Sea Stories

The Cruel Sinking of the Liners Built for Joy

75 years ago, on January 30, 1945, in the Danzig Gulf of the Baltic Sea, the Soviet submarine S-13 under the command of Captain 3rd Rank Alexander Marinesko sank the German transport Wilhelm Gustloff. 

Together with the giant ship, according to various estimates, from 6,000 to 10,000 people went to the bottom (according to the latest German studies – 9343 people). This made the sinking of Wilhelm Gustloff the largest maritime disaster of the 20th century. For comparison, the maximum estimate of the death toll on the Titanic is 1,635 people. But the sinking of the German ship went down in history not only by the number of victims. It was not an ordinary, albeit very large, transport. Wilhelm Gustloff was one of the symbols of the Third Reich. In Germany, it was called ‘The Sun Ship’. 

The pride of the cruise fleet in Germany is the liner “Wilhelm Gustloff”
German postcard from the collection of P. Kamenchenko

The ocean liner Wilhelm Gustloff was commissioned and funded by Kraft durch Freude (KdF), a member of the German Labor Front (Deutsche Arbeitsfront, DAF), that was a national union of workers and employers in Germany. The KdF was responsible for organising everything to do with leisure from theatre tickets, holidays at German resorts, sanatoriums, children’s holidays; in a word the leisure of German citizens in accordance with the ideological guidelines of National Socialism.

The German Labor Front was led by Robert Ley, one of the principal members of National Socialism. Ley’s task was to create the broadest social base of support for National Socialism in Germany, with which he successfully handled.

The DAF declared its goal ‘to fight for workers’ rights, against capitalism, liberalism, revolution and support for the National Socialist state.’ Thanks to the activities of the Labor Front in Germany, working conditions for workers improved significantly, wages increased, and a whole network of social support and leisure activities was created. Grandiose demonstrations of inspired workers were held, exhibitions of achievements were opened, festivals held, the best sports Olympiads in history took place, and great cruise liners were designed, built and launched.

Kraft durch Freude (“Strength through Joy”) offers the German population of the Reich to rest on the comfortable cruise ships owned by the KdF
Image from the collection of P. Kamenchenko

As perceived by Robert Ley, the giant and comfortable cruise ship were to become the most important symbol of the achievements of the Third Reich. With its launch, any German worker could count on getting a ticket for an ocean cruise for a small financial contribution. A week’s cruise around Italy’s coastlines cost 150 Reichsmarks, while the average wage of an ordinary German was 180-200 marks. In other European countries, only the upper classes, the governing elite and the aristocracy could afford such a vacation, which would have clearly demonstrated the concern of the German state for the common worker and the advantage of the system.

Hitler onboard Wilhelm Gustloff

In this regard, KdF liners were forbidden to enter British ports as it was feared that British workers would make comparisons with their own poverty and the amazing lifestyle enjoyed by their German counterparts.

The distribution of union vouchers was handled by the Department of Travel, Tourism and Holidays KdF, the largest tour operator of the Third Reich. Before the war broke out, more than 240,000 Germans had taken advantage of the opportunity to rest on the Wilhelm Gustloff with a similar number enjoying cruises on Robert Ley. The Robert Ley was bombed by the RAF whilst in the harbour and later seized as a prize of war to be scrapped.

For passengers, there was no question of anything low budget. Everything was done at the highest level. There was no division of cabins into classes on the ship, which emphasised universal equality. All cabins were equally comfortable. There was comfortable wooden furniture, teak deck for walking 160 meters long, swimming pool, cinema, library, gyms, playgrounds for sports and playgrounds for children, hobby groups. Famous German artistes and sportsmen could rest and play together with the workers in the same conditions.

Girls from the organization Kraft durch Freude (KdF, “Strength through joy”)
Image from the collection of P. Kamenchenko

Adolf Hitler and his wife, Eva Hitler visited the Wilhelm Gustloff. And in 1939, German pilots of the Condor legion returned to Germany on a liner from Vigo. During Spain’s Civil War (1935-1939) the Condor Legion fought on the Nationalist anti-Communist side against the Stalin-sponsored Republic forces. Many of the aircrews were Spanish airmen. In Hamburg, on the occasion of the return of the German servicemen, a celebration was organised.

