A Memorial To The Wilhelm Gustloff
On the bitter cold night of January 30th, 1945, the former KdFCruise Liner Wilhelm Gustloff, at the time serving as a barracks shipfor the Kriegsmarine, left from the Baltic port of Gotenhafen and set sailfor the relative safety of the west, away from the advance of Soviet forcesthat were converging on the region. The Gustloff,designed to carry a maximum of 1,865 people total, was transporting 10,582refugees, soldiers, sailors, and crew – including scores ofsick and injured, as well as women, children and the elderly. All were fleeingfrom the terrible fate that awaited most of those left in the wake of the Sovietadvance, including Germans and non-Germans alike.
When the gray light of dawn lifted over the freezing coldwaves of the Baltic Sea on January 31st, 1945, it would fail to fall uponthe decks of the Gustloff, for that night it had been sunk by the Soviet sub S-13 and disappearedunder the dark sea in less than 50 minutes, taking with it 9,343 lives,marking its loss as the most tragic naval loss in all of history.
The Wilhelm Gustloff (25484 BRT) was launched in 1937 as the crown jewelof the Kraft durch Freude or Strength through Joy organization (KdF). The KdFwas 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 anddirection of the entire German labor force, and the KdF was used as a meanstowards this end by providing activities such as trips, cruises, concerts,and cultural activities. These events were specifically directed towards theworking class and it was through the KdF that the NSDAP hoped to bring to the “common man” the pleasuresonce reserved only for the rich. By opening the door for the workingclass to easily and affordably take part in activities once reserved only for the rich, it washoped that the labor force could be lulled into being more flexible andproductive.
The Wilhelm Gustloff was named after a man considered by some during the time tobe a German martyr. Wilhelm Gustloff had been the leader of the NSDAP inSwitzerland and he was assassinated in 1936. His name was chosen for thelargest liner of the KdF fleet and in 1937when it was launched, his widow christened the bow on its maiden voyage.The Gustloff was launched as the flag ship for the entire KdF fleet, of whichthere were a great number of ships both large and small, many of which wouldgo on to experience similar stories during WWII.
For nearly two years after it was launched the Wilhelm Gustloff sailed onpleasure 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 aslightly different role. Along side five other ships, the Robert Ley, theDeutsche, the Stuttgart, the Sierra Cordoba, and the Oceana, (the first fourship of the KdF fleet), the Gustloff took part in transporting back toGermany the Legion Condor from Spain. These men were being brought homeafter the successful defeat of the Republican forces by Franco’sNationalists. The Gustloff, along with other ships of thetransport fleet, arrived in Vigo, Spain on May 24th, 1939 and unloadedlarge amounts of medical supplies and other materials that were given tothe Spanish Social Help organization. On May 26th, 1939 the members ofthe Legion were loaded on the ships in Vigo harbor, with the Gustloff takingon 1,405 men. On May 30th, 1939 the ships arrived inGerman waters and were escorted into the Port of Hamburg by a parade ofvessels including the yacht Hamburg, Panzerschiffe AdmiralGraf Spee and Panzerschiffe Admiral Scheer.
On September 22nd, 1939, shortly after the Second World War broke out, theWilhelm Gustloff was offically commissioned into the Kriegsmarine by the German ArmedForces for use as a hospital ship. It was classified as Lazaretschiff D, orHospital Ship D. Lazaretschiffe in the German Armed Forces served as floating hospitals for the sick andwounded, and as with many other nations during the period, their use was strictlymonitored and followed a specific set of international procedures fortheir employement. Depending on their intended region of use, they were requiredto be painted entirely white, with the inclusion of a green band runningthe length of the ship on all sides and various red cross markings on thedeck, stacks, and sides. They were also prohibited from carrying any formof 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 endof the Polish Campaign. The first wounded taken on board were 685 solidersfrom the defeated Polish Army. The Gustloff went on to serve in the Danzig Bay region forthe next many weeks, later taking part in relief operations for the thousands ofBaltic Germans that were being moved from regions recently brought under the control of the Soviets, back to Germany or to areas controlledby Germans. The Gustloff took part in this operation alongside a number of otherformer 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 inNorway 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, carryingon board 563 wounded.
During the late summer and early fall of 1940, the Gustloff was ordered toprepare for operations during the planned Invasion of England, whicheventually 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 backto Swinemünde.
Shortly after this trip, the Gustloff was to end its service as a Lazarettschiffwhen it was directed that it move to Gotenhafen for service as a barracks shipfor the U-boot arm of the Kriegsmarine.
From September 22nd, 1939 until November 20th, 1940, the Gustloff took on a totalof 3,151 wounded and sick, and over the course of four trips, transported1,961 wounded back to Germany.
