Königsberg, East Prussia

Wilhelm Gustloff in Danzig
Hospital ship Wilhelm Gustloff in Danzig

Similar to the apparent silence around the wartime destruction of the City of Königsberg and the expulsion of over 10 million Germans from their homelands, modern accounts of WWII remain largely silent about was likely the largest maritime disaster of all times, the sinking of the ocean liner ‘Wilhelm Gustloff’ by a Russian submarine in Jan 1945. With perhaps as many as 9,000 passengers on board, only about 1,200  were rescued after the Wilhelm Gustloff was hit by three torpedoes, suggesting this was the largest loss of life at sea.

On January 12th 1945, the Soviet Red Army broke through on three fronts. By the 26th they reached the eastern shore of the Gulf of Danzig. This effectively cut Prussia off from the rest of Germany. For the 30,000 refugees, concentration camp inmates and wounded soldiers now crowded into the port of Gotenhafen (now Gdynia, Poland), the only escape could be by sea.

Until now, Grossadmiral Dönitz’s "sea bridge" had safely carried over 2-million refugees from East and West Prussia and Courland (present-day western Latvia and Lithuania) to western ports. On January 30th at 1230 the former passenger liners WILHELM GUSTLOFF  got underway for Kiel and Flensburg in western Germany. With all cabins occupied and passengers jammed into passageways, there were at least  6,000 passengers on board, more than three times above capacity. Most were women and children, elderly men and about 1,200 wounded soldiers. 

On the bridge of the GUSTLOFF there was an animated discussion about the ship’s course.  A course hugging the coastline increased the danger from mines, while the deep-water northerly course, Emergency Route 58, posed more of a danger from subs. Captain Petersen minimized the danger from mines but pointed out that British planes had been active in the coastal area around Danzig. They would sail the northerly route. The idea of sailing a zigzag course was briefly considered but was quickly discarded on two accounts: Route 58 had been swept free of mines but was too narrow to permit zigzagging. Also, the tactic would consume far too much time. Normally, the GUSTLOFF would have been able to outrun any sub but she had been used as a hospital ship for years and was poorly-maintained. With a maximum speed of only 12 knots she was vulnerable. Although some Soviet sub activity had been reported in the Baltic, the danger was not thought to be significant. Nevertheless, with over 6,000 lives in the balance, the torpedo boat LÖWE and the TF-1, a small torpedo boat, were assigned as escorts.

One thing the GUSTLOFF had in its favor was the weather forecast. The worse the weather, the better the chances for a safe transit. It called for snow and poor visibility. But two hours into the voyage the weather suddenly started to clear somewhat. Another ominous sign: The TF-1 suddenly developed a leaking seam and radioed that it would have to return to port. Simultaneously, radio reports on sudden sub activity in the southern Baltic were broadcast from the naval radio station in Gotenhafen. Whether they were picked up by the GUSTLOFF is not known, but the LÖWE was capable of receiving transmissions only from its headquarters further west in Swinemünde.

Just before nightfall, Captain Petersen made his second critical error. He ordered full illumination, reasoning that the danger from collision in the low visibility was greater than any danger from subs. His executive officer had argued that the standard blue lights would give sufficient warning to passing ships. But the captain prevailed, and the GUSTLOFF was lit up like a cruise ship gaily enroute to Majorca.

Petersen did have some justification for what in retrospect seems like a risky tactic. For most of the war, the Nazis had kept the Soviet fleet bottled up in Kronshtadt by a blockade and by mining the Gulf of Finland. But after the Russo-Finnish armistice on September 19, 1944, the Soviet Navy was finally able to break out. However, Russian naval activity in January, 1945 was still fitful. Still, the armistice agreement awarded the Russians important military bases on Finnish territory, including the strategic Hangö peninsula.

In fact, it was from Hangö that Captain Alexander U. Marinesko of the 780-ton Soviet sub S-13 sailed on the morning of January 11th. During nineteen days at sea he encountered only civilian small craft in the frigid waters off Lithuania. He was receiving radio dispatches from his home port describing the fall of Memel (present-day Klaipeda, Lithuania) and Königsberg, so he reasoned that naval transports might be evacuating troops to the west. Hugging the coastline, he saw no activity where he expected it most.