Initially, Robert Ley planned to name the Wilhelm Gustloff after Adolf Hitler, thereby making a gift to the German President-Chancellor on behalf of the German workers. However, the Fuhrer declined the suggestion, As a result, the new liner received its name in honour of the martyr Wilhelm Gustloff, who was assassinated in Davos (Switzerland) in February 1936 by a Jewish student David Frankfurter.

Gustloff, a financier, was the leader of the NSDAP in Switzerland. It is believed that it was through him, thanks to his connections among the financial elite, that the activities of the branches of the National Socialist Party abroad were financed.

Following the assassination, mourning was declared throughout Germany. The funeral was attended by the leaders of the Reich, including Adolf Hitler and Dr Joseph Goebbels. A memorial was opened in Schwerin, which was demolished by the triumphant Allies in 1945. Before then, streets, factories, newspapers and ships were named Gustloff.

1939 year. Spanish Generalísimo Francisco Franco escorts German pilots of the Condor Legion to Germany
German postcard from the collection of P. Kamenchenko

The ten-decked snow-white Wilhelm Gustloff cost Strength through Joy 30 million Reichsmarks. The liner was launched in Hamburg on May 5, 1937, and put into operation on March 23, 1938. The ceremony was attended by Frau Gustloff and Adolf Hitler. 

Wilhelm Gustloff’ had a displacement of 25.5 thousand tons, a length of 208.5 meters, a maximum width of 23.5 meters. The height from keel to the masthead was 56 meters. The liner was designed for 1,463 passengers. The crew, according to the staffing table, consisted of 415 people.

Until the end of August 1939, Wilhelm Gustloff’ took workers on 44 cruises. It became the personification of the German workers’ dream of social equality, the impending happiness and triumph of the German nation.

Three days before the British declaration of war against Germany, the captain of the liner received a secret order to immediately return to Germany. This was the end of the civil service of the luxury cruiser. Like other ships belonging to KdF, Wilhelm Gustloff was transferred to the German Navy.

The liner was converted into a floating hospital, repainted white, and instead of the emblem Strength through Joy (a swastika in the solstice), a red cross appeared on the only ship’s pipe. With this design, the ship fell under the protection of the Hague Conference.

September 1939. “Wilhelm Gustloff” receives wounded Polish soldiers
Image from the collection of P. Kamenchenko

Later, it was painted in camouflage and anti-aircraft guns appeared on its decks. From that moment on, the ship lost the status of a hospital ship and the corresponding protection of international maritime law. It must be said, however, that the Allies often attacked clearly marked hospital ships so the designation offered little protection anyway.

The first volley of World War II was fired by the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein
German postcard from the collection of P. Kamenchenko

On September 30, 1943, the Royal Air Force launched a powerful airstrike against Danzig and Gotenhafen. The main target of the raid was Wilhelm Gustloff. But the huge anchored liner was undamaged. The Allies fruitlessly tried several times to destroy the ship from the air. 

In October 1944, Red Army troops entered East Prussia. The first captured German city after three and a half years of war on its territory was Nemmersdorf (now the village of Mayakovskoye in the Kaliningrad region). The Wehrmacht briefly recaptured the city and were witness to the most appalling atrocities consequence of Red Army troops. Similar mass atrocities took place throughout Germany. The accounts of these depravities, which in total cost the lives of 14 million Germans, are still taboo in the West’s history books and documentaries. 

The news of the atrocities resulted in an increase in the number of volunteers in the Volkssturm (people’s militia), as well as panic among the German population of East Prussia and in Germany itself. Hundreds of thousands of people fled their homes and, taking everything they could, moved west. After East Prussia was cut off from the rest of Germany, millions of terrorised uprooted refugees fled to the Baltic coast in the hope of evacuating by sea.

Thousands of refugees flocked to the Wilhelm Gustloff transport
Image from the collection of P. Kamenchenko

The evacuation of troops and a huge number of refugees from East Prussia and Courland to the western part of the country was carried out by the German Navy under the personal leadership of Grand Admiral Doenitz.  Operation Hannibal was the largest naval operation in history. Nearly two million people were evacuated to Germany by sea.

The Soviet’s Baltic Fleet was limited to the action of several submarines. One of them, C-13 under the command of Captain 3rd Rank Alexander Marinesko, sank the Wilhelm Gustloff on January 30, and then on February 13, the large transport General von Steuben (14,660 tons). On April 17, L-3 of Captain 3rd Rank Vladimir Konovalov destroyed the ocean liner Goya (5,230 tons). In total, about 20,000 people died on these three vessels, most of whom were refugees.

