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Friday, 20 October 2017

the Sinking of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-H27992, Lazarettschiff "Wilhelm Gustloff" in Danzig.jpg
Wilhelm Gustloff as a hospital ship. Danzig, 23 September 1939
Name: Wilhelm Gustloff
Namesake: Wilhelm Gustloff
Owner: Deutsche Arbeitsfront
Operator: Hamburg-South America Line
Port of registry: Hamburg, Germany
Builder: Blohm & Voss
Cost: 25 million Reichsmark
Yard number: 511
Laid down: 1 August 1936
Launched: 5 May 1937
Acquired: 15 March 1938
Identification: Radio ID (DJVZ)
Fate: Requisitioned into the Kriegsmarine on 1 September 1939
Nazi Germany
Name: Lazarettschiff D (Hospital Ship D)
Operator: Kriegsmarine (German navy)
Acquired: 1 September 1939
In service: 22 September 1939 – 20 November 1940
Status: Converted to floating barracks beginning 20 November 1940, including repainting from hospital ship colours to standard navy grey.
Nazi Germany
Name: Wilhelm Gustloff
Operator: Kriegsmarine
Acquired: 20 November 1940
Out of service: November 1940 – January 1945
Fate: Torpedoed and sunk 30 January 1945 - War grave
Notes: Used as floating barracks for the Second Submarine Training Division until the vessel returned to active service ferrying civilians and military personnel as part of Operation Hannibal
General characteristics [1]
Class and type: Cruise ship
Tonnage: 25,484 GRT
Length: 208.5 m (684 ft 1 in)
Beam: 23.59 m (77 ft 5 in)
Height: 56 m (183 ft 9 in)
Draught: 6.5 m (21 ft 4 in)
Decks: 5
Installed power: 9,500 hp (7,100 kW)
Speed: 15.5 kn (28.7 km/h; 17.8 mph)
Range: 12,000 nmi (22,000 km) at 15 kn (28 km/h; 17 mph)
  • 1,465 passengers (as designed) in 489 cabins:
    • 248 two-bed
    • 241 four-bed
MV Wilhelm Gustloff was a German military transport ship which was sunk on 30 January 1945 by Soviet submarine S-13 in the Baltic Sea while evacuating German civilians, Nazi officials and military personnel from Gdynia (Gotenhafen) as the Red Army advanced. By one estimate,[3] 9,400 people died, which makes it the largest loss of life in a single ship sinking in history.
Constructed as a cruise ship for the Nazi Kraft durch Freude (Strength Through Joy) organisation in 1937, she had been requisitioned by the Kriegsmarine (German navy) in 1939. She served as a hospital ship in 1939 and 1940. She was then assigned as a floating barracks for naval personnel in Gdynia (Gotenhafen) before being put into service to transport evacuees in 1945.



Wilhelm Gustloff was constructed by the Blohm & Voss shipyards. Measuring 208.5 m (684 ft 1 in) long by 23.59 m (77 ft 5 in) wide with a capacity of 25,484 gross register tons (GRT), she was launched on 5 May 1937.
The ship was originally intended to be named Adolf Hitler but was named after Wilhelm Gustloff, a leader of the National Socialist Party's Swiss branch, who had been assassinated by a Jewish medical student in 1936. Hitler decided on the name change after sitting next to Gustloff’s widow during his memorial service.[4]

Cruise liner

Wilhelm Gustloff was the first purpose-built cruise liner for the German Labour Front (Deutsche Arbeitsfront, DAF) and used by subsidiary organisation Kraft durch Freude (KdF) (Strength Through Joy). Her purposes were to provide recreational and cultural activities for German functionaries and workers, including concerts, cruises, and other holiday trips, and as a public relations tool, to present "a more acceptable image of the Third Reich."[5] She was the flagship of the KdF cruise fleet, her last civilian role, until the spring of 1939.

