Cruise history and liner history: The MS WILHELM GUSTLOFF was the worst maritime disaster in the history of the world, with more fatalities then the Titanic and the Lusitania combined.
August 1, 1936 at Blohm & Voss shipyards in Hamburg. Robert Ley, head of the DAF and KdF drove in the ceremonial first bolt.
The MS WILHELM GUSTLOFF
The MS Wilhelm Gustloff was a German KdF flagship during 1937-1945, constructed by the Blohm & Voss shipyards. It sank after being torpedoed by the Soviet submarine S-13 on 30 January 1945. The ship was named after Wilhelm Gustloff, the assassinated German leader of the Swiss Nazi party. It was requisitioned into the Kriegsmarine (German Navy) on 1 September 1939 and served as a hospital ship in 1939 and 1940. Beginning on 20 November 1940, it was stripped of medical equipment and repainted from its hospital ship colors (white with a green stripe) to standard naval grey. The Wilhelm Gustloff was then assigned as a floating barracks for naval personnel in the port of Gdynia which was located in Nazi occupied Poland (renamed during German occupation to Gotenhafen), near Gda?sk, Poland.
The Wilhelm Gustloff?s final voyage was during Operation Hannibal in January 1945, when it was sunk while participating in the evacuation of civilians, military personnel, and Nazi officials who were surrounded by the Red Army in East Prussia. The Gustloff was hit by three torpedoes from the S-13 in the Baltic Sea under the command of Alexander Marinesko on the night of 30 January 1945 and sank in less than 45 minutes. An estimated 9,400 people were killed in the sinking. If accurate, this would be the largest known loss of life occurring during a single ship sinking in recorded maritime history.
Passengers aboard prior to WW 2.
The MS WILHELM GUSTLOFF was the worst maritime disaster in the history of the world, with more fatalities then the Titanic and the Lusitania combined. On January 30 1945, the William Gustloff was filled to the bursting point with 10,000 German refugees fleeing the advancing Red Army. In the dead of night the Soviet Submarine S-13 slammed three torpedoes into the Gustloff’s side sending her to the bottom of the Baltic, and taking 9,500 passengers and crew, over half of them children and infants to their graves.
An amazing clip taken in color from onboard the KdF liner ROBERT LEY as she passes the WILHELM GUSTOFF at sea during a 1939 cruise to the Norwegian Fjords.
This clip contains footage of the Wilhelm Gustloff’s well preserved and relatively intact stern.
Fleeing from a brutal Soviet Red Army onslaught, the MS Wilhelm Gustloff is ready to leave port jammed with over 10,000 German refugees, naval personnel and wounded soldiers. The vessel is designed to hold a maximum of 1,880 passengers and crew. Of the refugees, a staggering four thousand are infants, children and youths on their way to promising safety in the West. Minus 18° Celsius (0° Fahrenheit) weather grips the Oxhöft Pier in Gotenhafen (Gdynia) on Tuesday the 30th day of January 1945.
For the first time in four years, the former flagship of Nazi pleasure cruising has started its engines. It’s setting course for Kiel on mainland Germany – far away from the continued disintegration of the Eastern Front. Icebreakers busily work to carve a path through the Bay of Danzig to allow passage to the unforgiving winter waters of the Baltic Sea.
(Left) This is the last known photo of the Gustloff, taken as it left port around 12:30PM on January 30, 1945.
On the bridge, disagreement and tension is budding. Two main senior officers command the ship. Both Friedrich Petersen, captain of the Gustloff and Lieutenant Commander Wilhelm Zahn, head of the U-boat division which has made its home on the ship for the last 4 years, cannot agree on an appropriate course. Adding to the complexity, two young captains from the merchant marine (Köhler and Weller) also add opinions from their places on the bridge.
Around 12:30PM German time, the Gustloff leaves port. Unlike its days of joyful peacetime cruising, there are no music bands, flag waving or cheerful send-offs. Instead, anxious hope for the very survival of family members and friends privileged enough to be aboard is evident. Envy and frustration from those who could not board filter through the dejected crowd left at the harbour.
Wonderful photos… aboard the ship..
Below deck, thousands of passengers attempt to settle in to their assigned areas for the journey. Last minute arrivals carve out any reasonable living space they are lucky to find. Every possible space on the ship is occupied. All are instructed over the loudspeaker to wear the lifejackets provided to them. Under no circumstances are they to remove them. Above deck, wind, snow and hail pelt the Gustloff. The seas become rougher as the Bay is left behind. Seasickness begins to set in for many. Unable to relieve themselves overboard, onboard toilets become clogged and the stench nauseating. Even so, for many it is a small price to pay for the hardships endured recently.
(Left) Hitler aboard the ship during peacetime…
On the bridge, arguments among the four captains and senior officers continue. They hotly debate such things as route, optimal speed and whether the Gustloff should be following a zigzag course to avoid detection. One thing the captains can agree on: they are not pleased with the inadequacy of their escort.
