Tag Archives: MV Wilhelm Gustloff

A Forgotten Maritime Tragedy: MV Wilhelm Gustloff (30 Jan 1945)

Wilhelm Gustloff in Danzig, September 1939. Photo: German Federal Archives (Bild 183-H27992 )
Wilhelm Gustloff in Danzig, September 1939.
Photo: German Federal Archives (Bild 183-H27992 )

The German military transport ship Wilhelm Gustloff carrying German civilians with their families along with Nazi government and military personnel, was sunk by a Soviet submarine on 30 Jan 1945 after it had departed Gotenhafen (Gdynia) in the Baltic Sea. The loss of life is estimated to be around 9,400, the largest loss of life to date in a maritime tragedy.

Originally designed as a cruise ship for the Nazi Strength Through Joy (Kraft durch Freude) organization, it was requisitioned by the German navy (Kriegsmarine) in 1939. She served as a hospital ship from 1939-1940. She then served as a floating barracks before pulled into use as an evacuation vessel due to the Red Army advances in Poland. The ship early on was being escorted two torpedo boats and another liner, the Hansa. Mechanical problems beset that liner and one of the torpedo boats so they did not continue the journey. Though fitted out with anti-aircraft guns, they were inoperable due to freezing conditions. The accompanying torpedo boat was not much help either as its submarine sensor had frozen over.

The Gustloff’s captain, Friedrich Petersen was advised to stick to shallow water and run without lights on but opted to head into deeper water. A mysterious message–possibly sent by either Soviet agents or the Soviet submarine–said a German minesweeper convoy was nearby so Peterson turned on the navigation lights making the ship visible in the night. It was spotted by Soviet submarine S-13 commanded by Captain Alexander Marinesko who fired torpedoes that sank the Gustloff. The initial deaths were from the torpedoes themselves and later from the extremely cold sea (estimated to be between 0-14F) that had ice floes on it. In less than forty minutes, the ship was lying on its side and sank bow-first in 144 feet of water. German forces rescued 1,252.

The German Navy did convene a board of inquiry and Lieutenant Commander Wilhelm Zahn, the commander of the U-Boat unit and a well regarded submariner, was asked to justify his actions. He blamed both Croatian crew members and the ship captain for what happened. However the war ended before any formal resolution of the matter occurred. The Soviet submariner captain Marinesko though fared worse. He was already facing a court martial for his excessive drinking and not considered a suitable person to be a hero and got the lessor award Order of the Red Banner. He was demoted and dishonorably discharged in October 1945 though he was considered an excellent submariner and commander. Stalin’s death and other things led to re-evaluations of many officers denied awards and promotions got him reinstated as a captain third class (a rank that equals a major in the Soviet army) and a full pension. In 1963 just three weeks prior to his death he was given the traditional ceremony due to a captain upon a successful return from a mission. He was awarded posthumously Hero of the Soviet Union in 1990 by Mikhail Gorbachev.

The wreck lies in Polish waters and is classified as war grave. To prevent scavengers and treasure hunters diving to it, it is forbidden to dive within 1,600 feet of the wreck radius.

The question many ask is why this has gotten so little notice. The simple and most compelling answers are that it took place during World War II and the casualties were  Germans fleeing home to escape being captured by the Russians. There is not a lot of sympathy for Germans after the war and especially when the horrors of the holocaust were revealed. So despite the large loss of life, the sinking has become a footnote and sometimes not even referenced at all.