Wednesday, January 29, 2020

M/V Wilhelm Gustloff Sinks, 9300 Dead

The biggest maritime disaster in history.
January 30, 1945
As an introduction here's Deutsche-Welle five years ago
Over 9,000 people died in the Baltic Sea on January 30, 1945, in an attempt to evade the Red Army. The Wilhelm Gustloff was the largest shipwreck in history, but little is known about the catastrophe seven decades on.

At around 9 p.m. on January 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler was speaking to the German people. In the packed dining hall of the luxury liner "Wilhelm Gustloff," as in most of the rest of the country, a radio was broadcasting Hitler's address, but the thousands of refugees from Pomerania and East and West Prussia who had struggled onto the ship weren't listening to the Führer now.

They wanted one thing - to be rescued. Only very few, 1,252 to be precise, made it off the steamer alive, of the well over 10,000 - mostly women and children, but also navy sailors. The ship had been hit by three Soviet torpedoes within an hour; the temperature outside was minus 18 degrees Celsius.
The solace offered by the Wilhelm Gustloff was enormous for the passengers who boarded the ship at Gotenhafen. Hundreds of thousands of German civilians had wanted to embark on ship in the port near Gdansk, in what is today Poland. The Red Army was on their heels and their thoughts were of Nemmersdorf. It was the first village in German territory reached by the Soviets and there were already rumors circulating of the draconic revenge on the part of the Soviets for German war crimes. Only the navy could rescue them now.

Nazi cruise liner turned rescue ship
At 208 meters (680 feet), the Gustloff wasn't the largest ship used to transport wounded soldiers and civilians. But it was by far the most well known. It was the Nazis' luxury liner, christened by none other than Hitler in 1937. Its name came from a killed Nazi officer, and it was initially reserved for high-ranking National Socialists to take vacations in the Mediterranean or along the western Norwegian coastline. By the end of the war, however, the ship had taken on an entirely different role - for its last journey.

The civilian escape via the Baltic Sea belongs to one the most impressive chapters in German WWII military history. Historians have estimated that around 2.5 million people were rescued by ship out of the German eastern zones. A comprehensive study has been published about the operation titled "Rescue Mission Baltic Sea 1944/1945: One of Humanity's Great Deeds." One of the main German officers credited with the success of the operation is Admiral Karl Dönitz, who would succeed Hitler as chancellor following the Führer's suicide in a Berlin bunker at the close of the war.

The tragic end of the Gustloff, just one of dozens of ships used in the Baltic rescue operation, wasn't inevitable, experts have contended, singling out three fatal decisions as responsible for the disaster. Firstly, there was no convoy to offer protection, and since the ship carrying some 1,000 soldiers was intended to reach Kiel as quickly as possible, there was also no flank protection.

A small torpedo boat was all the protection the ship was given. Sea mines were feared along the Baltic coast, so the planned route was to traverse the open sea. Finally, since the Gustloff hadn't been used in over four years, Captain Wilhelm Peterson only dared a speed of 12 knots, instead of the possible 15.

These three factors contributed to what would become a death sentence for most of the ship's passengers. If the ship were escorted by a convoy, been provided flank protection, and traveled at a faster speed, experts have said the Soviet submarine S-13 would never have been able to hit the Wilhelm Gustloff with its torpedoes....MORE
Over half the victims were children.
The air temperature at the time was 0° F. (-17.7°C)

The Wilhelm Gustloff Museum has an amazing amount of information and ephemera on the ship and its last voyage

Argunners has a narrative that includes some detail on rescue attempts:

....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.
A bad bad night on the Baltic.