The Gustloff is supposed to be accompanied only by the Hansa (another liner filled with thousands headed West) and two aging torpedo boats. Things worsen when the Hansa and one of the torpedo boat escorts develop problems and cannot continue.
The Wilhelm Gustloff is basically alone in an unforgiving sea with only one small escort to protect it. Approximately 1½ hours after leaving Gotenhafen, the Gustloff settles into a course further away from the coast in ‘Lane No. 58’ – an “officially” minesweeped channel.
Soviet submarine captain Alexander Marinesko slips into the Gulf of Danzig without informing his central command. Having patrolled with other Russian submarines off the coast near Memel, opportunities are scant. Aware of enemy activity around ports in the Danzig , he hopes for better odds. Aware of a court-martial hanging over him for previous on-shore indiscretions, he needs better odds. It is a calculated risk for the bold captain and his crew of 47 men. Without knowing it yet, Marinesko is charting a course directly to the deadliest sinking a submarine will ever score in history.
Shortly after 6PM, the Gustloff receives word that a convoy of minesweepers is approaching from the opposite direction. Arguments flare up once again on the bridge. What is the risk of collision? Should any lights be turned on? Wilhelm Zahn recommends that the green and red navigation lights be turned on. The aging Captain Petersen reluctantly agrees and running lights are set – a decision that becomes pivotal in the looming disaster. Meanwhile, ice coats the decks and thickens on the lifeboat davits. The anti-aircraft guns have become immobile. Efforts from the crew to keep them de-iced are proving futile.
Despite the bitter cold outside, heat and humidity is rising below decks. Many ignore Petersen’s order to keep lifejackets on – a risk they’re willing to take to relieve tremendous discomfort. Cries are heard from some of the thousands of children on board. Those able to stomach it are offered soup, sandwiches and other basic food offerings. Some are even able to be lulled to sleep. In the enclosed glass deck below the bridge, wounded soldiers and pregnant mothers are cared for.
Sometime before 8PM , the first officer on the S-13 spots lights in the distance. Marinesko promptly makes his way to the conning tower. When the snow clears for a moment he spots in his words “the silhouette of an [enormous] ocean liner, even [with its] lights showing”. Over the next two hours, Marinesko shadows the Wilhelm Gustloff, fine tuning his plan of attack. His crew on board begin to sense that their luck is about to change.
On board the Gustloff no one is aware of the danger lurking in the darkness. The U-boat sensing equipment on board the escorting torpedo boat Löwe has frozen and is useless. Crews on both vessels must rely on lookouts – a tough order in these conditions. Cheerful music piping through the ship’s speakers is interrupted sometime after 8PM . Hitler, live on the radio, makes an impassioned speech to commemorate the 12th anniversary of the Nazi rise to power. It echoes throughout the corridors of the ship. No doubt, it provides comfort to some while invoking quiet cynicism from many others.
Marinesko could not have timed it more dramatically. Only minutes after the Führer’s speech ends around 9PM , he gives the command to fire all four of the torpedoes nestled snug in the S-13’s tubes. As if to emphasize Soviet retribution, each torpedo has been painted with a dedication:
Torpedo 1: FOR THE MOTHERLAND
Torpedo 2: FOR STALIN
Torpedo 3: FOR THE SOVIET PEOPLE
Torpedo 4: FOR LENINGRAD
Three torpedoes speed toward Marinesko’s unknown but “enormous” target. One torpedo – FOR STALIN – remains behind. It is stuck in its launching tube with its primer fully armed – threatening to blow the submarine to bits with the slightest jolt. If not for the quick and delicate actions of the crew on the S-13 to disarm it, history may never have known what hit the Gustloff.
On board the escape ship, cheerful music resumes its tinny resonance from the ship’s speakers – accompanied the whimpering of discontented children and adults alike. On the bridge, there is a cautious sense of relief among the four captains now that they’ve reached the Stolpe Bank. They share a sentiment that the most dangerous waters in the journey are behind them. In addition to their first meal since departure, a round of cognac is poured to toast good fortune. Captain Weller remains on duty on the bridge. And then…
At 9:16PM , the first torpedo strikes the front of the ship, blowing a gaping hole in the port bow. Moments later, the second hits further astern where the swimming pool is located. Finally, the third scores a direct hit in the engine room below the funnel. Passengers and crew are thrown off their feet with the thunderous booms. Those near direct points of impact are practically vapourized and perhaps spared the ensuing panic and suffering.
Upon first reports of damage, the watertight doors are ordered shut to seal off the forward part of the ship. Unfortunately, this area contains the crews quarters. Many off-duty crew members (especially those trained in lowering lifeboats and emergency procedures) are sealed to their doom.
