MV Wilhelm Gustloff
Wilhelm Gustloff as a hospital ship. Danzig, 23 September 1939
|Name:||MS Wilhelm Gustloff|
|Operator:||Hamburg-South America Line|
|Port of registry:||Germany|
|Builder:||Blohm & Voss|
|Cost:||25 million Reichmarks|
|Laid down:||1 August 1936|
|Launched:||5 May 1937|
|Acquired:||15 March 1938|
|Out of service:||Yes|
|Identification:||Radio ID (DJVZ)|
|Fate:||Requisitioned into the Kriegsmarine on 1 September 1939|
|Name:||Lazarettschiff D (Hospital Ship D)|
|Operator:||Kriegsmarine (German Navy)|
|Acquired:||1 September 1939|
|Acquired:||20 November 1940|
|Out of service:||November 1940 – January 1945|
|Fate:||Torpedoed and sunk 30 January 1945|
|Notes:||Used as floating barracks for the Second Submarine Training Division until the vessel returned to active service ferrying civilians and military personnel as part of Operation Hannibal|
|Class & type:||Cruise ship|
|Length:||208.5 m (684 ft 1 in)|
|Beam:||23.59 m (77 ft 5 in)|
|Height:||56 m (183 ft 9 in) keel to masthead|
|Installed power:||9,500 hp (7,100 kW)|
|Propulsion:||4 × 8-cylinder MAN diesel engines
2 × 4-blade propellers
|Speed:||15.5 kn (28.7 km/h; 17.8 mph)|
|Range:||12,000 nmi (22,000 km; 14,000 mi) at 15 kn (28 km/h; 17 mph)|
1,465 passengers (as designed) in 489 cabins:
|Armament:||3 × 105 mm (4.1 in) anti-aircraft guns
8 × 20 mm (0.79 in) anti-aircraft cannons
The MV Wilhelm Gustloff was a German ship which was sunk on 30 January 1945 by a Soviet submarine in the Baltic Sea while evacuating German civilians, officials and military personnel from Gdynia (Gotenhafen), occupied Poland, as the Red Army advanced. By one estimate 9,400 people died, which would make it the largest loss of life in a single ship sinking in history.
Constructed as a cruise ship for the Nazi Strength Through Joy organisation in 1937, she had been requisitioned by the Kriegsmarine (German Navy) in 1939. She served as a hospital ship in 1939 and 1940. She was then assigned as a floating barracks for naval personnel in Gdynia before being put into service to transport evacuees in 1945.
The Wilhelm Gustloff was constructed by the Blohm & Voss shipyards. Measuring 208.50 m (684 ft 1 in) long by 23.59 m (77 ft 5 in) wide with a capacity of 25,484 gross register tons, she was launched on 5 May 1937.
Cruise liner 
The Wilhelm Gustloff was the first purpose-built cruise liner for the German Labour Front (Deutsche Arbeitsfront, DAF) and used by subsidiary organisation Kraft durch Freude (KdF) (Strength Through Joy). Its purposes were to provide recreational and cultural activities for German functionaries and workers, including concerts, cruises, and other holiday trips, and as a public relations tool, to present "a more acceptable image of the Third Reich." She was the flagship of the KdF cruise fleet, her last civilian role, until the spring of 1939.
Military career 
From September 1939 to November 1940, she served as a hospital ship, with her official designation being Lazarettschiff D.
Beginning on 20 November 1940, the medical equipment was removed from the ship and it was repainted from the hospital ship colors of white with a green stripe to standard naval grey. As a consequence of the British blockade of the German coastline, she was used as an accommodations ship (barracks) for approximately 1,000 U-boat trainees of the 2nd Submarine Training Division (2. Unterseeboot-Lehrdivision) in the port of Gdynia, which was occupied by Nazis and renamed to Gotenhafen, located near Danzig. The Wilhelm Gustloff sat dockside for over four years, until she was put back in service to transport civilians and military personnel as part of Operation Hannibal.
Operation Hannibal 
Operation Hannibal was the naval evacuation of German troops and civilians from Courland, East Prussia and the Polish Corridor as the Red Army advanced. Wilhelm Gustloff's final voyage was to evacuate German refugees and military personnel as well as technicians who worked at advanced weapon bases in the Baltic from Gdynia, then known to the Germans as Gotenhafen, to Kiel.
