Looking Back at Nazi Titanic

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

Recently a posting on HistoryofYesterday.com caught my eye concerning the Wilhelm Gustloff. This is one of those maritime tragedies that got buried and forgotten. It was buried by the Nazi’s in 1945 since it was embarrassing to them. And later it was forgotten after the war ended in Europe when everyone turned to celebrating the end of World War II. Only much later when researchers and survivors sought to bring this story to life did it become known for what it was-a terrible maritime tragedy that dwarfs what happened to Titanic.

In 1937 the German cruise ship Wilhelm Gustloff was launched. The ship was to be used to bolster the image of Nazi Germany. From all accounts, it was designed to be a comfortable ship for its passengers though it omitted any class distinctions you would find on cruise ships. There were not first, second or third class passengers as everyone had more or less the same basic rooms. This was in keeping with Nazi ideology of the master race not having first or second class since they were all the same. When war broke out though,  the Gustloff was first a hospital ship, a floating barracks, and then later a transport ship. Originally designed for 2,000 passengers, its final journey would well exceed that.

With the Soviet Army advancing, it was decided to evacuate both civilian and military personnel from occupied Poland (Operation Hannibal). The Gustloff took on at 10, 582 that were mostly civilians but had military as well. Departing Gdynia on 30 January 1945, the ship faced the danger of Soviet submarines trying to sink her enroute to Germany. She was lightly escorted making her prone to attack as well. A skilled submarine captain aboard tried to warn its captain about Russian submarines and how to evade them. However his warnings were dismissed, but the proved to be accurate. The Gustloff was tricked into turning on her lights allowing her to be scene and for a Soviet submarine to fire three torpedoes. All three hit their target with deadly precision.

With many of the crew killed, it was left to the passengers to get off any way they could. Unfortunately there were not enough lifeboats for the 10,000 aboard, so it became a melee to escape the cold waters of the Baltic. People were crushed or stomped on as they raced to the lifeboats. While some crew were around, passengers had to lower the few lifeboats which proved difficult. Due to the freezing temperatures, davits were frozen. Only 1,252  would be rescued by two nearby ships leaving over 9,330 dead. The bodies would wash up in nearby beaches for months.

News of the tragedy was censored in Nazi Germany as it seen as demoralizing. However news got out about it thanks to German newspapers printed by the Allies.  A 1960 German movie Nacht fiel über Gotenhafen (Darkness Fell on Gotenhafen) dramatizes the disaster.


Sinking of Wilhelm Gustloff 30 Jan 1945
Forgotten History, 6 June 2022

Operation Hannibal 1945: the Germany evacuation that dwarfed the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’
History Extra