The sinking of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, the German warship used in World War Two (WWII), is the largest disaster in recorded maritime history in terms of loss of human life. Around 9,400 people died when the Wilhelm Gustloff sank, several times more than the number of people who died in the somewhat similar attack against RMS Lusitania. In the case of Lusitania, however, the Germans were the aggressors instead of the victims of the attack. Below you will find some basic information about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, as well as some facts about the Wilhelm Gustloff ship itself.
[NOTE: Why is there this article about the sinking of a vessel that is not a cruise ship, on a site that is about pleasure cruises? Because we had such an overwhelmingly positive response to our articles about the sinkings of the Titanic, the Lusitania, and others, that we realize our readers are interested in this subject, and we aim to oblige.]
The Wilhelm Gustloff is named after, not surprisingly, Wilhelm Gustloff, a German leader of the Swiss Nazi party who was assassinated in 1936. (For the sake of disambiguation, this will be the last time “Wilhelm Gustloff” is used to refer to the man.) Near the beginning of WWII, in 1939 and 1940, the Wilhelm Gustloff was requisitioned by the German Navy as a hospital ship. (Before, it was a cruise liner that served civilians, but this only lasted for a couple of years.) However, in November 1940, the ship ceased to be used as a hospital ship and was instead converted into floating barracks off the coast of Poland (then occupied by German forces) for German troops. The ship’s change in function was reflected in a new grey paint job; it was formerly recognized as a medical ship because it was painted white with a green stripe, and medical ships are afforded certain protections under international accords.
Because it served as an accommodations ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff did not set sail for over four years. However, the ship eventually did leave the Polish port it was stationed at as part of Operation Hannibal. The aim of this operation was to bring German military personnel, technicians, and refugees to the northern German city of Kiel. The official passenger list registered 6,050 people on board the ship, but many civilians boarded the ship and were never recorded. Research after the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff has determined that there were over 10,500 people on board the vessel.
The Wilhelm Gustloff was supposed to be escorted by two torpedo boats, but one of the boats had mechanical problems and couldn’t make the voyage. As the ship was sailing, one of the civilian captains of the ship (there were actually four captains on board – one military and three civilian) was told via radio that a German minesweeper convoy was ahead, prompting the captain to turn on the ship’s red and green navigation lights to avoid a collision. As it turns out, no convoy was ahead, and it has never been determined whether the radio message was authentic.
In any case, with the ship’s lights on, it was easy to spot, and the Soviet submarine S-13 soon did. The submarine launched three torpedoes at the Wilhelm Gustloff, all three of which hit the port side of the vessel (i.e., the left side to a person facing forward on the ship). After the torpedoes struck the ship, panic ensued, causing many passengers to be trampled as people frantically went after life jackets and lifeboats. The air temperature and the water temperature of the Baltic were quite cold when the attack occurred, so the majority of the people on board died as a result of the freezing water (much like the passengers on the Titanic). However, many people died from the initial panic-induced trampling that occurred on deck, and lots of other passengers died directly from the torpedo explosions or drowned because of the water that rushed in as a result. The Wilhelm Gustloff sank less than 40 minutes after being attacked.
How one feels about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff will inevitably be complicated by the fact that it was a German warship that served Nazi forces. Moreover, it was equipped with anti-aircraft guns, it was carrying combat troops, and it was not marked as a hospital ship (although it was carrying 162 wounded soldiers), so it was a “fair target,” as it were. However, the vast majority of the passengers were civilians (many of whom were unregistered), and, perhaps even more tragically, around 4,000 of the passengers were children, innocent victims caught up in forces of war that they would never have the chance to fully understand.