Military career

During the summer of 1939, the vessel was returned to service to bring the Condor Legion back from Spain after the victory of the Nationalist forces under General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

German soldiers wounded at Narvik being transported back to Germany on Wilhelm Gustloff in July 1940.
From September 1939 to November 1940, she served as a hospital ship, with her official designation being Lazarettschiff D.
Beginning on 20 November 1940, the medical equipment was removed from the ship and she was repainted from the hospital ship colours of white with a green stripe to standard naval grey.[6] As a consequence of the British blockade of the German coastline, she was used as an accommodations ship (barracks) for approximately 1,000 U-boat trainees of the 2nd Submarine Training Division (2. Unterseeboot-Lehrdivision) in the port of Gdynia, which had been occupied by Germany and renamed Gotenhafen, located near Danzig. In 1942, SS Cap Arcona was used as a stand-in for RMS Titanic in the German film version of the disaster. Filmed in Gotenhafen, the 2nd Submarine Training Division acted as extras in the movie.[6] Wilhelm Gustloff sat in dock for over four years, until she was put back into service to transport civilians and military personnel as part of Operation Hannibal.

Operation Hannibal – evacuation

Operation Hannibal was the naval evacuation of German troops and civilians from Courland, East Prussia, and Danzig-West Prussia as the Red Army advanced. Wilhelm Gustloff's final voyage was to evacuate German refugees and military personnel as well as technicians who worked at advanced weapon bases in the Baltic[7] from Gdynia, then known to the Germans as Gotenhafen, to Kiel.[8]
The ship's complement and passenger lists cited 6,050 people on board, but this did not include many civilians who boarded the ship without being recorded in the official embarkation records. Heinz Schön, a German archivist and Gustloff survivor who carried out extensive research into the sinking during the 1980s and 1990s, concluded that Wilhelm Gustloff was carrying a crew of 173 (naval armed forces auxiliaries), 918 officers, NCOs, and men of the 2 Unterseeboot-Lehrdivision, 373 female naval auxiliary helpers, 162 wounded soldiers, and 8,956 civilians, of which an estimated 5,000 were children, for a total of 10,582 passengers and crew.[8] The passengers besides civilians included Gestapo personnel, members of the Organisation Todt and Nazi officials with their families.[9][10] The ship was overcrowded, and due to the temperature and humidity inside many passengers defied orders not to remove their life jackets.[11]
The ship left Danzig at 12:30 pm on 30 January 1945, accompanied by the passenger liner Hansa, also filled with civilians and military personnel, and two torpedo boats. Hansa and one torpedo boat developed mechanical problems and could not continue, leaving Wilhelm Gustloff with one torpedo boat escort, Löwe.[12] The ship had four captains (Wilhelm Gustloff's captain, two merchant marine captains and the captain of the U-Boat complement housed on the vessel) on board, and they could not agree on the best course of action to guard against submarine attacks. Against the advice of the military commander, Lieutenant Commander Wilhelm Zahn (a submariner who argued for a course in shallow waters close to shore and without lights), Wilhelm Gustloff's captain—Friedrich Petersen—decided to head for deep water which was known to have been cleared of mines. When he was informed by a mysterious radio message of an oncoming German minesweeper convoy, he decided to activate his ship's red and green navigation lights so as to avoid a collision in the dark, making Wilhelm Gustloff easy to spot in the night.
As Wilhelm Gustloff had been fitted with anti-aircraft guns, and the Germans, in obedience to the rules of war, did not mark her as a hospital ship, no notification of her operating in a hospital capacity had been given and, as she was transporting military personnel, she did not have any protection as a hospital ship under international accords.[13]