The scene of the second torpedo impact is greatly distressing. The drained swimming pool (and cabins in the immediate area) had been makeshift accommodations for many of the Women’s Naval Auxiliary. The torpedo blast creates airborne missiles out of splintered tiles which just moments before decorated the pool area with lavish mosaics. Girls in the direct area are cut to pieces by flying tiles and twisted metal. For the first time in years, water rushes in to the pool. But this time, floating corpses, body parts and empty life jackets swim in its water. Only two or three of the 373 girls are able to escape.
The third torpedo seals the fate of the Wilhelm Gustloff. This direct hit on the engine room immediately knocks out engines and power on the crippled ship. Lights go out and the ship’s communications go dead. For a few moments, one can only hear the mayhem of screaming, shouting, and rushing water. One can only feel that the ship is already beginning to list to the port side. Minutes later, emergency lights flicker on – illuminating chaos that makes the desperate boarding in Gotenhafen look like a garden party.
Since all power and communications have been knocked out, radio room operator Rudi Lange has to use an emergency transmitter to transmit the SOS. With a transmission range of only 2,000 metres, only the torpedo-boat escort Löwe is able to receive the distress call. This is how it becomes aware of the attack on the Gustloff. Without delay, it turns toward the damaged ship, while re-transmitting the Gustloff’s SOS.
Many do not survive the frenzied charge to the decks. Appeals from the P.A. system to maintain order are largely ignored, and become background tones mixed in with alarm sirens. The ‘women and children first’ rule is ignored by many in their terrified efforts to get on the decks and to the lifeboats. Stairwells jam as mobs of people attempt escape the rushing water below decks. To fall on the way means almost certain death. Many trapped in the throng can barely breathe – unable to move their feet or arms and are “carried” up with the swarm. Lucky ones find less obvious ways to the decks.
Some, sensing the hopelessness of the situation decide to take the lives of their families and themselves with their pistols. Pistols are not exclusively used for suicide. Many armed officers use them to keep any possible degree of control. Sometimes they shoot to emphasize the point.
Interpretation of the Gustloff’s final moments by Irwin J. Kappes…
On deck, the combination of ice and lack of trained crew members exacerbates the situation. People slide off the icy decks and into the freezing water. The ship lists more and more with each passing minute. Lifeboats are frozen to their davits. People claw and smash at them with bare hands trying to free them. Even if they are able to knock them loose, many of the very crew members trained to lower them are trapped (and doomed) behind the watertight doors. Reportedly, only one lifeboat is lowered correctly during the sinking. One lowers with only 12 sailors in it. Others have cables snap, fall and capsize – tossing their brief occupants into the icy water or crushing those already in it. At one point, the useless anti-aircraft guns break free and plummet overboard, landing on a fully-occupied lifeboat.
Some report seeing a high-ranking officer with his wife lowering a motorboat only half-occupied. It passes right by the plate-glass of the enclosed promenade deck, jammed with desperate women and children. We can only imagine what those on both sides of the glass were thinking. It seems selfish acts are not reserved strictly for the passengers.
Seventy minutes after the first torpedo has struck, the former glorious symbol of a crumbling empire slips below the surface of the icy Baltic, taking thousands of trapped souls with it. Eerily, just before the Gustloff plunges to the depths, all of its lights come on in a final blaze of farewell. Wailing sirens drown with the ship as it descends into the depths.
Those left flailing in the freezing stormy water of the Baltic won’t last long. Many try to grasp at lifeboats or rafts – only to be clubbed or beaten off by the desperate and paranoid occupants. Bodies of victims, made buoyant by their lifejackets, bob up and down lifelessly in the sea. Corpses of younger children float upside down, the ill-fitting lifejackets not designed for smaller sizes. It’s almost as if the lifejackets themselves could never have anticipated such an unimaginable tragedy to befall upon a child.
With the Gustloff gone, the rescue effort continues. The Löwe, obviously first to be on the scene, continues to pluck survivors (in total 472) out of lifeboats and the water using nets. It is no easy task – waves can be metres high. Another torpedo boat T-36 arrives just in time to see the liner go under. It gets to work rescuing survivors (total of 564). The heavy cruiser that the T-36 had been escorting – Admiral Hipper – arrives later but cannot stay due to fear of U-boat attack. Three minesweepers eventually arrive to assist in a desperate race against time and the cold waters of the Baltic, saving a total of 179 survivors between them. By the time freighters Göttingen and Gotenland and other smaller boats arrive to assist, they are plucking mostly frozen lifeless bodies from the water.
In any tragedy however, miracles can happen. Seven hours after the ship went down, a small patrol boat VP-1703 arrives to a sea of floating bodies. Its onboard searchlight finds a lifeboat. When Petty Officer Werner Fick jumps in to inspect it, he discovers an infant wrapped tightly in a wool blanket – astonishingly alive among the frozen corpses. This is the last official survivor of the Wilhelm Gustloff.
With that, the total number of survivors rescued number approximately 1,230. Over 9,000 go to their deaths – trapped at the bottom of the Baltic or floating frozen on its unforgiving surface.