The ship's complement and passenger lists cited 6,050 people on board, but this did not include many civilians who boarded the ship without being recorded in the ship's official embarkation records. Heinz Schön, who carried out extensive research into the sinking during the 1980s and 1990s, concluded that the Wilhelm Gustloff was carrying a crew of 173 (naval armed forces auxiliaries), 918 officers, NCOs, and men of the 2 Unterseeboot-Lehrdivision, 373 female naval auxiliary helpers, 162 wounded soldiers, and 8,956 civilians, among them an estimated 4,000 children, for a total of 10,582 passengers and crew.
The ship left Gotenhafen early on 30 January 1945, accompanied by the passenger liner Hansa, also filled with civilians and military personnel, and two torpedo boats. The Hansa and one torpedo boat developed mechanical problems and could not continue, leaving the Wilhelm Gustloff with one torpedo boat escort, the Löwe. The ship had four captains (three civilian and one military) on board, and they could not agree on the best course of action to guard against submarine attacks. Against the advice of the military commander, Lieutenant Commander Wilhelm Zahn (a submariner who argued for a course in shallow waters close to shore and without lights), the senior civilian captain—Friedrich Petersen—decided to head for deep water. When he was informed by a mysterious radio message of an oncoming German minesweeper convoy, he decided to activate his ship's red and green navigation lights so as to avoid a collision in the dark, making the Wilhelm Gustloff easy to spot in the night. The source or authenticity of this radio message was never confirmed and there was no oncoming German minesweeper convoy as it later turned out.
Because the Wilhelm Gustloff had been fitted with anti-aircraft guns it was not marked as a hospital ship (unlike the Soviet hospital ship Armenia incident in 1941), no notification of it operating in a hospital capacity had been given and, as it was transporting combat troops, it did not have any protection as a hospital ship under international accords.
The ship was soon sighted by the Soviet submarine S-13, under the command of Captain Alexander Marinesko, which launched three torpedoes at the Wilhelm Gustloff′s port side about 30 km (16 nmi; 19 mi) offshore between Władysławowo and Łeba soon after 21:00 (CET), hitting it with all three. (Marinesko intended to fire four torpedoes but the fourth misfired and the crew had to disarm it.) The first torpedo (with sign onboard — "For Motherland") struck near the port bow. The second torpedo ("For Soviet people") hit just ahead of midships. The third torpedo ("For Leningrad") struck the engine room in the area below the ship's funnel, cutting off electrical power to the ship. The Gustloff took a light list to port and settled rapidly by the head. The fourth torpedo (disarmed) was named "For Stalin".
In the panic that followed, many of the passengers were trampled in the rush to the lifeboats and life jackets. Some equipment was lost as a result of the panic. The water temperature in the Baltic Sea at this time of year is usually around 4 °C (39 °F); however, this was a particularly cold night, with an air temperature of −18 to −10 °C (-0 to 14 °F) and ice floes covering the surface. Many deaths were caused either directly by the torpedoes or by drowning in the onrushing water. Others were crushed in the initial panic on the stairs and decks, and many jumped into the icy Baltic. But the majority of those who perished succumbed to exposure in the freezing water.
Less than 40 minutes after being struck, the Wilhelm Gustloff was lying on her side and sank bow-first, in 44 m (144 ft) of water. Thousands of people were trapped inside on the promenade deck.
German forces were able to rescue some (a total of 1,252) of the survivors from the attack: torpedo boat T-36 rescued 564 people; torpedo boat Löwe, 472; Minesweeper M387, 98; Minesweeper M375, 43; Minesweeper M341, 37; the steamer Göttingen saved 28; torpedo-recovery boat (Torpedofangboot) TF19, seven; the freighter Gotland, two; and Patrol boat (Vorpostenboot) V1703 was able to save one baby.
All four captains on the Gustloff survived its sinking, but an official naval inquiry was started only against Wilhelm Zahn. His degree of responsibility was never resolved, however, because of Nazi Germany's collapse in 1945.
The figures from the research of Heinz Schön make the total lost in the sinking to be about 9,343 total, including about 5,000 children. This would make it the largest loss of life in a single sinking in maritime history.
