5th September 2008
Through the years, countless ships have been lost at sea, the Titanic being the most familiar and much later the Andrea Doria. Yet, there were other lesser known, but even greater disasters that history would like to forget – the Wilhelm Gustloff is one.
The ill-fated ship had the dubious honor of being named after the leader of the Nazi party in Switzerland, who was assassinated by David Frankfurter, a Jewish medical student, in January 1936. It was officially christened by Gustloff’s widow on May 5, 1937 in a flurry of Fascist cheers, flags, and salutes as Hitler and other party members watched from above. This was the grandest ship of the Kdf “strength through joy” fleet of luxury cruise liners created for loyal Nazi followers to enjoy. There was no class division among the passengers; all cabins had a view and were of equal size.
From its maiden voyage on March 24, 1938, to just before WWII, carefree vacationers from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland mingled freely with each other and the crew on cruises to the Mediterranean and the North Sea. Cruise fares were reasonable and within the budget of most of the working class in keeping with Hitler’s false promises of a perfect world. Free entertainment was provided; daily activities were structured, and Hitler’s propaganda circulated freely among the passengers who seldom went ashore.
Prior to the annexation of Austria by the Nazis, it was also used as a floating voting station for citizens of Austria and Germany, who were then living in England. They were ferried 3 miles offshore to the ship, many unaware they were casting their vote in approval. Other than transporting German troops from Spain after Franco’s victory in 1939, the Gustloff remained a pleasure ship carrying over 65,000 passengers on at least 50 different excursions. The pleasure ended, however, with the final cruise in August 1939, when she was converted to a hospital ship in September 1939. Serving a less humanitarian purpose during the war, it was camouflaged to house U-boat sailors in training.
At the end of WWII, on January 30, 1945, the Gustloff was put into service this time as a part of Operation Hannibal, a massive wartime relief effort. Over 10,000 refugees, navy personnel, and the wounded, including an estimated 4,000 women and children, sought refuge on the ship from the advancing Soviet Red Army. Although the Operation itself evacuated over two million people, the most successful wartime evacuation in history, the ones who made it to the Danzig port and the Wilhelm Gustloff were not so lucky. Leaving many behind, the ship left port without ceremony heading for Kiel on the mainland of Germany. Although thousands had escaped the atrocities of the Russian troops, none could know what lay ahead.
The ship and its crew were ill prepared for the mass of people that overflowed the decks and cabins below. As the Gustloff made its way through sleet and snow, there was little protection from the weather or the enemy. The ship was virtually alone on the Baltic Sea with only one small escort boat. However, the U-boat detection equipment on the Lowe had frozen, and the boat was relying primarily on lookouts. While anti-aircraft guns and the few lifeboats also remained frozen and inoperable on the deck of the Gustloff, the people suffered terribly in the packed quarters of a ship built to accommodate about 1800 passengers.
Some 9 hours later, disaster struck, as three torpedoes labeled For Leningrad, the Soviet people, and the Motherland were fired from an undetected Russian submarine. After a direct hit on the ship‘s bow, the forward part of the ship was sealed off, and many of the crew were then unable to get to the lifeboats or carry out emergency procedures. The lavish swimming pool amidships was now filled with floating bodies, broken metal, and flying tile. After the 3rd and final torpedo destroyed the engine room, the Wilhelm Gustloff lost all power and communications. The scene was one of total chaos, resembling the panic of the Titanic on a much larger scale. Only a very few were rescued, as over 9,000 lives were lost in the sinking of the Gustloff, by far the greatest number in a single disaster at sea. A journey that promised safety had ended in indescribable tragedy.
A second refugee ship, the General Steuben, was also hit on the same mission carried out by the Russian submarine commander Marinesko and his crew, raising the total lives lost to over 10,000. Ironically, Marinesko was awarded Hero of the Soviet Union by Gorbachev in 1990, officially giving him credit for supposedly destroying German armed forces, but neglecting to mention the loss of innocent refugees and their families.
Unlike the Titanic, the shipwreck’s position in relatively shallow water was accurately recorded, so there is little mystery involved. The Polish government retains control over this designated area, but there are few visitors or memorials to such a burial site. A team of Polish divers, headed by Mike Boring, explored the shipwreck in May 2003 on a salvage expedition. No evidence was found of a so-called Amber Room, or a secret treasure worth over $350 million stolen during the war years. It is possible that some, if not all, the loot was recovered by the Russians soon after their deadly mission was accomplished.
(Notes: The ship’s purser, Heinz Schon, one of the few survivors, has written numerous books and is considered the leading expert as manager of the Gustloff archives in Germany.)
(David Frankfurter was later pardoned, released from exile, and managed to live out the rest of his life in Israel.)
(The wreck is a war memorial and her location is disguised by Polish navigational charts that register her only as Obstacle No 73 – 180 feet deep in the Baltic. However, she is easy to find and most of the diving clubs between Gdansk and Kolobrzeg offer trips to the wreck.)(In Germany, the Wilhelm Gustloff has become a focus for war remembrance. Germans are lobbying to build a museum or a shrine on the Polish coast to mark the 60th anniversary of the disaster, on January 30.)