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Research on the German Armed Forces 1918-1945

A History of the Wilhelm Gustloff

On the bitter cold night of January 30th, 1945, the former KdF Cruise Liner Wilhelm Gustloff, at the time serving as a barracks ship for the Kriegsmarine, left from the Baltic port of Gotenhafen and set sail for the relative safety of the west, away from the advance of Soviet forces that were converging on the region. The Gustloff, designed to carry a maximum of 1,865 people total, was transporting 10,582 refugees, soldiers, sailors, and crew - including scores of sick and injured, as well as women, children and the elderly. All were fleeing from the advance of Soviet forces.

When the gray light of dawn lifted over the freezing cold waves of the Baltic Sea on January 31st, 1945, it would fail to fall upon the decks of the Gustloff. That night it had been sunk by the Soviet sub S-13 and disappeared under the dark sea in less than 50 minutes, taking with it 9,343 lives. Its loss stands as the most tragic naval loss in history.

The Wilhelm Gustloff as a KdF ship pre-1939

The Wilhelm Gustloff (25484 BRT) was launched in 1937 as the crown jewel of the Kraft durch Freude or Strength through Joy organization (KdF). The KdF was a subgroup of the Deutsche Arbeitsfront or German Labor Front (DAF). The DAF had been organized in place of unions which had been banned by the NSDAP. The DAF had as its goal the control and direction of the entire German labor force, and the KdF was used as a means towards this end by providing activities such as trips, cruises, concerts, and cultural activities. These events were specifically directed towards the working class and it was through the KdF that the NSDAP hoped to bring to the "common man" the pleasures once reserved only for the rich. By opening the door for the working class to easily and affordably take part in activities once reserved only for the rich, it was hoped that the labor force could be lulled into being more flexible and productive.

The launching of the Gustloff in 1937 in Hamburg

The Wilhelm Gustloff was named after the leader of the NSDAP in Switzerland who was assassinated in 1936. His name was chosen for the largest liner of the KdF fleet and in 1937 when it was launched his widow christened the ship on its maiden voyage. The Gustloff was launched as the flag ship for the entire KdF fleet, of which there were a great number of ships both large and small, many of which would go on to experience similar stories during WWII.

The Wilhelm Gustloff in harbor as a KdF ship in 1938

For nearly two years after it was launched the Wilhelm Gustloff sailed on pleasure cruises in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean and North Seas. Then in May of 1939, four months before WWII began, the Gustloff took part in a slightly different role. Along side five other ships, the Robert Ley, the Deutsche, the Stuttgart, the Sierra Cordoba, and the Oceana, (the first four ship of the KdF fleet), the Gustloff took part in transporting back to Germany the Legion Condor from Spain. These men were being brought home after the successful defeat of the Republican forces by Franco's Nationalists. The Gustloff, along with other ships of the transport fleet, arrived in Vigo, Spain on May 24th, 1939 and unloaded large amounts of medical supplies and other materials that were given to the Spanish Social Help organization. On May 26th, 1939 the members of the Legion were loaded on the ships in Vigo harbor, with the Gustloff taking on 1,405 men. On May 30th, 1939 the ships arrived in German waters and were escorted into the Port of Hamburg by a parade of vessels including the yacht Hamburg, Panzerschiffe Admiral Graf Spee and Panzerschiffe Admiral Scheer.

Passengers onboard the Gustloff on a cruise in 1938

Passengers onboard in 1938, notice the life boat cranes behind them

On September 22nd, 1939, shortly after the Second World War broke out, the Wilhelm Gustloff was offically commissioned into the Kriegsmarine by the German Armed Forces for use as a hospital ship. It was classified as Lazaretschiff D, or Hospital Ship D. Lazaretschiffe in the German Armed Forces served as floating hospitals for the sick and wounded, and as with many other nations during the period, their use was strictly monitored and followed a specific set of international procedures for their employement. Depending on their intended region of use, they were required to be painted entirely white, with the inclusion of a green band running the length of the ship on all sides and various red cross markings on the deck, stacks, and sides. They were also prohibited from carrying any form of offensive of defensive weapons. It was in this role that the Gustloff would first enter WWII.

The first employement of the Gustloff as Lazaretschiff D was in Danzig-Neufahrwasser at the end of the Polish Campaign. The first wounded taken on board were 685 soliders from the defeated Polish Army. The Gustloff went on to serve in the Danzig Bay region for the next many weeks, later taking part in relief operations for the thousands of Baltic Germans that were being moved from regions recently brought under the control of the Soviets, back to Germany or to areas controlled by Germans. The Gustloff took part in this operation alongside a number of other former KDF ships such as the Stuttgart, Der Deutsche, Robert ley and the Oceana.

From May of 1940 until July of the same year, the Gustloff was on station in Norway in Oslo as a floating hospital for the sick and wounded from the Norwegian Campaign. The Gustloff left Oslo and headed for Stettin on July 2nd, 1940, carrying on board 563 wounded.

During the late summer and early fall of 1940, the Gustloff was ordered to prepare for operations during the planned Invasion of England, which eventually were cancelled in late summer 1940. Once more, on October 20th, 1940, the Gustloff sailed again to Oslo and took on 414 wounded for transport back to Swinemünde.

Shortly after this trip, the Gustloff was to end its service as a Lazarettschiff when it was directed that it move to Gotenhafen for service as a barracks ship for the U-boot arm of the Kriegsmarine.