Heinz Schön's more recent research is backed up by estimates made by a different method. The Discovery Channel program Unsolved History undertook a computer analysis of the sinking, using software called maritime EXODUS, which estimated 9,400 dead of over 10,600 on board. This analysis considered the passenger density based on witness reports and a simulation of escape routes and survivability with the timeline of the sinking.
Many ships carrying civilians were sunk during the war by both the Allies and Axis. However, based on the latest estimates of passenger numbers and those known to be saved, the Wilhelm Gustloff remains the largest loss of life resulting from the sinking of one vessel in maritime history. Günter Grass, in an interview published in The New York Times on Tuesday 8 April 2003 said, "One of the many reasons I wrote Crabwalk was to take the subject away from the extreme Right...They said the tragedy of the Gustloff was a war crime. It wasn’t. It was terrible, but it was a result of war, a terrible result of war."
About 1,000 German naval officers and men were aboard during, and died in, the sinking of the Gustloff. The women on board the ship at the time of the sinking were inaccurately described by Soviet propaganda as "SS personnel from the German concentration camps". There were, however, a number of female naval auxiliaries amongst the passengers.
Noted as "Obstacle No. 73" on Polish navigation charts, and classified as a war grave, Gustloff rests at , about 30 km (16 nmi; 19 mi) offshore, east of Łeba (17.33E) and west of Władysławowo (18.24E). It is one of the largest shipwrecks on the Baltic Sea floor. In order to protect the property on board the war grave-wreck of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff and to protect the environment, the Polish Maritime Office in Gdynia has forbidden diving within a 500 m (1,600 ft) radius of the wreck.
In 2006, a bell recovered from the wreck and subsequently used as decoration in a Polish fish restaurant was lent to a privately funded "Forced Paths" exhibition in Berlin.
Books, documentaries and movies 
Books in German 
The most prolific German author and historian on the subject of the Wilhelm Gustloff is Heinz Schön, one of the shipwreck's survivors, whose books (in German) include:
- Der Untergang der "Wilhelm Gustloff". Tatsachenbericht eines Überlebenden. (The sinking of the "Wilhelm Gustloff". Factual account of a survivor.) Karina-Goltze-Verlag K.-G., Göttingen 1952;
- SOS Wilhelm Gustloff. Die größte Schiffskatastrophe der Geschichte. (SOS Wilhelm Gustloff. The biggest shipping disaster in history.) Motorbuch Verlag Pietsch, Stuttgart 1998, ISBN 3-613-01900-0;
- Die Gustloff – Katastrophe. Bericht eines Überlebenden über die größte Schiffskatastrophe im Zweiten Weltkrieg. (The Gustloff catastrophe. Account of a survivor of the biggest shipping disaster in the Second World War.) Motorbuch Verlag, 2002, ISBN 3-613-01027-5;
- Die letzte Fahrt der Wilhelm Gustloff. Dokumentation eines Überlebenden. (The last trip of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Account of a survivor.) Motorbuch Verlag, Stuttgart 2008, ISBN 3-613-02897-2.
- Günter Grass: Im Krebsgang, which has also been translated (by Miguel Sáenz) from German to Spanish as A Paso de Cangrejo. Alfaguara – Santillana Ediciones Generales, S.L. 2002 (Madrid), ISBN 9788420464589.
Books in English 
Recent years have seen increased interest in the Wilhelm Gustloff disaster in countries outside of Germany, with various books either written in or translated into English, including:
- A.V. Sellwood: The Damned Don't Drown. The Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1973, ISBN 1-55750-742-2 (fiction). In Sellwood's own words, this is a "reconstruction of the tragedy", with material drawn from "interviews with some of the survivors and official documents".
- Christopher Dobson, John Miller, and Ronald Payne: The Cruellest Night, Hodder & Stoughton, London,1979, ISBN 0-340-22720-6.
- John Ries: "History's Greatest Naval Disasters. The Little-Known Stories of the Wilhelm Gustloff, the General Steuben and the Goya". In the controversial Journal of Historical Review, 1992, vol. 12, no. 3, pp. 371–381.
- Günter Grass: Im Krebsgang, which has been translated into English as Crabwalk. Steidl Verlag, Göttingen 2002, ISBN 3-88243-800-2 (fiction). Combines historical elements, such as the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, with fictional elements, such as the book's major characters and events.
