Wilhelm Gustloff – Worst Sea Disaster Ever
By James Donahue
The sinking of the German passenger liner Wilhelm Gustloff by a Soviet submarine in the Baltic Sea in 1945, during
the final days of World War II, claimed over 9,400 lives and went down in history as the worst single sea disaster in human
Because it happened under the fog of war, and involved mostly German women and children trying to escape from the advancing
Russian army at Gotenhafen (now Gdansk, Poland), news of the sinking of the Gustloff went almost unnoticed in the Western
world. Hitler suppressed the news, believing such a story would cause the German people to question his invincibility.
What happened on that fateful day on January 30 was that the Third Reich was collapsing under the assault of allied
troops, including Russian forces moving in from the east. Admiral Doenitz, head of the German Navy ordered the Gustloff, docked
at Gotenhafen, to evacuate U-boat personnel stationed there.
The 684-foot-long liner, designed to carry a maximum of 1,465 passengers, also took on wounded soldiers, female auxiliary
workers and a rush of terrified civilians, all trying to escape what they believed would be certain death at the hands of
the approaching Soviet Army. By the time the overcrowded ship steamed from Gotenhaven into the Bay of Danzig some estimate
that it was carrying 10,582 people, including the ship’s crew of 173.
The Gustloff was at first accompanied by the passenger liner Hansa, also filled with civilians and military personnel,
and two torpedo boats. The the Hansa and one of the torpedo boats developed mechanical trouble and had to turn back, leaving
the Gustloff alone with one escort, the torpedo boat Lowe. The two vessels turned westward toward Stettin.
There is an old saying that too many cooks spoil the broth, and that became what may have been the primary reason the
Gustloff was lost. There were four captains on the ship, three civilian and one military commander, and none of them to agree
on which course to take to be safe from submarine attack.
The military commander, Lieutenant Commander Wilhelm Zahn, a submariner, argued for a course close to shore, in shallow
waters and without lights. Had the others listened to him the disaster might have been averted. But the senior civilian captain,
Friedrick Petersen, chose to head for deep water. After receiving a radio message warning of an oncoming German minesweeper
convoy, Petersen activated the ship’s navigation lights because he wanted to avoid any chance of a collision in the
dark. Thus he made the liner and all of its passengers a sitting duck.
Another factor in this disaster: even though the Gustloff operated for some time as a hospital ship and was carrying
wounded soldiers and civilians, the vessel had been painted and the markings as a hospital ship were removed. Thus the ship
lacked even that protection from enemy attack.
Prowling those waters that fateful night was the S-13, under the command of Captain Alexander Marinesko. As the liner
steamed foolishly into its path, the submarine launched three torpedoes. It was such an easy target that all three missiles
hit and exploded on the port side of the doomed ship. The first torpedo struck near the port bow, the second at midships and
the third exploded in the engine room. The ship’s power and lights went out, the liner immediately began to list and
it sank within 45 minutes.
Chaos broke out as panic gripped the passengers. Many were trampled in the rush to the lifeboats and life jackets.
It was a cold winter night, the water temperature was at about 39 degrees and the air temperature was somewhere below zero
degrees Fahrenheit. It was snowing. People that jumped in the water had no chance. Hypothermia killed them within minutes.
In spite of the odds, German torpedo boats rescued over 1,000 people from the deck of the Wilhelm Gustloff before it
sank. The squadron of minesweepers and other ships reached the scene in time to rescue a few survivors.
The Wilhelm Gustloff was launched in 1936 and bore the name of the assassinated German leader of the Swiss Nazi party.
The ship was requisitioned into the German Navy in 1939 and used as a hospital ship on the Prussian front. In 1940 it was
stripped of medical equipment, painted naval grey, and assigned for duty as a floating barrack for naval personnel.
Naval historian Gunter Grass, in an interview published in the New York Times in 2003, said the following about the
Gustloff disaster: “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.”