The ship was soon sighted by the Soviet submarine S-13, under the command of Captain Alexander Marinesko. The submarine sensor on board the escorting torpedo boat had frozen, rendering it inoperable, as had Wilhelm Gustloff's anti-aircraft guns, leaving the vessels defenseless. Marinesko followed the ships to their starboard (seaward) side for two hours before making a daring move to surface his submarine and steer it around Wilhelm Gustloff's stern to attack it from the port side closer to shore, where the attack would be less expected. At around 9 pm (CET), Marinesko ordered his crew to launch four torpedoes at Wilhelm Gustloff's port side about 30 km (16 nmi; 19 mi) offshore between Großendorf and Leba. The first was nicknamed "for the Motherland," the second "for Leningrad," the third "for the Soviet people" and the fourth torpedo which got jammed in the torpedo tubes and had to be dismantled was called "for Stalin." [8] The three torpedoes which were fired successfully all struck Wilhelm Gustloff on her port side.
The first torpedo which struck Wilhelm Gustloff's bow caused the watertight doors to seal off the bow which contained the crews' quarters where off-duty crew members were sleeping. The second torpedo hit the accommodations for the women’s naval auxiliary located in the ship's drained swimming pool; dislodging the pool tiles at high speed, which caused heavy casualties, and only three of the 373 quartered there survived. The third torpedo was a direct hit on the engine room located amidships, disabling all power and communications. Reportedly, only nine lifeboats were able to be lowered; the rest had frozen in their davits and had to be broken free. About 20 minutes after the impact of the torpedoes, Wilhelm Gustloff listed dramatically to port so that the lifeboats lowered on the high Starboard side crashed into the ship's tilting side, destroying many lifeboats and spilling their occupants across the ship's side.[11] The water temperature in the Baltic Sea at that time of year is usually around 4 °C (39 °F); however, this was a particularly cold night, with an air temperature of −18 to −10 °C (0 to 14 °F) and ice floes covering the surface. Many deaths were caused either directly by the torpedoes or by drowning in the onrushing water. Others were crushed in the initial stampede caused by panicked passengers on the stairs and decks. Many others jumped into the icy Baltic. The majority of those who perished succumbed to exposure in the freezing water.[14]
Less than 40 minutes after being struck, Wilhelm Gustloff was lying on her side and sank bow-first ten minutes later, in 44 m (144 ft) of water.
German forces were able to rescue some (a total of 996) of the survivors from the attack: torpedo boat T-36 rescued 564 people; torpedo boat Löwe, 472; minesweeper M387, 98; minesweeper M375, 43; minesweeper M341, 37; the steamer Göttingen saved 28; torpedo-recovery boat (torpedofangboot) TF19, seven; the freighter Gotenland, two; and patrol boat (Vorpostenboot) V1703 was able to save one baby.[11]
All four captains on Wilhelm Gustloff survived her sinking, but an official naval inquiry was started only against Wilhelm Zahn. His degree of responsibility was never resolved, however, because of Nazi Germany's collapse in 1945.[15]


The figures from the research of Heinz Schön make the total loss in the sinking to be 9,343 total, including about 5,000 children.[16]
Heinz Schön's more recent research is backed up by estimates made by a different method. An episode of Unsolved History that aired in March 2003 [3] on the Discovery Channel program undertook a computer analysis of her sinking. Using software called maritime EXODUS [17] it was estimated 9,600 people died out of more than 10,600 on board. This analysis considered the passenger density based on witness reports and a simulation of escape routes and survivability with the timeline of the sinking.[18]


Many ships carrying civilians were sunk during the war by both the Allies and Axis.[19] However, based on the latest estimates of passenger numbers and those known to be saved, Wilhelm Gustloff remains the largest loss of life resulting from the sinking of one vessel in maritime history. Günter Grass, in an interview published by The New York Times in April 2003, "One of the many reasons I wrote Crabwalk was to take the subject away from the extreme Right ...They said the tragedy of Wilhelm Gustloff was a war crime. It wasn't. It was terrible, but it was a result of war, a terrible result of war."[20]
About 1,000 German naval officers and men were aboard during, and died in, the sinking of Wilhelm Gustloff. The women on board the ship at the time of the sinking were inaccurately described by Soviet propaganda as "SS personnel from the German concentration camps".[21] There were, however, 373 female naval auxiliaries amongst the passengers.
On the night of 9–10 February, just 11 days after the sinking, S-13 sank another German ship, General von Steuben, killing about 4,500 people.
Before sinking Wilhelm Gustloff, Alexander Marinesko was facing a court martial due to his problems with alcohol and for being caught in a brothel while he and his crew were off duty, so Marinesko was thus deemed "not suitable to be a hero" for his actions and instead of gaining the title "Hero of the Soviet Union," he was awarded the lesser Combat Order of the Red Banner. Although widely recognized as a brilliant commander, he was downgraded in rank to lieutenant and dishonorably discharged from the navy in October 1945. In 1960 he was reinstated as captain third class and granted a full pension. In 1963 Marinesko was given the traditional ceremony due to a captain upon his successful return from a mission. He died three weeks later from cancer. Marinesko was posthumously awarded Hero of the Soviet Union by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990.[22]


A porthole window from Wilhelm Gustloff, salvaged in 1988 by Philip Sayers on behalf of Rudi Lange (the radio operator on board at the time of sinking), was donated to the museum ship Albatross in Damp in 2000. The porthole has two steel bars on the outside.