At 2035, Marinesko raised his periscope for a final look before surfacing for the night. Blackness all-around. After giving the order to surface, he turned to the paperwork that even sub captains were wedded to--bringing the boat’s log up to date. Duty officer Lt. Yuri Yefremenkov was first to emerge from the hatch. Visibility had improved further but there still were no potential targets in sight. After several minutes he suddenly noticed a slight glow on the horizon--just barely perceptible. He thought it might be the Hela lighthouse at the tip of the narrow peninsula enclosing the Bay of Danzig. He yelled "Captain to the bridge" into the hull. Submariners know that this call, as often as not, precedes a call to battle stations. Marinesko knew his exact position and was too far north to be in sight of Hela. It had to be a ship. He told Yefremenkov, "I’ll take over. You go below and plot the attack." Then came the order that brought the S-13 to life. "All men to battle stations. Right full rudder, steer two-three-zero. Both engines ahead full."

Aboard the GUSTLOFF, Captain Petersen had just asked his duty officer for the ship’s position. The response was delivered with Germanic precision: "At 1945 we passed Rixhöft. At 2430 we will be 12 miles off Stolpmünde. At approximately 0400 we will be just off Swinemünde."

Never quite believing that Russian subs might be a serious threat, Petersen nevertheless felt reassured. By 0400 the most dangerous part of the voyage would be over.Besides, he figured, even assuming the worst, there was life-saving equipment for all. The twelve lifeboats held 60 people each, eighteen smaller boats would each hold 30 people, there were 380 life rafts, and there were life jackets for the rest. Then too, Petersen knew he just happened to have aboard a team of specially-trained life-saving specialists. But Petersen was in the worst form of denial. To begin with, the temperature was 4 degrees Fahrenheit above zero and the water temperature was around freezing. Even if all the lifeboats and rafts were launched successfully and fully occupied--a feat seldom achieved in the history of marine rescue--that would leave thousands of survivors in the frigid water. In addition, no one had seen to keeping the life boat davits free of ice. In fact, hindsight indicates that the lifeboats should have been swung out from their davits as the ship got underway. Petersen took this into account but reasoned that such a procedure would have caused panic among the passengers. The decision would end up costing hundreds of lives.

Aboard the S-13, Marinesko cannily decided to make his attack from the coastal side, where least expected. The danger from mines was greater there, but like Petersen, he was playing the odds, albeit more successfully. Worse than the danger from mines was the shallow depth. The sea was only 30 meters deep in places and the nearby Stolpe Banks were barely nine fathoms deep in many areas. Figuring that his target would be under the protection of a destroyer, he considered it a risk worth taking.

Marinesko narrowed his range on the GUSTLOFF to 1,000 meters before ordering all torpedoes set to run at a depth of three meters. He waited for the doomed ship to lumber into the crosshairs of his periscope and then gave the order that would be a death sentence for 5,348* hapless victims: "Fire One--for the Motherland". Three seconds later: "Fire Two". Then, "Fire Three--this one is for the Soviet People".

The first detonation struck the ship with the deadening roar that survivors described as being hit by a meteor. Duty Officer Weller’s first thought was "Mines!". He lunged for the engine room telegraph and with both hands set it to "Stop". Captain Petersen was nearby in his cabin, but knew instantly that three such powerful explosions indicated torpedoes. Stunned, he hurried to the bridge, but at first could utter only three words, Das wär es. ("This is it"). His chief mate had already sent out an S.O.S. Within minutes, Naval Command in Gotenhafen put out the call to all ships in the eastern Baltic to "proceed with all due haste to rescue site GUSTLOFF 55.07 degrees north, 17.41 degrees east."

Meanwhile, all attempts to contact the engine room failed. All lines were dead. The ship was listing badly to port, preventing the starboard lifeboats from being launched. Worst of all was his sudden realization that the forward compartments were flooded--the compartments housing his prized life-saving team! With little supervision of the lifeboat loading, several became overloaded. The forward falls on one boat gave way with a loud snap, tumbling dozens of people into the freezing water 60 feet below. Other lifeboats were being cast off with only a few passengers. Many of the passengers appeared topside without lifejackets and, unfamiliar with the deck plan, were pushing and shoving against the flow. The scene was one so often repeated in disasters at sea. Some people responded with heroism and self-sacrifice while others displayed abject poltroonery. One deck officer was supervising the loading of a lifeboat with the standard order, "Women and children first". But before the boat was even half full he suddenly abandoned his responsibility and simply took a seat in the boat.

