In the history of ocean liner disasters, the same three names are constantly chanted like some ghastly, undead mantra; Titanic. Lusitania. Empress of Ireland. All lost within three years of each other; each with a death toll well over a thousand.
Everybody knows the stories of at least two of them. The Empress of Ireland is not so widely remembered; perhaps because the bulk of her victims were mainly ordinary, blue collar people, as opposed to the top ten per cent of the New York social register. And yet, incredibly enough, there is another disaster, almost unknown outside of Germany, that claimed more lives than the three ships named above put together.
The Wilhelm Gustloff.
The Wilhelm Gustloff was one of two ships built by the Nazis as dual flagships of a movement called ‘Strength Through Joy’. Having crushed their trade unions in the same style that he would later crush most of Europe, Adolf Hitler realised that he would have to provide some kind of incentive for ordinary German workers to retain faith in both himself, and his public works programme.
The result was the first two true, one class cruise ships ever built; the Wilhelm Gustloff and the slightly larger Robert Ley. They were relatively modest affairs when compared to transatlantic icons like the Bremen and Europa, at around 28,000 tons each. Uniquely, they featured a uniform standard of accommodation for both passengers and crew alike. Prices were kept deliberately low, and subsidised by the Nazi government.
From 1938 onwards, both ships were sent on cruises to the Mediterranean and Scandinavia, carrying thousands of budget German tourists on trips that they might otherwise never have taken. They were seen as the more egalitarian, benevolent face of the Third Reich. But with the invasion of Poland in 1939, that mask slipped irrevocably in full view of the entire world.
For the first year of the war, the Wilhelm Gustloff served as a hospital ship. But, with the Baltic a virtual German lake after 1940, that role became redundant.
Painted slate grey, the Wilhelm Gustloff was then sent to the port of Gdynia in occupied Poland, which the Germans renamed ‘Gotenhafen’ for the duration of the conflict. There, she served as a static base and recreation centre for U-boat crews, engaged in working up exercises in the Baltic. She remained pretty much tied up at the same pier, albeit in full working order, until January of 1945.
By that time, the war had turned irretrievably against Germany. The Red Army had sliced right through to the edge of the Baltic, a vengeful, unstoppable host, fully intent on paying the Germans back in full for the atrocities they had committed all over the Motherland. Fully aware of what the arrival of the Red Army would mean, millions of terrified Germans and their helpers prepared to begin the biggest mass exodus in European history.
A frozen, fear fuelled trek to freedom began as far back as October of 1944 but, as the Russian noose tightened, the land routes were cut off, one by one. A tidal wave of terrified humanity now began to descend like storm clouds on the handful of Baltic ports still in Wehrmacht hands. And every single ship that could float or move- from warships to fishing smacks- was commandeered into service to evacuate this human mass.
After years of being shackled to her pier, the Wilhelm Gustloff was pressed into service, too. A minimum estimate of seven thousand civilians, redundant naval personnel, and around a thousand wounded soldiers were shoe horned into every last inch of the ship; even the indoor pool was emptied, and filled with makeshift cots. Hopelessly overloaded, and with only one torpedo boat to escort her, the Wilhelm Gustloff put to sea for the first time in five years, and lumbered straight into the teeth of a howling winter gale.
And the Baltic was no longer a German lake. Once the siege of Leningrad had been finally lifted a year earlier, Russian submarines of the Red Banner Fleet had begun to move into these formerly uncontested sea lanes. Now, at the end of January 1945, there were more of them on station than ever.
One of these was the S-13, under the command of Captain Alexander Marinesko. On the evening of January 30th, 1945, the wallowing Wilhelm Gustloff sailed right across the cross hairs of his periscope. By now, she had lost her escort in the foul, freezing weather. Marinesko promptly slammed three torpedoes into what was an all too easy target.
What followed was entirely predictable. There had been no lifeboat drill of any sort, and the hopelessly crowded liner fell gradually onto her side like a slaughtered animal. A panic too hideous and complete to adequately quantify erupted on board, with thousands trapped in a desperate, heaving throng of humanity on the promenade decks. People trampled each other underfoot in desperate attempts to reach the lifeboats, only to find that most could not be launched because of the ship’s abrupt list to port.
The Wilhelm Gustloff sank in less than an hour, leaving thousands that had survived the torpedo impacts and the horrific crush on board to freeze to death in icy water less than -18 centigrade. Thrashing and gasping for life in stormy seas dotted with ice floes, they died in their thousands.
German escort ships that raced to the area managed to pluck a total of 1,232 people from the scene of the attack. As the Wilhelm Gustloff had been carrying anti aircraft guns, the Germans had not classified her as a hospital ship, despite the large numbers of wounded she was carrying. In any event, such distinctions would probably have been academic; both sides had routinely been shooting holes in the Red Cross flag since 1941. For the Russians, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff was a legitimate act of retribution, nothing more or less.
The true death toll will never be exactly known. In the desperate haste to get the Wilhelm Gustloff out to sea, no accurate passenger manifest was taken. The pre departure quayside was a scene of heartbreak and indescribable horror; mothers trapped ashore literally threw their babies to relatives on the ship. Estimates of those lost on board run from as relatively low as 6,000, right up to half as many again.
Because she was a casualty of the war against the Russians, the story of the Wilhelm Gustloff is largely unknown in the west. All told, the German navy and merchant marine lifted more than two million people to safety in those last few months of the war, in what amounted to nothing so much as a German Dunkirk.
The Wilhelm Gustloff was the greatest and biggest casualty of that massive movement of people. Almost as tragically, she has been every bit as much a casualty of maritime and wartime history, too.