This article is an edited transcript of Hitler’s Titanic with Roger Moorhouse, available on History Hit TV.
The sinking of Nazi ship the Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945 was the worst maritime disaster in history – but it is also an incident that most of us have never heard of, not least because it doesn’t really fit the conventional western narrative of World War Two.
The Gustloff started out life in 1937 as the first ever purpose-built cruise ship of the Nazi leisure time organisation Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy). But when World War Two broke out, it was acquisitioned by the military and redesignated – first as a hospital ship and then as a barracks ship in Gdynia, a port city on the Baltic coast of Poland.
Fast forward to January 1945 and the Soviets were making major inroads into occupied Poland, with Warsaw liberated by the middle of the month. In response, the Germans set up Operation Hannibal, an enormous evacuation operation of Nazi Europe’s eastern provinces, predominantly via the Baltic Sea.
The aim of this remarkable operation was to evacuate wounded military personnel and troops who could be shipped to another theatre of the war, as well as some of the many hundreds of thousands of refugees who were being pushed westwards by the advance of the Red Army.
As one of the largest – if not the largest – seaborne evacuations in history, the Nazis used almost any ship they could get their hands on for the operation, including the Gustloff.
The former cruise ship set out on its fateful crossing – the first and last it would undertake for Hannibal – on the morning of 30 January, coincidentally also the twelfth anniversary of Hitler coming to power.
Standing room only
That night, it was cruising westwards, about 20 miles off the north Polish coast – the Pomeranian coast – when it was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine. The Gustloff was hit three times across her flanks and sank in just 40 minutes.
This was not in itself an uncommon fate for ships during World War Two, including other ships used in Hannibal. What makes the Gustloff story unique, however, is that, when she went down, she was carrying an estimated 11,000 people.
With the ship only initially built to hold 2,000 people, including 1,500 passengers and some 500 crew members, this meant the Gustloff was absolutely packed to the gunnels; standing room only.
Some of those on board were military personnel, including wounded military, but the vast majority were civilians – mostly women and children at that.
The Baltic Sea is extremely cold at that time of year, and most of can only imagine the horror of the scenes that unfolded. The ship listed very heavily to the port side before sinking in less than an hour, with many of the dead never even able to get out.
By the time that various vessels arrived to try and pick up survivors, most of those on board had died; when the rescue boats reached shore, they were carrying just 1,252 survivors. But we are only left with an estimate of the numbers dead because those who were letting refugees on the Gustloff at Gdynia essentially stopped counting at around 8,000.
Going off of the estimated number of 11,000 people on board the Gustloff, as well as the number of survivors, we are left with a death toll of about 9,500, making the sinking the largest maritime disaster in history.
Horrors at sea
The survivors gave harrowing accounts. One remarkable story is that of a woman who handed her infant child to a crew member who then promptly disappeared. She didn’t know if he had gone over the side or elsewhere but became very distressed.
The woman then subsequently found herself in a lifeboat – in itself a very exceptional experience as most people on board didn’t get that far – and then on a rescue ship. At which point, a character appeared out of the gloom and handed back the missing child to her.
Most accounts did not end so happily, however. A particularly awful aspect of the ship and the sinking was that the promenade deck was sealed in with glass panels. Many of the passengers who were below deck fought their way up through the stairwells – which consequently turned into death traps – to the promenade deck, thinking that they could exit the ship from there.
But they then found themselves in what survivors described as a “glass coffin”.
With the ship being standing room only, it was almost impossible for those who arrived on the promenade deck to then force their way back out and, as more and more passengers fought their way onto the deck, many ended up being crushed there.
Was the Gustloff a legitimate military target or was the sinking a war crime?
Despite all this, however, the Soviets’ attack on the Gustloff can not technically be viewed as a war crime.
Not only was the ship carrying military personnel, but it was also armed. In their wisdom, the Nazi authorities in Gdynia had placed anti-aircraft guns on the Gustloff’s upper decks, hoping that these would deter attack.
Adding to this was the fact that the ship was periodically travelling with her lights off.
So lights out, travelling through a war zone, carrying military personnel and armed; all of which tends to the argument that the ship was a legitimate military target, and to the idea that the Soviet submarine crew who carried out the torpedo attack did so in good faith.
The Soviet Union has never apologised for the sinking of the Gustloff or expressed any remorse, viewing its torpedo attack as a normal act of warfare in 1945. Of course, this doesn’t stop the attack being – like so many acts of warfare – unquestionably cruel, particularly because the vast majority of those killed were women and children.
The story of Alexander Marinesko
In fact, far from being viewed as something to feel ashamed or guilty about, the sinking of the Gustloff was considered the greatest achievement of the Soviet submarine captain’s career – though he didn’t receive recognition for it straight away.
A very flawed character, Alexander Marinesko was on his last chance as a submarine commander in 1945. But the arguably successful attack on the Gustloff wasn’t enough to save him. Previous misdemeanours caught up with him and he was subsequently stripped of his senior position and put down the ranks, ending up in a succession of work camps in Siberia.
Marinesko was eventually awarded the Soviets’ highest decoration, the Hero of the Soviet Union, but only posthumously by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 – 45 years after the sinking of the Gustloff.