What Was Operation Hannibal and Why Was the Gustloff Involved?

History Hit Podcast with Roger Moorhouse

3 mins

03 Sep 2018

Image credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1972-092-05 / 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.

In January 1945, the war was looking bleak for Germany. To the West, the Allied forces had rebuffed Hitler’s last-ditch offensive in the Ardennes Forest, while, to the South, the Italian campaign was also on its last legs.

Arguably Hitler’s greatest worry at that moment, however, was not what was going on in the West or South, but what was going on in the East.

At that time, the Soviets were making major inroads towards the German heartlands. Not only had they already entered German East Prussia, but in the middle of January they had also liberated Warsaw. Soviet momentum was very much in full flow – and it had no intention of slowing down until its armies reached Berlin itself.

In response to this surge, Admiral Karl Doentiz initiated one of the largest seaborne evacuations in history: Operation Hannibal.

Roger Moorhouse is an historian of the Third Reich and World War Two, author of The Devils' Alliance, Killing Hitler & Berlin at War. In this fascinating episode, he discusses the worst maritime disaster in history: the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945.Listen Now

Operation Hannibal

The operation appears to have had two intentions. It was to evacuate military personnel and troops that were still capable of being shipped to another theater. But it was also supposed to evacuate many, many thousands of civilian refugees. These refugees, who were mostly Germans, had been pushed westwards out of fear of the Red Army.

The operation was exceptionally rag-tag in its design. They used almost any ship they could get their hands on. Cruise ships, freighters, fishing vessels and various other vessels – the Germans enlisted all to help in this evacuation.

Truly, it was the German equivalent of Dunkirk.

One of the cruise ships involved was the Wilhelm Gustloff. The Gustloff had been the flagship of Nazi leisure time organisation Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy)’s cruise ship fleet before the war and had already served both as a hospital ship and as a barracks boat for the U-boat fleet in the eastern Baltic. Now, it was called up to aid the evacuation.

The Gustloff in 1939, following its redesignation as a hospital ship. Credit: Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-P094443 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The decision was likely an easy one for the Germans to make. The cruise liner had been purposely designed to be the greatest peacetime ship of the Nazi regime and was intended to carry 2,000 people. During the evacuation, however, there were about 11,000 on the ship – 9,500 of whom were killed when the Gustloff was hit and sunk by a Soviet submarine. This made it the largest maritime disaster in history.

Along with its size, the location of the Gustloff prior to the operation had also appeared beneficial. The Gustloff had been serving as a barracks ship for submarine personnel in the eastern Baltic.

Although the Gustloff was sunk on its first run during Operation Hannibal, the evacuation ultimately proved very successful.

Various ships made several crossings to and from Gdynia, evacuating many thousands of refugees and wounded soldiers.

Operation Hannibal evacuees arrive at a western harbour that had already been occupied by British troops. Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2004-0127 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

One was called the Deutschland, another cruise ship that was slightly smaller than the Gustloff. The Deutschland made seven crossings of the Baltic sea from Gdynia across to Kiel, and took out tens of thousands of refugees and wounded soldiers.

By the end of the evacuation, between 800,000 and 900,000 German civilians and 350,000 soldiers had been successfully evacuated to Kiel. Although western historiography rarely mentions the scale and feat of Operation Hannibal, it was the largest seaborne evacuation in history.