From September 22nd, 1939 until November 20th, 1940, the Gustloff took on a total of 3,151 wounded and sick, and over the course of four trips, transported 1,961 wounded back to Germany.

The Gustloff as Hospital Ship "D" in 1939

As a Wohnschiff (barracks ship) of the Kriegsmarine, under the control of the 1.Unterseeboots-Lehrdivision, and later the 2.Unterseeboots-Lehrdivision, the Gustloff lay at anchor in Gotenhafen, its new resting place, for over four years. Then, in January of 1945, the Gustloff was once more put into service, this time as a part of the largest planned naval evacuation operation in history, the rescue and transport of millions of refugees, soldiers, sick, injured and others fleeing from the advance of the Soviet forces in east. Nearly all of the former KdF liners, along with many other freight and cargo ships, naval auxiliaries, and even combat vessels, took part in this massive rescue operations. Of the largest ships that took part were the liners and passenger ships, which mostly, like the Gustloff, were until then being used as barrack and accommodation ships in either Danzig, Pillau or Gotenhafen. The largest ships were the following: Cap Arcona (27561), Robert Ley (27288), Hamburg (22117), Hansa (21131), Deutschland (21046), Potsdam (17528), Pretoria (16662), Berlin (15286), General Steuben (14660), Monte Rosa (13882), Antonio Delfino (13589), Winrich von Kniprode (10123), Ubena (9554), and the Goya.

At the end of the WWII German refugee rescue operations proved to be a huge success in light of the otherwise crushing defeat of Germany as over 2,000,000 people were transported from areas of Soviet control. Out of the total number rescued, between 25,000 to 30,000 lives were lost, the majority with the sinking of the Gustloff and the Goya with a combined total of over 15,000 deaths. Considering the number of people transported and the conditions and time of the transport (January - May, 1945), the number of lives lost versus the number rescued remains to this day a stark reminder of the size, scope and determination of the massive German sea rescue.

Rare color photo of the Gustloff at anchor in Gotenhafen

When the Gustloff left the relative protection of the harbor at Gotenhafen on January 30th, 1945, the weather was very poor; wind strength of 7, it was snowing, the temperature was 10 degrees below zero, and ice flows were in the water. Any chance of survival once in the water in weather like this was next to impossible. Under its own power, the Wilhelm Gustloff began to punch its way through the choppy, blustery Baltic Sea, un-escorted against the threat of submarine attacks its only protection being the few anti-aircraft guns it had onboard. Against the deadly submarine, the Gustloff was naked.

According to the ships own records, the list of passengers on the 30th included 918 Naval officers and men, 173 crew, 373 members of the Woman's Naval Auxiliary units, 162 wounded, and 4,424 refugees, for an official total of 6,050 people. This is according to the official list though, and doesn't take into account the many hundreds of other people that one way or another, were able to make their way onto the seemingly safe decks of the Gustloff. In fact, new research has now shown that the total number of people on the Gustloff at the time it was sunk was actually 10,582. Newly published research by Heinz Schon has set the number of people on the Gustloff as follows: 8,956 refugees, 918 officers NCOs and men of the 2.Unterseeboot-Lehrdivision, 373 female naval auxiliary helpers, 173 naval armed forces auxiliaries, and 162 heavily wounded soldiers, for a total of 10,582 people on board on January 30th.

Then, at 2108 01.30.45 the Soviet sub S-13, commanded by Alexander Marinesko, hit the Gustloff with a spread of three torpedoes. The Gustloff immediately leaned to starboard, righted itself, and then leaned to again. She then launched rescue flares and broadcast an SOS. According to an eye-witness account of Oberbootsmannsmatt Karl Hoffman, the first torpedo struck the Gustloff at the bow, directly below the helm deep below the waterline. The second torpedo exploded under the area of the ship that was the swimming pool, and the third torpedo hit amidship in the forward part of the engine room, ripping the ship hull and shattering the machinery. Soon, the forecastle was nearly underwater, with the stern beginning to rise above the waterline. In under 50 minutes time, the Gustloff was gone, taken beneath the icy black waters of the Baltic, and with her, 9,343 men, women and children while 1,239 people were saved by a number of German ships in the area. Torpedoboot T-36 rescued 564 people, Torpedoboot Löwe 472 people, Minensuchboot M387 98 people, Minensuchboot M375 43 people, Minensuchboot M341 37 people, steamer Gottingen saved 28 people, Torpedofangboot TF19 saved 7, freighter Gotland 2 people, and Vorpostenboot 1703 saved one person, a 1 year-old child.

The flight from the Eastern regions and the loss of the Gustloff

When the Gustloff sank it was an event unlike any in naval history, if for no other reason because of the sheer scale of the tragedy. Many ships have sunk with horrible loss of life, but never have so many lives been lost with a single ship. In 1955, a German film called "Nacht fiel über Gotenhafen" was released that portrayed the final voyage of the Gustloff, a film that is a relatively accurate and retelling of the disaster. Of the few books on the Gustloff a recently published work by Heinz Schon called "SOS Wilhelm Gustloff - Die größte Schiffekatastrophe der Geschicte" is now considered to be the defenitive work on the sinking of the ship.

An artists drawing from diver reports of the position of the wreck of the Gusloff today

What is now left of the Wilhelm Gustloff is a broken wreck designated officially as a grave site and off limits to most divers. The bow and stern of the ship are well preserved while the mid-section is heavily damaged and crushed in upon itself.

Like all those lost at sea, may those who died with the Gustloff rest in peace.

Please also see the section on the Gustloff as Lazarettschiffe D.