World War II was coming to an end, and the Soviet army was advancing in Germany. Hundreds of thousands of people were desperate to stay out of their grasp. Hitler refused to allow evacuation, but Admiral Karl Dönitz, on his own, tried to evacuate as many as possible. 10,582 people, including German refugees, naval personnel, and wounded soldiers, crowded onto a cruise ship meant to accommodate less than 2,000.
The Wilhelm Gustloff had been built in 1938–1939 to provide inexpensive cruise vacations for German workers in the Nazi Party’s Strength though Joy program. After the outbreak of war, however, the ship served in Gotenhafen (Gdynia), Poland, as a U-boat barracks.
The ship left Gotenhafen on January 30, 1945, with the thousands of passengers attempting to settle in below decks. Every possible space on the ship was occupied. The rough seas caused many to become seasick, toilets clogged, and the stench became overpowering. Ice coated the decks and cover on the lifeboat davits in zero degree temperature (Fahrenheit). Although passengers were instructed to wear lifejackets at all times, the rising heat below decks prompted many to take off their lifejackets.
That evening, the Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed. The first torpedo struck at 9:16pm in the front of the ship. Moments later, a second hit further astern. The third detonated in the engine room.
The watertight doors are ordered closed to seal off the forward part of the ship. That area, however, contained the crews quarters. Many off-duty crew members, especially those trained in lowering lifeboats and emergency procedures, became trapped. The third torpedo sealed the fate of the Wilhelm Gustloff and its thousands of passengers. The hit on the engine room knocked out the engines, lights, and communications. The ship is already beginning to list to the port side.
The radio room operator managed to transmit an SOS on the emergency transmitter. With a low transmission range, only the sole torpedo-boat escort received the distress call.
Many passengers did not survive the mad rush to the decks. For those who made it out, the combination of ice and absence of trained crew members aggravated the situation. People slid off the icy, listing decks into the freezing water. Lifeboats were frozen to their davits. People tried to free them with bare hands, but even if they were able to knock them loose, most of the crew members trained to lower them were trapped below decks. Only one lifeboat was reportedly lowered correctly during the sinking.
Seventy minutes after the first torpedo struck, the Gustloff sank with over nine thousand people. Approximately 1,230 were rescued from the icy water.
The Titanic and the Lusitania are famous naval disasters, but their combined death count of about 2,700 pales in comparison with the Wilhelm Gustloff’s 9,343 victims, about 5,000 of them children, killed by a Soviet submarine. Why do so few know of this disaster?