Wilhelm Gustloff as a hospital ship. Danzig, 23 September 1939

Wilhelm Gustloff – The Greatest Maritime Disaster in History

The sinking of MV Wilhelm Gustloff by the Soviet Submarine S-13 resulted in the greatest maritime disaster in history with the largest loss of life at sea.

At 55 degrees 07 minutes north, 17 degrees 41 minutes east lies the broken and dead body of a once proud and majestic ship. Above her amongst the Ice, snow and sleet are shadows and the now silent screams of well over 9,400 men, women, children, soldiers and refugees that perished that fateful night. She has been lying there silent since January 30th, 1945 a rusting hulk forgotten by most.

This tragedy truly began about seven years earlier with her delivery on March 15, 1938. This fine and grand cruise ship “Wilhelm Gustloff” was designed by order of the Führer to be the world’s most advanced cruise ship for the German people, to provide very affordable travel opportunities for the average German worker and his average German family. She was built as “Volksgemeinschaft” meaning only one class, one ship for one people. Her career as a cruise ship for the German citizen was unfortunately cut short as Hitler’s Titanic was only in service for 2 years, from 1937 to 1939 before war time duties came.

MV Wilhelm Gustloff

On September 1st, 1939 she was requisitioned in to the Kriegsmarine… for the war effort a hospital ship for the Third Reich. Her crew except for the Captain and several officers and of the black gang was released. Her luxurious interior was gutted and rebuilt-as operating, treatment and exam rooms as well as x-ray facilities and ward rooms. She then received her red-cross identification paint scheme which was white with a green stripe around her hull and a red cross on her funnel.

The Wilhelm Gustloff then spent the next year of her life docked in the Gulf of Danzig, then transferring to Oslo Norway tending her wounded. On 2nd of July found her at sea with 750 of her countries wounded on board heading for Kiel & Swinemunde. She was to obtain minor repairs and replenishments and return to Oslo but her Captain received orders to proceed to Stettin and await further directives.

Wilhelm Gustloff as a hospital ship. Danzig, 23 September 1939
Wilhelm Gustloff as a hospital ship. Danzig, 23 September 1939 (Credits: Bundesarchiv)

From first rate military hospital ship, the Kriegsmarine required the services of the Gustloff in a different way now. November 20th, 1940  finds the once showcase cruise ship being gutted again for another conversion into a “floating Barracks” with her crew cut down to only a few of her engine maintenance men and her captain. She is to be used by the Second submarine training division to house about 1,000 sailors which will be her duty for the next four years. She no longer wears her hospital white with green stripe, but instead she is painted in navy camouflage since the Gustloff is now a legitimate military target. During these four years she saw many a proud and swaggering submariner come and go, and then as the war in the Atlantic grew more and more costly and desperate the submariners walking about her decks grew younger and younger. With these obvious changes in the west came cracks in the German military armor on the eastern front as well. By October 1944 the Russian army began to fight its way west across the eastern front toward Germany. Hitler in his infinite military genius refuses to save what is left of the army and country; instead he fills ranks with young boys and old men to defend what was left to the end. Ahead of the advancing Red army refugees by the hundreds then by the thousands flooded the Gulf cities.

By January 1945 Danzig was crammed with hundreds of thousands of fleeing German men, women, children, retreating soldiers and high ranking German officials with their families trying to escape west. By word of mouth terror and hysteria turned into flames of panic as news of Russian retribution and vengeance against any German man woman or child for deeds against the motherland and her people. One word of hope came through, an unexpected ray of hope that over two million refugees laid their life on. From Gross Admiral Karl Donitz came a one word coded message… “Hannibal”. This single most important word orders his submariner’s west toward the allied lines for safety. The word Hannibal also was an order for the German ships in Danzig harbor to take aboard as many refugees as they could and flee to safety, again west. The Gustloff’s captain immediately made preparations to get underway. Making her ready for passengers was not as difficult as was getting her engines ready for sea. Being a dock side barracks she had remained in port for over 4 years leaving her MAN diesel engines in a state of disrepair. It took hard work and great mechanical work to get her engines back in shape and dependable once again for the trip. What meager stores available were brought on board, but there would not be enough food and provisions to take care of the over 10,600 passengers and crew expected on board her.  Not to mention would there be enough fuel of proper quality to take the ship and her precious cargo of humanity to freedom? This is where the Wilhelm Gustloff begins her last chapter… she was now designated a “Military Transport” by the Soviet military and therefore a target to be sunk on sight. This once proud cruise ship, hospital ship, and floating barracks now had a price on her head, an enemy of the people, fair game for any war ship, airplane or submarine on the hunt.