By the time of her last sailing, the Wilhelm Gustloff had been at the pier for four years. The ship’s crew was urgently recruited from naval sailors and reserve veterans but insufficiently staffed. The number of life-saving appliances, boats, rafts and life jackets, corresponded to the standard but was in no way sufficient for the people on board. Wilhelm Gustloff accepted the first passengers on January 22, 1945. They were submarine officers, their family members, women from the navy volunteer organisation and the wounded. Following were refugees, mainly women and children, who were allowed through. Applicants were placed on decks, in passages, as well as in any vacant rooms. So, women from the auxiliary naval division were placed in the ship where one of Marinesco’s torpedoes struck the ocean liner.

The passes soon ran out, but the ship continued to receive refugees. Later, having departed from the pier, Wilhelm Gustloff took on board several hundred to one and a half thousand people from small ships that were unable to leave the harbour on their own. According to estimates, more than 10 thousand passengers and 173 crew members could be on board the doomed liner.

The departure of Wilhelm Gustloff was scheduled for 12 noon on 30 January. The transport departed from the pier with an hour and a half delay. The visibility was poor; the air temperature was –18 degrees, with strong winds and snowstorms prevalent. The Germans considered that in such weather, Russian planes were unlikely to take off, and there were no reports of submarines in the area. The overloaded vessel went without protection. The tiny torpedo boat returned to the pier due to damage, and the destroyer Lowe was soon lost to sight.

The situation was complicated by the fact that four captains were in charge of the voyage. Formally, Friedrich Petersen, called up from retirement, was considered the main captain. In addition to him, on the bridge were two captains of the merchant fleet and the commander of the submarine division Wilhelm Zahn. 

According to the original plan, Wilhelm Gustloff had to travel at top speed, constantly performing anti-submarine manoeuvres. But it was decided instead to take a straight course at a speed of 12 knots.

Submariner Alexander Marinesko
Image from the collection of P. Kamenchenko

At 18:00, a message was received on board about a group of minesweepers operating in the area. The captains were divided. The military officers believed that it was necessary to turn on the running lights so as not to collide with their own minesweeper in the dark, the Merchant Navy officers called for vigilance, evasive action and camouflage.

As a result, and contrary to the concerns voiced by the civilian officers, navigation lights were lit on the Wilhelm Gustloff, indicating the dimensions of the vessel. This decision was fatal.

By and large, the Soviet submarine S-13 should not have been in that area that day. She was ordered to leave for the mission much earlier. But on New Year’s Eve, Captain Marinesco with several officers left the unit without permission, hanging around for several days off duty and enjoying themselves. The ill-disciplined crew of the C-13 left their vessel without supervision. The officers and ratings spent a great deal of time carousing and were often drunk. In fact, fights broke out between the Red Army officers and men and their unfortunate Finnish hosts on the Hanko Peninsula.

The guilty crew members were supposed to be court-martialed, but there was no other crew and another commander at the base. For almost the entire war, the Soviet Baltic Fleet was locked in the eastern part of the Gulf of Finland. The Germans had blocked the shallow bay with anti-submarine nets and stuffed them with mines. 

The weak Soviet submarine fleet was placed in extremely disadvantageous conditions. Almost all attempts to enter the operational space ended in serious damage or the destruction of their unsophisticated submarines. Of the ten Baltic Soviet submarines, only one survived the war, C-13 of commander Marinesko.

Until late in the evening of January 30, Marinesco’s boat was not set with any useful tasks. Having surfaced, the C-13 charged the batteries. It was dark, the snow-swept wind was biting and visibility was poor. Suddenly, literally opposite, bright lights flashed, illuminating the giant ship.

January 30, 1945. Attack of the Soviet submarine S-13
Image from the collection of P. Kamenchenko

Marinesco had two hours to work out a plan of attack without its own sinking, bypassing the target, taking a position from the coast, getting close to the slowly crawling giant within a safe shot distance and thrusting three torpedoes into its side. For the Soviet submariners the Wilhelm Gustloff appeared to be an ambush hunt for a tame elephant tied to a tree.

At 21:04 a torpedo left the S-13, followed by three more.  The fourth torpedo already cocked, got stuck in the torpedo tube and almost exploded. The first torpedo struck the bow of the great liner. Behind her, a second torpedo tore apart the side in the swimming pool area. The third torpedo hit the engine room. The huge ship sank in less than 30-minutes. 

