What Happened to German Cruise Ships When World War Two Broke Out?

History Hit Podcast with Roger Moorhouse

3 mins

12 Sep 2018

Image credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-L12214 / Augst / CC-BY-SA 3.0

This article is an edited transcript of Hitler’s Titanic with Roger Moorhouse on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 6 May 2016. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

One fascinating – and usually overlooked – part of peacetime Germany during the 1930s is the Nazis’ fleet of cruise ships. Following Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, his regime both requisitioned and purposefully constructed luxury cruise ships for its leisure time organisation: Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy).

By the autumn of 1939, these KdF cruise ships had travelled widely – and none more so than the organisation’s flagship, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Not only had the Gustloff been up into the Baltic and the Norwegian Fjords, but it had also done runs to both the Mediterranean and the Azores

But with the outbreak of World War Two, the KdF cruises abruptly ended as Nazi Germany prepared for a conflict that would ultimately spell its downfall. So what happened to the big Nazi cruise ships in 1939? Did they just return to port to sit there and rot?

Germans swim on the Gustloff, the KdF’s flagship, in 1938. Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1988-107-05 _ Winterer, Anne _ CC-BY-SA 3.0

Aiding the war effort

Although the main purpose of the KdF’s cruise ships ended with the outbreak of the war, the Nazi regime had no intention of letting them sit idle.

Many of the vessels in the KdF’s liner fleet were taken over by the German navy, the Kriegsmarine. They were then redesignated and refitted as hospital ships to aid the German offensives.

The Gustloff was ferried around to fill such a role in the opening phases of World War Two. In autumn 1939, it was moored off Gdynia in northern Poland, where it was used as a hospital ship to take care of the wounded from the Polish campaign. It then played a similar role in the Norwegian campaign of 1940.

German soldiers wounded at Narvik, Norway, are transported back to Germany on the Wilhelm Gustloff in July 1940. Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-L12208 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

From being the most famous peacetime vessel of Nazi Germany during the 1930s, the Gustloff now found itself reduced to serving as a hospital ship.

Other liners of the KdF fleet were also converted into hospital ships at the start of the war, such as the Robert Ley (although it was soon decommissioned and turned into a barracks ship). But it appears the Gustloff saw the most service.

Barracks ships

The Gustloff did not remain a hospital ship for long, however. Later on in the war, the KdF’s flagship was once again converted, joining its sister ship, the Robert Ley, as a barracks ship for submarine personnel in the eastern Baltic.

There is debate over why the Gustloff was turned into a barracks ship. Many think the transformation occurred because the Nazis no longer considered the cruise ships to be of importance and so they were placed in some backwater and forgotten about.

Yet on closer analysis, it appears that both the Gustloff and the Robert Ley continued to serve an important role as barracks ships, especially when one considers the importance of the eastern Baltic to the German U-boat campaign.

By serving as a barracks ship for one of those U-boat detachments, it is possible that these ships continued to serve a very important purpose.

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At the end of the war, as the Red Army approached, both ships were involved in Operation Hannibal: an enormous evacuation operation of German civilians and military personnel from the German eastern provinces via the Baltic. For this, the Nazis used almost any ship they could get their hands on – including both the Robert Ley and the Gustloff. For the Gustloff, however, that operation proved its final act.