A model of Wilhelm Gustloff at the Laboe Naval Memorial
Noted as "Obstacle No. 73" on Polish navigation charts,[23] and classified as a war grave, Wilhelm Gustloff rests at 55°04′22″N 17°25′17″E, about 19 nmi (35 km; 22 mi) offshore, east of Łeba and west of Władysławowo (the former Leba and Großendorf respectively). It is one of the largest shipwrecks on the Baltic Sea floor and has been attracting much interest from treasure hunters searching for the lost Amber Room. In order to protect the property on board the war grave-wreck of Wilhelm Gustloff and to protect the environment, the Polish Maritime Office in Gdynia has forbidden diving within a 500 m (1,600 ft) radius of the wreck.[24]
In 2006, a bell recovered from the wreck and subsequently used as a decoration in a Polish seafood restaurant was lent to the privately funded "Forced Paths" exhibition in Berlin.[25]

Books, documentaries and movies

Books in German

The most prolific German author and historian on the subject of Wilhelm Gustloff is Heinz Schön, one of the shipwreck's survivors, whose books (in German) include:
  • Der Untergang der "Wilhelm Gustloff". Tatsachenbericht eines Überlebenden. (The sinking of the "Wilhelm Gustloff". Factual account of a survivor.) Karina-Goltze-Verlag K.-G., Göttingen 1952;
  • SOS Wilhelm Gustloff. Die größte Schiffskatastrophe der Geschichte. (SOS Wilhelm Gustloff. The biggest shipping disaster in history.) Motorbuch Verlag Pietsch, Stuttgart 1998, ISBN 3-613-01900-0;
  • Die Gustloff – Katastrophe. Bericht eines Überlebenden über die größte Schiffskatastrophe im Zweiten Weltkrieg. (The Gustloff catastrophe. Account of a survivor of the biggest shipping disaster in the Second World War.) Motorbuch Verlag, 2002, ISBN 3-613-01027-5;
  • Die letzte Fahrt der Wilhelm Gustloff. Dokumentation eines Überlebenden. (The last trip of Wilhelm Gustloff. Account of a survivor.) Motorbuch Verlag, Stuttgart 2008, ISBN 3-613-02897-2.
  • Günter Grass: Im Krebsgang, which has also been translated (by Miguel Sáenz) from German to Spanish as A Paso de Cangrejo. Alfaguara – Santillana Ediciones Generales, S.L. 2002 (Madrid), ISBN 9788420464589.

Books in English

Recent years have seen increased interest in Wilhelm Gustloff disaster in countries outside Germany, with various books either written in or translated into English, including:
  • Ruta Sepetys: Salt to the Sea, Philomel Books, Penguin Random, New York, 2016, ISBN 9780399160301. Salt to the Sea is an account of several fictional young adults who were upon the Gustloff during its sinking.
  • Cathryn Prince: Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2013, ISBN 978-0230341562
  • Christopher Dobson, John Miller, and Ronald Payne: The Cruellest Night, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1979, ISBN 0-340-22720-6.
  • A.V. Sellwood: The Damned Don't Drown. The Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1973, ISBN 1-55750-742-2 (fiction). In Sellwood's own words, this is a "reconstruction of the tragedy", with material drawn from "interviews with some of the survivors and official documents".
  • Günter Grass: Im Krebsgang, which has been translated into English as Crabwalk. Steidl Verlag, Göttingen 2002, ISBN 3-88243-800-2 (fiction). Combines historical elements, such as the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, with fictional elements, such as the book's major characters and events.
  • Clive Cussler & Paul Kemprecos: Polar Shift, Puttnam, New York, 2005, ISBN 978-0399152719. Novel containing lengthy sequences set on the Gustloff.
  • John Ries: "History's Greatest Naval Disasters. The Little-Known Stories of the Wilhelm Gustloff, the General Steuben and the Goya". In the controversial Journal of Historical Review, 1992, vol. 12, no. 3, pp. 371–381.
  • Philip Sayers: "The Search for Baltic Gold", 2012, novel, Desperation, disaster and discovery - the secret of Hitler's doomed flagship. ISBN 978-1-905492-27-5
  • Guy Saville: The Madagaskar Plan, 2015, ISBN 978-1-444-71068-7. In this alternate history novel, the Gustloff is salvaged after being torpedoed and moored off the coast of Madagascar. It has become the depository for the records of the Jews deported to the island. An extended sequence is set on the ship.
  • Roger Weston: Fatal Return, 2012. Novel linked to the history and sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff.
  • Philip Kerr: The Other Side of Silence, one of his Bernie Gunther novels, includes the tragedy of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff woven into the fabric of the novels' fictionalized heroes and other characters.

