Over the next two hours, Marinesko shadows the Wilhelm Gustloff, carefully planning his attack. His crew begins grinning at one another, sensing that their luck is about to change for the better.  Finally the Captain orders the S-13 to dive.

On the bridge of the Gustloff, no one is aware of the danger lurking in the dark, frigid waters. The sensing equipment on board the Löwe has frozen and is useless.  German music playing through the ship’s speakers is interrupted at 8pm. Adolf Hitler, live on the radio, makes a typical, impassioned speech commemorating the 12th anniversary of the Nazi Party. It echoes throughout the corridors of the ship, providing little comfort to the fleeing refugees.

The S-13 overtakes the Wilhelm Gustloff on her on the port side in the shallower water near the coast. This was a daring move as they risked running aground. ​ Minutes after the Führer’s speech ends, around 9pm, Marinesko gives the command: “Fire all Torpedoes!”  Each of the 4 torpedoes has been hand painted with a dedication:  1: FOR THE MOTHERLAND, 2: FOR STALIN, 3: FOR THE SOVIET PEOPLE, 4: FOR LENINGRAD

MS Wilhelm Gustloff and Soviet submarine S-13
Depiction of MS Wilhelm Gustloff and Soviet submarine S-13

Three torpedoes speed toward the WG. One torpedo – the one FOR STALIN – remains behind, primed and stuck in its launching tube – threatening to blow up the submarine. Thanks to the quick and delicate actions of the crew, it is disarmed in time.

On board the WG, cheerful music resumes from the ship’s speakers – accompanied by the continued whimpering of unhappy children. On the bridge, a round of cognac is poured to toast their good fortune so far. And then at 9:16pm, the 1st torpedo strikes the front of the ship, blowing a hole in the port bow. Moments later, the second hits where the empty swimming pool is located. Finally, the third scores a direct hit in the engine room below the single funnel.

Passengers and crew are thrown off their feet. Those killed instantly are the lucky ones.

The 1st torpedo struck the forward crew cabins and cargo areas in the bow, a huge water plume shooting up in the night air. Many crew members were killed instantly.  Survivors thought they had hit a mine. The first reports of damage come to the bridge.  Petersen orders the watertight doors closed, sealing off those crew still alive in the bow. Unfortunately, they were the few on board who knew how to operate the lifeboats.

The 2nd torpedo hits at the drained swimming pool which had become the accommodations for the Women’s Naval Auxiliary. The blast creates a shower of splintered mosaic tiles, cutting the girls to pieces where they slept. The large glass ceiling over the pool shatters, raining down shards onto the women.  For the first time in years, water rushes into the pool. But this time, floating corpses and life jackets swim in the icy water, turned red with blood.  Only two of the 373 girls will escape alive.

The 3rd torpedo hits on the engine room, knocking out engines and power. Lights go out throughout the ship and communications go dead. Not that there is silence. The mayhem of screaming, shouting, and rushing water fills the corridors. Passengers can already feel the ship list to port. Emergency lights flicker on – illuminating only indescribable chaos.

Captain Peterson tries to call the engine room, but there is no reply. The radio room operator has to use an emergency transmitter to transmit an SOS. With a range of just 2,000 meters, only the escort ship Löwe receives it. Without delay,  the Löwe turns about towards the damaged ship, and re-transmits the Gustloff’s SOS.

Thousands do not survive the frenzied charge up to the stairs to the decks.

Appeals from the P.A. system to maintain calm and orderly are ignored amongst the alarm sirens. Stairwells instantly jam as mobs of people attempt to escape the rushing waters. To trip and fall means certain death from trampling. Many trapped in the throng can barely breathe – unable to move in any direction.  The luckier ones find ways to the upper decks.

On deck, the poor weather and lack of trained crew exacerbates everything. The ship lists more and more to port with each minute. People slide off the icy decks and into the freezing sea. Lifeboats are frozen to their davits. Crew smash at them with bare hands trying to free them. Crew members and civilians alike attempt to free the ship’s lifeboats.

Once one is freed, there’s a mad rush to get on, while others jumped in from upper decks. Several lifeboats capsize into the water, dumping their people into the cold Baltic Sea. Others have cables snap and fall. Some armed officers use their pistols to keep control, shooting in the air to get attention. Only one lifeboat is ever lowered correctly. 

The glass enclosed promenade deck is jammed with desperate women and children. People trapped behind the glass struggle to break it before they drown.  The windows should slide down, but are frozen shut. Survivors in boats watch through the glass as the water rises and claims hundreds.  Other gun shots begin to ring out as Nazi officers took their families into their cabins to kill them.

The Löwe launches her few lifeboats and begins to pick up survivors.  Her SOS was picked up by the cruiser Admiral Hipper, which steams in their direction. The Wilhelm Gustloff is listing heavily onto her port side. The infirmary wounded, unable to get off their beds, slide across rooms and into walls, unable to save themselves as the water rushes in to claim them.

On the submarine S-13, Captain Marinesko watches the death throes of his victim through the periscope.

As the Admiral Hipper arrives, the Gustloff’s funnel was almost touching the water. All 4 captains abandon the bridge.  The Wilhelm Gustloff was in her final moments. Thousands of screams filled the night air.  Seventy minutes after the torpedoes struck, the WG slips below the surface of the icy Baltic, taking thousands of trapped souls with it. Eerily, the emergency lights and wailing sirens drown out as it descends. The Gustloff was gone, taking 9,343 souls with her in 70 minutes. 1,252 somehow survived.

Those left flailing in the cold stormy waters of the Baltic don’t last long. Many try to grasp at lifeboats or rafts – only to be beaten off by desperate occupants. Bodies of victims, buoyant in their lifejackets, bobbed on the sea. Corpses of younger children float upside down, as the ill-fitting military lifejackets were not designed for them. Both Captain Petersen and Captain Zahn survive.

With the Gustloff gone, the Löwe continues to rescue survivors (472).  It’s no easy task as waves were several meters high. Another torpedo boat T-36 arrives and starts rescuing survivors (564). After picking up the sound of the S-13 on sonar, the captain of the Admiral Hipper decides to flee rather than risk getting sunk. ​The captain of the T-36 orders depth charges dropped in an attempt to destroy the killer sub.  

Satisfied with the kill, Captain Marinesko and the S-13 submarine are able to slip away into the deep Baltic Sea. Ironically, the captain had a history with alcohol and was dishonorably discharged before the year was out.

Perhaps because after 4 long years of world war, costing the lives of so many soldiers and civilians on both sides, the sinking of the MS Wilhem Gustloff, though tragic in its scope, did not garner many international news headlines.  Remember, by now the Allies had regained France and Poland and were advancing on Berlin. As the decades pass, its place in history is all but forgotten, except of course, in Germany.

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Published by andrewspaulw

LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

3 thoughts on “The World’s Worst Maritime Disaster – the Nazi’s Wilhem Gustloff

  1. The periscope of the S13 is now in the naval museum in St Petersburg. I’ve myself looked through the eyepiece. You can see the black silhouette of the Wilhelm Gustloff painted on the top lens with a background of dark blue night sky.

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