As a Wohnschiff (barracks ship) of the Kriegsmarine, under the control of the 1.Unterseeboots-Lehrdivision, and laterthe 2.Unterseeboots-Lehrdivision, the Gustloff lay at anchor in Gotenhafen, its new resting place, for overfour years. Then, in January of 1945, the Gustloff was once more put intoservice, this time as apart of the largest planned naval evacuation operation in history, the rescue andtransport of millions of refugees, soldiers, sick, injured and others fleeingfrom 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 evencombat vessels, took part in this massive rescue operations. Of the largestships that took part were the liners and passenger ships, which mostly,like the Gustloff, were until then being used as barrack and accommodationships in either Danzig, Pillau or Gotenhafen. The largest ships werethe 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), andthe Goya.
At the end of the War, the operationproved to be a huge success, in light of the crushing and total defeat ofGermany, in so far that over 2,000,000 people were rescued from areas ofthe Soviet advance. Had these 2,000,000 refugees not been rescued, ashas been well documented elsewhere (As in the volumes “Documents on theExpulsion of the Germans from Eastern-Central-Europe), the plight of manyof the refugees was likely to have been grim. Out of the total numberrescued, about 25,000 to 30,000lives were lost, the majority with the sinking of the Gustloff and the Goyawith a combined total of over 15,000 deaths. Considering the number ofpeople 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 astark reminder of the size, scope and determination of the massive Germansea rescue.
When the Gustloff left the relative protection of the harbor at Gotenhafenon January 30th, 1945, the weather was very poor; wind strength of 7, itwas snowing, the temperature was 10 degrees below zero, and ice flows were inthe water. Any chance of survival once in the water in weather like this wasnext to impossible. Under its own power, the Wilhelm Gustloff began to punchits way through the choppy, blustery Baltic Sea, un-escorted against thethreat of submarine attacks, with its only protection being the few anti-aircraftguns it had onboard to protect against air attack. Against the deadly submarine,the Gustloff was naked.
According to the ships own records, the listof passengers on the 30th included 918 Naval officers and men, 173 crew,373 members of the Woman’s Naval Auxiliary units, 162 wounded, and4,424 refugees, for an official total of 6,050 people. This is accordingto the official list though, and doesn’t take into account the manyhundreds of other people that one way or another, were able to make theirway onto the seemingly safe decks of the Gustloff. In fact, new researchhas now shown that the total number of people on the Gustloff atthe time it was sunk was actually 10,582! Newly published research byHeinz Schon has set the number of people on the Gustloff as follows:8,956 refugees, 918 officers NCOs and men of the2.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, (9:08pm, January 30th, 1945 Gotenhafen time;7:08pm Moscow time; 2:08pm Milwaukee, WI, USA time), the Soviet sub S-13,commanded by Alexander Marinesko, hit the Gustloff with a spread of threetorpedoes. The Gustloff immediately leaned to starboard, righted itself,and then leaned to again. She then launched rescue flares and broadcastan SOS. According to an eye-witness account of Oberbootsmannsmatt KarlHoffman, the first torpedo struck the Gustloff at the bow, directly below the helm deep belowthe waterline. The second torpedo exploded under the area of the shipthat was the swimming pool, and the third torpedo hit amidship in theforward part of the engine room, ripping the ship hull and shattering themachinery. Soon, the forecastle was nearly underwater, with the sternbeginning 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.Amazingly, 1,239 people were saved by the heroicand selfless work of 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, steamerGottingen saved 28 people, Torpedofangboot TF19 saved 7, freighterGotland 2 people, and Vorpostenboot 1703 saved one person, a 1 year-oldchild.
When the Gustloff sank it was an event unlike any in naval history, iffor no other reason, because of the sheer scale of the tragedy. Manyships have sunk with horrible lossof life, but never have so many lives been lost with a single ship. Likeall naval tragedies, the scene was one of sheer and complete horror.The suffering of those on the Gusltoff was unspeakable, it transcendsall time and place, all nationality, and all borders. It was a terrifyingloss of human life, and one that few know of today. In 1955, a German filmcalled “Nacht fiel über Gotenhafen” was released that portrayedthe final voyage of the Gustloff, a film that is both very accurateand a very touching tribute to those lost at sea. Lastly, of thevery few books on the Gustloff, a recentlypublished book by Heinz Schon called “SOS Wilhelm Gustloff – Diegrösste Schiffekatastrophe der Geschicte” is now consideredto be the defenitive work on the sinking and the previous historyof the ship.
What is now left of the Wilhelm Gustloff is a broken wreck designatedofficially as a grave site and off limits to most divers.The bow and stern of the ship are well preserved while the mid-sectionis heavily damaged and crushed in upon itself.
We shall always remember those lost with Gustloff. May they rest in peace.