Books in French

  • Eric Dupont: La Fiancée Américaine, Ed. Marchand de Feuilles, 2012, ISBN 9782923896151 .
  • Roger Moorehouse: Ship of Fate: The Story of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff (Kindle Single) Kindle Edition. Endeavour Press, 2016. ASIN: B01E7EEGG8. Ship of Fate: The Story of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff is a novel that explains to the reader the history of the ship from its construction in 1930 until the sinking in 1945.

Dramatized films

  • Nacht fiel über Gotenhafen (Night fell over Gotenhafen), feature film, 1959
  • Die Gustloff (The Gustloff), two-part telemovie by Joseph Vilsmaier, 2008 (Ship of No Return: The Last Voyage of the Gustloff, Australian title)


  • Killer Submarine, 1999.
  • Die große Flucht. Der Untergang der Gustloff (The Great Escape. The sinking of Wilhelm Gustloff), 2001.
  • "The Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff", The Sea Hunters (television program), 2002.
  • "Wilhelm Gustloff: World's Deadliest Sea Disaster", Unsolved History (television program), 2003.
  • Ghosts of the Baltic Sea, 2006.
  • Sinking Hitler's Supership, 2008. National Geographic documentary using extensive footage from the 2008 German miniseries.
  • Sinking the Gustloff, 2009
  • The Nazi Titanic (television program), 2010.

See also


  • Gröner 1988, pp. 33-35.

    1. Mark Landler Poles riled by Berlin exhibition originally published in The New York Times, 30 August 2006


    Further reading

    External links

    Navigation menu

  • Kriegsmarine Coastal Forces Gordon Williamson, page 39, Osprey Publishing 2009
  • "Wilhelm Gustloff: World's Deadliest Sea Disasters". Unsolved History, The Discovery Channel. Season 1, Episode 14. (Original air date: 26 March 2003)
  • "DID YOU KNOW?". Retrieved 15 February 2014.
  • Williams, David, Wartime Disasters at Sea, Patrick Stephens Limited, Nr Yeovil, UK, 1997, p. 227.
  • Submarines of the Russian and Soviet navies, 1718–1990 Von Norman Polmar, Jurrien Noot, page 190 Naval Institute Press 1991
  • Pipes, Jason. A Memorial to the Wilhelm Gustloff
  • Cathryn J. Prince: Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. New York: Palgrave macmillan, 2012. Page 119
  • E. Kosiarz, Druga Wojna Światowa na Bałtyku, page 614.
  • M.S. Wilhelm Gustloff – SINKING
  • Löwe Torpedoboot 1940–1959 Sleipner Class
  • The Avalon Project – Laws of War: Adaptation to Maritime War of the Principles of the Geneva Convention (Hague X); 18 October 1907 Archived 12 May 2008 at the Wayback Machine.
  • Roger Moorhouse (19 June 2013): Death in the Baltic History Today, retrieved 19 June 2013
  • M.S. Wilhelm Gustloff – FACTS – Glossary | Individuals
  • Pipes, Jason. In A Memorial to the Wilhelm Gustloff Pipes cites Heinz Schön as reporting in Die Gustloff Katastrophe that the loss of life was 9,343, almost 5000 of whom were children.
  • Fire Safety Engineering Group, University of Greenwich. maritime EXODUS software. Current exodus products. Specifically: maritimeEXODUS The Evacuation Model for the Marine Environment (pdf)
  • Michael Leja, References (a source in German)
  • George Martin Maritime Disasters of World War II
  • Riding, Alan. Still Intrigued by History's Shadows; Günter Grass Worries About the Effects of War. New York Times, 04/08/2003
  • Потопленный миф
  • Translation of Marinesko page from
  • Irwin J. Kappes References
  • [ZARZĄDZENIE PORZĄDKOWE NR 9 DYREKTORA URZĘDU MORSKIEGO W GDYNI z dnia 23 maja 2006 r. w sprawie zakazu nurkowania na wrakach statków-mogiłach wojennych]