By now, the ship’s list was making it difficult to move around on the deck and people were jumping overboard. Escort ship LÖWE was alongside within 15 minutes and the scene her captain found was one of hellish confusion--made many times worse by the frigid conditions. Survivors were taken aboard as quickly as possible, but it was not long before the LÖWE’s crew were as tired, stiff and frozen as the refugees. After a half-hour in the water, many were being hauled aboard as deadweight. Desperate calls for help came from all sides. But in some instances, the survivors were not helpful. One woman, wearing an expensive fur coat made slippery by the sea water, continually slipped through the hands of the rescuers. She was last seen drifting away in the darkness.

As every nook and cranny aboard the LÖWE became full of huddled survivors, the heavy cruiser ADMIRAL HIPPER suddenly hove into view. The ADMIRAL HIPPER was now the largest German warship in the Baltic, but it too had been ordered west and was herself carrying a load of about 1,500 refugees. She had sailed from Danzig a few hours later than the GUSTLOFF, but was moving at flank speed of 32 knots. Wild cries of jubilation broke out among passengers still aboard the GUSTLOFF. Peering through his binoculars, Captain Henigst took stock of the situation. Three empty lifeboats still hung in their davits, there were nine empty life rafts and the ship now had a 30 degree list to port.

It was now apparent to Henigst that his ship’s high freeboard would be an enormous obstacle to any rescue attempt. And in their weakened condition, only the most fit survivors would be able to climb the Jacobs ladders. In addition, the time required for this type of rescue operation would take hours. Henigst was torn. But before he could decide on his next move, one of his lookouts spotted a torpedo wake 20 degrees off his starboard bow. Then a second. The captain lost no time and radioed all rescue vessels: "U-boat risk too great for us to risk ship, passengers and crew. Also, our high freeboard would hinder and slow rescue attempts. Am leaving operations in your hands. Wish you success and good luck. Henigst."

As the ADMIRAL HIPPER pulled away, there was puzzlement and a feeling of betrayal among the survivors flailing about in the icy water. Some just gave up and drifted away into oblivion. In the end only about 1,200 passengers were rescued, and it is thought that as many as 6,000 people may have perished in the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Although Though 5,348 people were officially logged in for the voyage, in the last minutes hundreds more swarmed aboard. As a result, officials were unable to make an accurate count and some estimates go as high as 8,000.

Just 11 days later, on the night of 9–10 February, Marinesko sank a second German ship with two torpedoes, the STEUBEN, carrying mostly military personnel, with an estimated total number of 4,267 casualties. Marinesko thus became the most successful Soviet submarine commander in terms of gross register tonnage (GRT) sunk, with 42,000 GRT to his name.

Alexander Marinesko

Statue of Alexander Marinesko located next to the History and Art Museum in Kaliningrad.

Today, 55.07N, 17.41E is the final resting place of the M/V WILHELM GUSTLOFF. It has been designated as a permanent war memorial site, off-limits to salvage crews. On Polish navigation charts it is ignominiously noted as "Obstacle No. 73".

Some attempts have been made to characterize the sinking as an atrocity. But Captain Marinesko had no way of knowing that his victims were mostly refugees and soldiers who would never fight again. As a military commander he was obliged to assume that the ship carried retreating troops. We do not know whether he would have launched his fatal attack had he known that the GUSTLOFF carried people offering no threat to Soviet forces. But he deserves the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, in wartime one shoots first and asks questions later.

Before sinking the Wilhelm Gustloff, Alexander Marinesko was facing a court martial due to his problems with alcohol and was thus deemed "not suitable to be a hero". He was instead awarded the Order of the Red Banner. Although widely recognized as a brilliant commander, he was downgraded in rank to lieutenant and dishonorably discharged from the navy in October 1945. In 1960 he was reinstated as captain third class and granted a full pension. In 1963 Marinesko was given the traditional ceremony due to a captain upon his successful return from a mission. He died three weeks later on 25 November 1963 from cancer, and was buried at the Bogoslovskoye cemetery in St. Petersburg. Marinesko was posthumously awarded Hero of the Soviet Union by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 after rehabilitation by the Izvestia newspaper.

This article has been adapted from an account of the Wilhelm Gustloff sinking by Irwin J. Kappes ( Copyright © 2003) www.militaryhistoryonline.com/wwii/articles/wilhelmgustloff.aspx