Books in Spanish 
- Clive Cussler & Paul Kemprecos: Polar Shift, which has been translated from English to Spanish as Crisis Polar. Editorial de Bolsillo (Barcelona), 2008, ISBN 9788483463833.
Books in French 
- Eric Dupont: La Fiancée Américaine, Ed. Marchand de Feuilles , 2012, ISBN 9782923896151 .
Dramatized films 
- Nacht fiel über Gotenhafen (Night fell over Gotenhafen), feature film, 1959
- Die Gustloff (The Gustloff), two-part telemovie by Joseph Vilsmaier, 2008 (Ship of No Return: The Last Voyage of the Gustloff, Australian title)
- Sinking Hitler's Supership, 2008.
- Killer Submarine, 1999.
- Die große Flucht. Der Untergang der Gustloff (The Great Escape. The sinking of the Gustloff), 2001.
- "The Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff", The Sea Hunters (television program), 2002.
- "Wilhelm Gustloff: World's Deadliest Sea Disaster", Unsolved History (television program), 2003.
- Ghosts of the Baltic Sea, 2006.
- "Sinking the Gustloff", 2009
- The Nazi Titanic (television program), 2010.
See also 
- Alexander Marinesko
- Soviet hospital ship Armenia
- List by death toll of ships sunk by submarines
- List of maritime disasters
- List of shipwrecks
- Kriegsmarine Coastal Forces Gordon Williamson, page 39,Osprey Publishing 2009
- Williams, David, Wartime Disasters at Sea, Patrick Stephens Limited, Nr Yeovil, UK, 1997, p. 227.
- CONVERSION TO FLOATING U-BOAT BARRACKS
- Submarines of the Russian and Soviet navies, 1718–1990 Von Norman Polmar,Jurrien Noot, page 190 Naval Institute Press 1991
- Jason Pipes, References citing Heinz Schön References (no page number) claims the loss of life was 9,343, almost 5000 of these were children.
- Löwe Torpedoboot 1940–1959 Sleipner Class
- The Avalon Project – Laws of War: Adaptation to Maritime War of the Principles of the Geneva Convention (Hague X); October 18, 1907
- M.S. Wilhelm Gustloff – FACTS – Glossary | Individuals
- "Discovery Channel, Unsolved History – Wilhelm Gustloff 2003"
- maritime EXODUS
- Michael Leja, References (a source in German)
- George Martin Maritime Disasters of World War II
- Crabwalk by Günter Grass review on New York Times website.
- Потопленный миф
- Irwin J. Kappes References
- [ZARZĄDZENIE PORZĄDKOWE NR 9 DYREKTORA URZĘDU MORSKIEGO W GDYNI z dnia 23 maja 2006 r. w sprawie zakazu nurkowania na wrakach statków-mogiłach wojennych http://www.umgdy.gov.pl/pium/stronajednostki/podglad?id=28135]
- Mark Landler Poles riled by Berlin exhibition originally published in The New York Times, August 30, 2006; republished in the International Herald Tribune
- The Cruellest Night by Christopher Dobson, John Miller & Ronald Payne (1979, Hodder & Stoughton, London) ISBN 0-340-22720-6 (a book on Germany's Dunkirk, estimates c7,000 dead).
- Kappes, Irwin J.; The Greatest Marine Disaster in History...and why you probably never heard of it, 2003.
- Leja, Michael; Die letzte Fahrt der "Wilhelm Gustloff"; ZDF (1 August 2005), reports that earlier estimates of approximately 6000 drowned have been revised upwards by more recent sources to about 9300. An article in German.
- Pipes, Jason; A Memorial to the Wilhelm Gustloff
- Schön, Heinz; Die Gustloff Katastrophe (Motorbuch Verlag, Stuttgart, 2002)
- Williams, David; Wartime Disasters at Sea (Patrick Stephens Limited, Nr Yeovil, UK, 1997) ISBN 1-85260-565-0.
Further reading 
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Wilhelm Gustloff|
- Location of the wreck
- Wilhelm Gustloff Shipwreck Expedition May 2003 on Deep Image.co.uk (English)
- Details, map and position info on www.wrecksite.eu (English) (German) (French) (Dutch)
- National Geographic Channel Timeline