Captain Marinesko gives the necessary orders and sub S-13 leaves the port of Turko on its last war patrol with two other Soviet submarines. Once under way he opens his orders and finds he is to patrol along the coast of Memel and to “sink the fascists”. But due to lack of enemy ships pickings were quite few and far in between. When in port last he remembers hearing reports of German shipping action in the Gulf of Danzig he then makes the decision without informing his command and heads his submarine toward Danzig with hopes of finding some fat targets. Now completely unaware the Wilhelm Gustloff and S-13 are headed on a rendezvous with destiny. On January 30th at approximately 8pm with the escape ship sailing west and S-13 running on the surface the first officer on duty through the mist and snow sees faint ships lights in the distance and he immediately calls “Captain to the conning tower!!” Once there Marinesko sees for himself an enormous target and orders a shadowing course be set, tubes one through 4 to be loaded and the crew called to battle stations. While loading the tubes, the crew writes messages on the torpedos “For the motherland” “For Stalin” “For the Soviet people” and the “For Leningrad” all dedicated to their home land for a successful hunt. At about 9:12pm with the crew tense at battle stations Captain Marinesko checks and takes the final bearings of his target and gives the order “FIRE TUBES 1-2-3-4!” With the men of the forward torpedo room working desperately to disarm and unload a hot torpedo 3 great explosions are heard and felt one after another. The enemy ship (with over 10,000 refugees on board) hit along the port side.

One enormous hole in the bow area, another hit the hull beneath the bridge (about where the swimming pool was located), and the third directly in the engine room. Any one hit was critical but the hit in the engine room dealt the ship a death blow. She immediately lost power and went dead in the water. Captain Friedrich Petersen ordered emergency generators and all water tight doors to close & the wireless operator to send continuous S.O.S signals with her last known position, …  — … is tapped out as quickly and often as possible while there was still power. There were dead and dying, screams and panic in every part of the doomed ship, gun shots rang out from those wishing to end their life, or those trying to restore some semblance of order. Frantically available crew and passengers worked at dropping life boats and rafts but frozen davits, ropes and pulleys plus mad panic along with sub zero temperature made it all nearly impossible. Men, women, children, soldiers and wounded were all in the fight for their life but for most, a losing fight.

German soldiers wounded at Narvik being transported back to Germany on Wilhelm Gustloff in July 1940.
German soldiers wounded at Narvik being transported back to Germany on Wilhelm Gustloff in July 1940. (Credits: Bundesarchiv)

With the list of the great ship continuing to increase, more and more people were sliding and falling into the icy water, with some choosing to jump in an attempt to swim to a raft or life boat that appeared near or possibly just to end it quickly. Some surviving passengers reported that about forty minutes following the torpedo strikes the Wilhelm Gustloff down by the bow and listing heavily rolled over onto her port side filling the water with helpless people. At approximately 30 minutes later (70 minutes from the torpedo strike) she sank taking many who were still on board with her.

The following is documentation of the rescue attempts by German ships, warships as well as civilian. Note: there are various different accounts however the list beneath is generally accepted as being most accurate.

  1. Escorting the Wilhelm Gustloff, was the Torpedo boat “Lowe”. She continued to send long range mayday messages since the Gustloff was on emergency power and her wireless range was just 2000 meters. The KMS Lowe was able to rescue 472 passengers.
  2. KMS Torpedo boat T-36 was able to save 564 souls.
  3. 3 German mine sweepers were able to pull 179 people to safety.  
  4. The KMS Heavy Cruiser Admiral Hipper arrived to lend assistance but had to sail due to the threat of submarines.
  5. KMS Patrol Boat VP-1703 arrived on the scene 7 hours after the sinking, locating a life boat with frozen bodies in it, miraculously heard the faint cries and rescued an infant.
  6. Freighters Gottingen and Gotenland arrived much too late and were only able to pluck frozen bodies out of the sea.

Some facts related to the sinking of MV Wilhelm Gustloff

  • Number of Refugees & crew at the time of her last voyage: 10,600
  • Date and time of sinking: January 30, 1945 at 2226 hours
  • Air temperature at time of loss: 0 F. (-17.7°C)
  • Loss of Life: 9,343 – 9,400 dead {of these 9,400, circa 5,000-6,000 were children}
  • Due to the current (January 30th, 1945) situation and condition of the country, there was no reporting of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff to German citizens.


1 thought on “Wilhelm Gustloff – The Greatest Maritime Disaster in History”

  1. In WW1 off of Normandy there was a ship overloaded with soldiers that was torpedoed estimates of upwards 13,000 were on board. Most were lost.

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