Saturday, February 11, 2012

Ship History 8

                                              MV WILHELM GUSTLOFF

                                             The happy ship with a tragic end.


                                                       Kevin Scott Bolinger


    Welcome aboard one and all. Our tale today takes us into the final year of World War II. The ship in question is one that most have never even heard of, yet she holds the dubious distinction of having the single greatest loss of life in all of Maritime history. A ship built for the loyal members of the Nazi party at the height of the Third Reich, only to be destroyed on a final mission of mercy. Join me now as I take a look at the Fuehrer’s wonder ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff
May 5, 1937, launch day.

    As Adolph Hitler rose to power in Germany, in the early 1930’s, he struck upon the idea of awarding those loyal to his Nazi party. His idea was to have a grand cruise ship, a novelty in that time period, one designed to take the common folk of the party on wondrous vacations. It was hoped that this would cause better relations between the party leaders and the rest of the German citizenry. Soon, the great shipyard of Blohm and Voss, famous for building such ships as the SS Bismarck, later to be known as the RMS Majestic for the White Star line, as well as many years later of building the great France for the French line, that would later become one of the first true cruise ships of the new era, the SS Norway, prepared itself for the honor of building this great ship.
Early days of construction.

    Her keel was laid on August 1, 1936. An army of workmen built her from the ground up, and by May, 1937, she was ready for her launching. With many dignitaries in attendance, her name was finally revealed to the public, Wilhelm Gustloff, after the recently assassinated head of the Nazi party in Switzerland. Up until this point, it was common knowledge that the ship was to be named after the Fuehrer himself. Hitler was among those on the podium for her launch on May 5, 1937.  She was not a particularly large ship, at only 684ft long and 77ft wide, with a projected tonnage of 25,000. She was also not a very swift vessel, her four diesel engines only powerful enough to push her at slightly over 15 knots. Yet, that was not her charm. She was built to support the German Labour Front, as a subsidiary of the Kraft durch Freude (Strength Through Joy). Her normal crew consignment consisted of 417, with a nominal passenger capacity of 1,465.

    By March of 1938, she was complete, and after sea trials, she was handed over on the 15th of that month. Soon she was taking loyal German citizens on vacations to some of the worlds most beautiful vacation spots. It was here she was nicknamed “The Happy Ship” for those on board were usually very happy, being treated in a manner most had never seen before. Sadly, for the Happy Ship, the terror of war loomed. She was removed from civilian service in the summer of 1939. Her first mission was to bring home the Condor Legion from Spain, after the Spanish Civil War. Soon after, she was converted to the guise of a hospital ship, designated Lazarettschiff D, where she would serve until November of 1940.
Nearing completion.

    On November 20, 1940, the Gustloff was docked in the occupied Polish port of  Gdynia, renamed by the Nazis as Gotenhafen. Here she would serve the next four years as a barracks ship, mostly for U-boat trainees. Sadly, she would only have one more voyage, and it would be over almost as soon as it had begin.

    By January of 1945, the war had begun to go badly for Germany. She was slowly being closed in on all sides. The Soviet Army was fast approaching Poland, and it was decided to enact Operation Hannibal, the evacuation of German military and civilian populations in the Polish Corridor region, to escape the advancing troops from Russia. One of the first ships used for this was the Gustloff. The exact numbers of those who boarded her might never be known. Official records indicate only 6050, but many more boarded her in the panic without being accounted for. Through painstaking research, it is now known that there were at least 10,582 passengers and crew members on board as she left the port on January 20, 1945. That number is staggering, and for a ship designed to carry not even 2,000 during peace time, it means that there was literally no place to move, the men, women and children being packed in like sardines.
Hitler among others preparing to launch the ship.

     The Wilhelm Gustloff proceeded into the Baltic along with the passenger liner Hansa and two torpedo boats. Shortly after leaving port, the Hansa and one of the smaller boats developed engine troubles and had to return, leaving the Gustloff with very little protection. To add to this, she was no longer painted as a hospital ship, but in standard military grey. Also, she had a number of anti-aircraft guns installed upon her decks from her time as a barracks ship. Sadly, what this meant was that she was a legitimate target for any lurking enemy submarines.

    The ship was under the command of four captains,  three of which were civilians. The lone military commander, Lieutenant Commander Wilhelm Zahn, argued that the best course of action to avoid submarines was to keep close to the shallows, with all lights extinguished. His recommendation was ignored, and the senior most civilian captain, Friedrich Petersen, decided to take the ship into deeper water. To add to this misjudgment,  a mysterious radio message about an oncoming German minesweeper convoy, caused Captain Petersen to turn on the navigation lights. The Gustloff was now a very easy to see sitting duck, and soon her luck would run out.
The GUSTLOFF with CAP ARCONA, both war victims.

     At around 9 pm ship time, the Soviet submarine, S-13, spotted the rather large passenger ship. Her commander, Captain Alexander Marinesko, fired three torpedoes at the port hull of the ship. Each torpedo had a small plaque placed upon it, the first reading “For Motherland” ,the second “ For Soviet people “, and the third “ For Leningrad”. There was a fourth torpedo that was disarmed with a plaque that read “For Stalin”. The first torpedo struck the Gustloff near her port bow, the second closer to amidships, and the third stuck her engine room, plunging the ship into darkness. She soon took on a slight port list, and was quickly settling by the head.
As a hospital ship

    We now come to the true tragedy in this tale. With the ships electrical power out, there was a panic. Hundreds were trampled to death in the stampede for the lifeboats. The water was even colder than it was on the night the Titanic sunk, with an air temperature of nearly 14 degrees. Small ice floes dotted the surface. Even if there had been enough boats for the over ten thousand on board, there would have been no way to get them all loaded and launched. The ship was sinking fast, and there was nothing anyone could do. Most tried to jump into the sea, but were quickly claimed by exposure. Within 40 minutes of the torpedo strikes, the icy waters of the Baltic had closed over the hull of the Wilhelm Gustloff, taking thousands upon thousands with her, entombed forever.