Onboard it was hell. Those who did not die from the explosions and did not instantly drown on the lower decks, rushed along narrow aisles, crushing under their feet children, terrified passengers fell from ice-covered decks, were injured when falling, were crippled and crushed by boats that fell off crane-beams, choked, drowned or froze in ice water.

Due to the significant heel, it turned out to be impossible to lower the liner’s lifeboats from the starboard side. The hoists on the port side of the boats were frozen over. The ropes were cut with penknives. A boat, already launched and filled with people, was crushed by an anti-aircraft gun that fell from the deck. Those who fell into the water had to endure a few minutes of horror before dying of hypothermia.

The destroyer Lowe and the destroyer T-38, which happened to be nearby, were engaged in the rescue of passengers and the crew of the dying transport. A passing heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper, which already had about two thousand refugees on board, did not stop for fear of being hit by another torpedo attack. When the rescue ships arrived an hour later, thousands of corpses were floating in the water. But in one of the abandoned boats, rescuers found a survivor, a baby forgotten in panic. 

Transport “General von Steuben” (14 660 tons). Second prize C-13 in the campaign
From the collection of P. Kamenchenko

Wikipedia gives a loss of 9,985. According to the latest German research, the disaster claimed 9,343 lives. Most of them were refugees: women, old people and children. Years after the tragic events, a number of researchers have a question: did Wilhelm Gustloff represent a military goal and is not its destruction a war crime?

Two weeks later, the C-13 attacked and sank another large vessel, General von Steuben (14,660 tons). The majority of the four thousand dead were also refugees. The S-13 became the most lethal submarine of the Allies naval fleets. Marinesco was nominated for the title of Hero of the Soviet Union but never received a star. 

“Wilhelm Gustloff”
German postcard from the collection of P. Kamenchenko

The Wilhelm Gustloff sank on 30 January. It happened on the birthday of Wilhelm Gustloff (born January 30, 1895). On this day, he would have turned 50 years old. On January 30, 1933, Hitler was elected by the German electorate to be their Chancellor.

The locality of Wilhelm Gustloff is well known. On Polish nautical charts, it was designated as ‘Obstacle No. 73’. The ship lies not deep, at 45 meters. But until 1955 the Poles were forbidden to board the sunken ship. 

When the Poles were given the right to visit the Wilhelm Gustloff, the ship as such no longer existed. Instead, it was a pile of debris rested at the bottom. The entire middle part of the ship was cut or blown up. What the Soviet divers discovered on the sunken liner is unknown. All documents are classified. And none of the living witnesses has yet told anything. Source, translated and edited by Michael Walsh

Related books: The Leaving of Liverpool, UNTOLD SAGAS OF THE SEA Volume I (The USAThe UK), UNTOLD SAGAS OF THE SEA Vol II (The USAThe UK), UNTOLD SAGAS OF THE SEA VOL. III ( The USA and The UK) UNTOLD SAGAS OF THE SEA VOL. IV ( The USA and The UK) and All I Ask is a Tall Ship by Liverpool writer Michael Walsh

6 replies »

  1. Excellent article.
    Here is another anniversary date coinciding with the January 30th sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. My brother Alfred Schaefer, currently a political prisoner in Germany for speaking the truth, was born exactly 10 years later, on January 30 1955.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Interesting and thought-provoking. January 30 was the anniversary of the election of the NSDAP ~ and was also the birthday of the assassinated Wilhelm Gustloff.

      Like

  2. A woman I worked with told me, during a recent conversation about ancestry, that her family had a skeleton in the cupboard. I waited with bated breath expecting to hear of some royal illegitimacy, instead she said her son-in-law’s great grandfather was Robert Ley. She, like most people, had believed the negative propaganda and had no real idea who he was other than that he was a ‘Nazi,’ so that meant bad, hence ‘skeleton.’ I actually did some research for her detailing his life and achievements. I ended by saying if she didn’t want him in her family I would gladly take him into mine. Apparently, Robert Ley had two wives and five children, although I couldn’t find out much about his first wife or children. I asked her for more info but she never came back so I left it there. I still have the email I sent to her if you would like to see it Mike, and if you have any info on Mrs Ley number 1.

    Liked by 1 person

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