The Biggest Marine Disaster in History: 9,343 German Civilians Were Killed by a Soviet Submarine

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The sinking of the Titanic may be the most infamous naval disaster in history, and the torpedoing of the Lusitania the most infamous in wartime. But with death counts of about 1,500 and 1,200 respectively, both are dwarfed by what befell the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German ocean liner that was taken down by a Soviet submarine on January 30, 1945.

Wilhelm Gustloff, in full Motor Vessel Wilhelm Gustloff, German ocean liner that was the first ship built specifically for the German Labour Front’s Kraft durch Freude (“Strength Through Joy”) program, which subsidized leisure activities for German workers. It measured 684 feet (208.5 metres) in length and weighed more than 25,000 tons. The ship had enough space to accommodate roughly 1,900 people, including some 400 crew members.

The MV Wilhelm Gustloff in 1938The MV Wilhelm Gustloff in 1938

On September 22nd, 1939, 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.

MV Wilhelm Gustloff served as a hospital ship, with official designation being Lazarettschiff DWilhelm Gustloff served as a hospital ship, with official designation being Lazarettschiff D

As the Red Army advanced on East Prussia, Adm. Karl Dönitz began preparations for Operation Hannibal, the mass evacuation of German troops and civilians from the area. Beginning on January 21, 1945, an estimated two million Germans were brought to the west in an operation that far exceeded the British evacuation at Dunkirk. The Gustloff was ordered to bring the soldiers of the 2nd Submarine Training Division to western Germany. On January 25 the ship started taking other refugees on board, and by the afternoon of January 29 the count had reached 7,956 when registration was stopped. Witnesses estimated that perhaps another 2,000 people boarded after that point.

Shortly after noon on January 30, the Gustloff left the harbour. Although it was originally planned that the Gustloff would be but one element in a larger convoy, mechanical problems forced two ships to turn back, and the Gustloff was accompanied by only the torpedo boat Löwe. Because he was worried about the Gustloff’s engines failing after years of sitting idle, Capt. Friedrich Petersen decided that the ship would travel no faster than 12 knots (14 miles per hour). In doing so, he ignored the advice of Wilhelm Zahn, commander of the 2nd Submarine Training Division, who argued that increasing speed to 15 knots (17 miles per hour) would reduce the likelihood of an attack, as Soviet submarines would not be able to keep up. Petersen also rejected the recommendation of First Officer Louis Reese, who had advised a course that hugged the coastline. Ultimately, the Gustloff headed for a deepwater route that was known to be clear of mines.

Approximations of the path taken by Soviet submarine S-13 and the sinking of the liners Wilhelm GustloffApproximations of the path taken by Soviet submarine S-13 and the sinking of the liners Wilhelm Gustloff

At about 6:00 pm a message was brought to the captain warning that a minesweeper convoy was headed their way, prompting him to activate the ship’s navigation lights to prevent a collision. The origin of that message is unknown; none of the radio operators on the Gustloff or the Löwe claimed to have received it, and it is unclear whether it was a misunderstanding or possibly sabotage. The Gustloff did not meet any minesweepers on its way. However, it was spotted by the Soviet submarine S-13 at about 7:00 pm.

Aleksandr Marinesko captained the Soviet submarine S-13, stationed in the Finnish port of Hango. Not long before, the captain had been drunk in public, and the NKVD (forerunner of the KGB) wanted to arrest him. Also, it was suspected that he was engaging in an affair with a foreign woman, and his loyalty to Josef Stalin was suspect. His superiors, however, respected his naval ability and convinced the secret police to back off. Now, Operation Hannibal provided the captain with many opportunities to hurt the German war effort, and Marinesko couldn’t resist taking a chance at bringing down the lumbering MV Wilhelm Gustloff.

At 9:16 pm the Gustloff was hit by three torpedoes and proceeded to sink over the course of one hour. The ship was carrying lifeboats and rafts for 5,000 people, but many of the lifesaving appliances were frozen to the deck, and their effective use was further impeded by the fact that one of the torpedoes had hit the crew quarters, killing those best trained to deal with the situation. Nine vessels took on survivors throughout the night.There was little chance of survival for many aboard as many of the of the lifeboats had frozen to their holdings with some breaking free and free falling off the ship. The temperature in the Baltic air was a chilly −18 to −10°C (0 to 14°F) as opposed to the normal 4°C (39°F). A majority of the casualties were from the onslaught of rushing water and from the torpedo hits, hypothermia was responsible for the rest. 9,343 civilians killed — most of them war refugees, about 5,000 of them were children, only 1,239 could be registered as survivors, making this sinking with the highest death toll in maritime history. The women on board the ship at the time of the sinking were inaccurately described by Soviet propaganda as “SS personnel from the German concentration camps”.

When the Germans protested that the ship had been carrying mostly civilians, the Soviets publicly stated that they had made a mistake. If the Soviets really wanted to punish Marinesko, however, they had more than enough reasons to do so in their twisted totalitarian logic. But the fact that he was responsible for an atrocity against Germany did nothing to hurt his career. In fact, in 1990 Marinesko was granted the title “Hero of the Soviet Union” posthumously.

The sinking of MV Wilhelm Gustloff was a “war crime” and indeed a “hate crime” of epic proportions, which the world media, court historians and justice officials have ignored, like so many others committed against Germans. If at all mentioned or noticed, the information is quickly dismissed and forgotten.

A 45 minute film produced by “Unsolved History” does an excellent job of investigating all of the facts. They then engaged maritime disaster experts who, with state of the art technology, produced computer simulations, and included eyewitness testimony from some of the still living survivors from that fateful night. They prove that the previous estimates of the lives lost were far too low. Furthermore, their deep sea divers discovered a hitherto unknown and very chilling fact: The Soviets later added further insult to their victims, by later returning to the wreck, salvaging everything of value, and then setting off explosives inside the wreck to cover up their crimes!

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