    The rescue of any survivors was quickly mounted, and soon various ships arrived to pluck those they could out of the lifeboats and the chilly waters. Torpedo boat T-36 rescued 564, the torpedo boat Lowe rescued another 472. Three minesweepers managed to add to the totals, with 98, 43, and 37 rescued respectively. The steamer Gottingen saved 28, a torpedo recovery boat managed 7, with the freighter Gotland pulling two more out of the sea. Finally Patrol boat V1703 managed to save one baby. A grand total of  1,252 had been saved out of the 10,582 on board. If the numbers hold true, that means that the Gustloff took 9,330 to the bottom of the Baltic sea with her. When many people think of loss at life at sea, they immediately begin talking about how the Titanic has the greatest loss of life of any one ship lost at sea. Sadly, the Titanic is much farther down the list, currently holding the 8th spot. The only event in Maritime history to even come close to this tragedy was the sinking of the ferry Dona Paz in the Philippines in 1987, where she collided with a tanker, and the resulting fire and sinking killed an estimated 4,341. That is not even half as many as the Wilhelm Gustloff took with her. 
A rare color picture of the GUSTLOFF.

    Why is this event not known? Many feel that the Soviet Union tried to cover it up during the Cold War, and there are even reports that her hull was blasted to try and erase her presence on the bottom of the Baltic. Indeed, the current condition of her wreck seems to support this notion. Yet, why cover it up? As sad as it was, it was an event that was the result of war. The ship was unmarked, armed, and was not announced as being on a mercy mission. The blame lies as much with the Germans as it does the Soviets. To the eyes of the S-13 commander, she was a legitimate target in hostile waters. The real issue was how could they let a ship so clearly overloaded leave port to begin with? Was there that much panic at the docks? If so, it was unfounded. The Red Army would not even reach that area until May of 1945. Why the sudden urgency to remove so many civilians, 4,000 of which were children. Many of these questions may never be answered.
The wreck of the Wilhelm Gustloff.

    The wreck of the Gustloff lies about 16 miles offshore, in about 144ft of water. She has been designated a war grave, and on Polish navigation charts, she is listed simply as “Obstacle No.73.” Her bow and stern are nearly intact, yet her entire middle hull looks as if it has been pounded flat by a giant’s fist. Side scan sonar images reveal this easily, and give credence to the theory of the Soviets trying to cover up the sinking by blowing up the hull. There have been several dives on the ship, despite her war grave status. The last of these occurred in 2006, where her bell was recovered, only to be used in a Polish fish restaurant. The Museum ship Albatross, in Damp, houses one of her portholes, recovered from the wreck in 1998. 
Side scan sonar image of the wreck.

       The once Happy Ship has long since been forgotten by most. It is my hope that this small article will help her be remembered once more. She truly is one of the greatest tragedies in all of Maritime history, despite her sinking occurring during war. Let those who went down with her, so many years ago, find peace in knowing that their story will continue to be told.
Artist's rendition of the wreck.

    That will do it for this look at the Wilhelm Gustloff. Before the end of this month, I hope to bring you another ship that has only in recent years moved out of the shadows of her more famous sisters. Till then, as always, may the wind be at your backs. Bon Voyage.

The GUSTLOFF  in happier days.



  1. Fascinating and sobering article. The book, "The Cruelest Night" documents her loss along with that of the "Steuben" and info on the other horrific wartime loss (with heavy civilian casualties), the "Cap Arcona." I always mention these ships in my "LinerLore" lectures.

  2. I greatly appreciate your information. My mother was a teenager in that port, and along with her mother and siblings, was supposed to be onboard the Wilhelm Gustloff on that night. They were civilians refugees Earlier in the day, my mother left to go with a girlfriend to explore the area. When she was gone, it was announced that the ship was going to load passengers, but since space on the boat was so limited boarding was restricted. Only a family that had a small child of 5 years or younger would be able to board. One of my mom's siblings was 5 years old. They were then qualified to board the ship. But my mom had not returned, she was still with her girlfriend. My grandmother was frantic because the news was that the red army was coming close to the port, and people had heard of how ruthless they were. My grandmother especially worried because she had two girls, as well as her boys, but she especially worried about the welfare of the girls (they had seen what had happened to girls who had been captured). She desperately wanted to escape and board the boat to save the family. But she couldn't leave without my mother. She waited. Then the boat finished boarding, and left the port. that evening when my mother returned, my grandmother was beside herself with grief that they had missed the chance to leave for safety. The next morning she was anguishing over what had happened. Upon hearing her crying, a nurse grabbed my grandmother and shook her and said to her "Fraulein, don't you know what happened?!!!" "That boat was sunk last night on the way out of port, everyone had perished!" The stunning news left everyone in shock. If my mother had been with the family that day, they would have eagerly boarded that boat, and they would have perished also.
    You are very right that not very many people have even heard of this tragedy. I do believe that it was a war crime, because of the fact that there was no reason at this point in the war to sink the boat with a torpedo. It was not necessary. Even if it was known that the boat had military people on it, the boat had been used to take care of the sick and injured, not as an attack boat. It was also known that it was transporting civilians.
    I want to thank you for your article. I will print it and share it with my mom. She has seen very little information on it. This will be very interesting to her, to learn more about the details. Thank you for this research.

  3. I need to make a correction. My mother said that in order for a family to board the boat, the family needed to have a child the age of 12 years old, not 5, as I previously wrote.