Wilhelm Gustloff: The Deadliest Ship Disaster You Never Heard Of

Aug 22, 2022 1 comments

The sinking of the British ocean liner Titanic in 1912, with over 1,500 fatalities, is probably the most famous shipwreck of all time, but not the biggest in terms of lives lost. The World War 2 saw far bigger disasters with several thousand lives lost multiple times over. The worst was the sinking of the German military transport ship Wilhelm Gustloff in January 1945 by a Soviet Navy submarine, that resulted in the loss of an estimated 9,400 people. It remains the deadliest maritime disaster ever.

Wilhelm Gustloff.

Wilhelm Gustloff was originally built to be an ocean liner for the German Labour Front’s “Strength Through Joy” program, which subsidized leisure activities for German workers. The ship’s purpose was to provide recreational and cultural activities for German functionaries and workers, including concerts, cruises, and other holiday trips, and to serve as a public relations tool that would present “a more acceptable image of the Third Reich”.

The ship measured 684 feet (208.5 meters) in length and had a displacement of more than 25,000 tons. She was supposed to be named after Adolf Hitler himself, but instead was christened after Wilhelm Gustloff, leader of the Nazi Party's Swiss branch, who had been assassinated in 1936.

The ship had a capacity for roughly 1,900 people, including some 400 crew members. All the cabins aboard the Gustloff were sized and apportioned similarly, making the Gustloff a “ship without social classes.” The sole exception was one larger cabin reserved for Hitler. It was not possible to simply book a voyage on the Gustloff. The people who were allowed to travel on the flagship were chosen by the party.

Aside from its operation as a cruise ship, Gustloff was used for for public-oriented missions. On April 10, 1938, it functioned as a polling place for Germans and Austrians living in England to vote on the annexation of Austria. In May 1939 the Gustloff, along with other ships, brought soldiers of the Condor Legion back to Germany after the Spanish Civil War ended. With the beginning of World War II, the Gustloff began serving as a hospital ship in the Baltic Sea and Norway. From November 1940 onward, it lay at anchor at Gdynia, Poland, to serve as barracks for the 2nd Submarine Training Division.

As the Russians closed in one East Prussia, preparations began for Operation Hannibal—the mass evacuation of German troops and civilians living in the area. More than a thousand vessels were pressed into service. These included merchant vessels of all types, including fishing boats and other craft. Wilhelm Gustloff was one of the vessels tasked with evacuating German civilians, military personnel, and technicians.

On January 25, 1945, the ship docked at Gdynia, Poland, and began taking in refugees. As word spread that the Wilhelm Gustloff was loading passengers, the docks filled with frantic refugees and there was a mad scramble to board the ship. By January 29, the ship’s roster showed 7,956 people on board before registration was stopped. Another 2,000 or so sneaked in after that point.

The Gustloff left the harbour shortly after noon on January 30, carrying on board her an estimated 10,000 passengers, bound for the Kriegsmarine naval base at Kiel. Originally it was planned that the Gustloff would be accompanied by two torpedo boats and another passenger liner carrying civilians and military personnel, but the other ship developed mechanical problems and could not continue. One of the torpedo boats also had to turn back, leaving the Gustloff with one torpedo boat escort.

Military commander Lieutenant Commander Wilhelm Zahn suggested taking a course in shallow waters close to shore and without lights, but Gustloff's captain, Friedrich Petersen, decided to head for deep water which was known to have been cleared of mines. At 6 p.m. Petersen was informed that a convoy of German minesweeper was headed their way, and to prevent collision, Petersen activated his ship's navigation lights, making Wilhelm Gustloff easy to spot in the dark.

Wilhelm Gustloff was soon sighted by the Soviet submarine S-13, under the command of Captain Alexander Marinesko. The submarine shadowed the boat for two hours before positioning itself on the Gustloff’s port side, closer to the shore, from where the attack would be less expected. Shortly after nine, the Gustloff was hit by three torpedoes. The blast disabled the engines, shutting off the power generators and severing all communications. The ship was plunged into darkness.

The attack on Wilhelm Gustloff. By Vladimir Kosov

The crew on deck quickly freed the lifeboats, but they managed to lower only nine. Others had frozen stuck to their davits. Besides, the ship had started listing to the port side, so none of the lifeboats on the starboard side could be used. Others had their cables snapped tossing their occupants into the icy water. At one point, the anti-aircraft guns broke free and plummeted overboard, landing on a fully-occupied lifeboat.

Below decks, the stairwells became jammed as mobs of people attempted to escape the rushing waters. Dozens of them were crushed to death in the stampede. Some, sensing the hopelessness of the situation decide to take the lives of their families and themselves with their pistols.

Less than 40 minutes after being struck, Wilhelm Gustloff was lying on her side. Ten minutes later, she disappeared completely beneath the choppy waves, taking with her tens of thousands of souls trapped within her. Thousands more were left flailing in the freezing Baltic sea. The majority of those who survived the sinking perished in the cold.

A couple of torpedo boats, minesweepers and other vessels arrived at the site of the accident and pulled up some 1,200 people. The exact number of lives lost is unknown. Estimates range from 6,500 to 9,600. Among the dead were about 1,000 German naval officers and men. Of the 373 female naval auxiliaries amongst the passengers, only three survived.

Before sinking Wilhelm Gustloff, Captain Marinesko was facing a court martial due to his drinking problems and for being caught in a brothel while he and his crew were off duty. Marinesko was thus denied the title of “Hero of the Soviet Union” because of the sinking, and instead awarded the lesser “Order of the Red Banner”. He was also downgraded in rank to lieutenant and dishonorably discharged from the Soviet Navy in October 1945.

In 1960, Marinesko was reinstated as captain third class and granted a full pension, and in 1963 was given the traditional ceremony due a captain upon the successful return from a mission. He died three weeks later from cancer at age 50. Marinesko was posthumously named a “Hero of the Soviet Union” by Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990.

The story of the Wilhelm Gustloff went largely unnoticed in the West for many years. It was written off as another war loss. After all, thousands of men, women and children were dying all over Europe. It would be weeks before word of the Gustloff reached the United States, and then only a few short wire stories appeared citing snippets from Finnish radio broadcasts.

Some historians debate whether the attack on Gustloff  constitutes a war crime, given the large number of civilian casualties. Some disagree stating that the Gustloff was a legitimate military target because she was armed and carried over a thousand military personnel on board, which gave her no protection under international accords.

The wreck of Wilhelm Gustloff is today classified as a war grave, because of the thousands of bodies that remain buried within the site. It is one of the largest shipwrecks on the Baltic Sea floor and attracts much interest from treasure hunters and divers.


  1. Interesting that the Wilhelm Gustloff is referred to as "a 'public relations' tool that would present 'a more acceptable image of the Third Reich.'" I think in this context, "public relations" is simply a euphemism for "propaganda."


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