As WWII Refugees Fled From The Soviets, They Fell Victim To The Deadliest Ever Maritime Tragedy

It’s an icy evening in January 1945, and thousands of passengers are on board the MV [Motor Vessel] Wilhelm Gustloff as it crosses the Baltic Sea. World War II has entered its final stages, and the Germans on board are fleeing their beleaguered homes. But when three Soviet torpedoes strike the vessel, their hope turns to fear as history’s worst ever maritime disaster unfolds.

Like many other ships that were recruited into the war effort, the Wilhelm Gustloff did not start out as a military vessel. In fact, it was originally built as part of the Nazis’ “Strength Through Joy” (“Kraft durch Freude”) program — an initiative designed to provide holidays for laborers under the Third Reich — and was intended as a cruise ship.

Taking its name from the Swiss Nazi leader, who was assassinated in 1936, the Wilhelm Gustloff was launched in May the following year. And for the next 17 months it functioned as a cruise ship, capable of carrying 1,500 passengers and 400 crew. However, ordinary Germans couldn’t just book a voyage — places were reserved for those specially selected by the Nazi party.

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Inside, the Wilhelm Gustloff was designed so that all the cabins were the same size except one — reserved for Adolf Hitler himself. As such, it was presented as a vessel without a class system, unlike the great ocean liners of the same era. And throughout its early career, the ship was used as a propaganda tool to promote a positive image of the Nazi party.

During its time as a cruise ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff was occasionally co-opted for more political means. In April 1938, for example, it sailed to England where it functioned as a floating polling place. On board, Germans and Austrians living abroad were given the opportunity to vote on whether or not Austria should be annexed by Hitler and the Nazi party.

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The following year, in May 1939, the Wilhelm Gustloff was sent to collect members of Germany’s Condor Legion after the conclusion of the Spanish Civil War. However, these passengers would see little in the way of peace. Four months later, the Nazis invaded Poland, prompting Britain and France to declare war on Germany.

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With the outbreak of war, the Wilhelm Gustloff became part of the Germany Navy, who initially used it as a hospital ship. Then, in November 1940, it sailed to the Polish port of Gdynia, where it provided accommodation for men training to be submarine crew. And for four years, the vessel remained docked in the Baltic Sea.

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Aside from one incident, in which it sustained damage from a U.S. bomber, the Wilhelm Gustloff did not see much action for the majority of the war. However, all that changed in January 1945, as the Nazis were losing their grip on Prussia — and the ship was called upon to evacuate German citizens. However, this voyage would prove to be its last.

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By this time, the Soviet Army had begun to advance on the Eastern Front and it was clear that the Nazis were losing the war. And as the enemy soldiers approached, German civilians scrambled to get out of their path. In East Prussia on the Baltic coast, however, many found themselves cut off without an easy route of escape.

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By way of a solution, the Nazis conceived Operation Hannibal – the evacuation of German civilians and troops from the region en masse. And so, the refugees began to make their way to ports such as Pillau and Gdynia, hoping to find a place on a ship traveling west. But when they got there, they were met with chaotic scenes.

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With the Third Reich in its final days, the Nazi officials in charge of Operation Hannibal were fighting to keep things under control. While some tried to postpone the evacuation until the last possible moment so as not to appear weak, others attempted to fast track high-ranking families onto the waiting ships.

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Amidst the chaos, on January 25, the Wilhelm Gustloff began taking on passengers. Four days later, almost 8,000 people had registered to travel on the voyage — more than four times the vessel’s original capacity. And according to witnesses, a further 2,000 people piled on to the boat after officials stopped taking names.

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Today, nobody is sure exactly how many people were on board the Wilhelm Gustloff when it finally set sail. However, most estimates place the number somewhere in the region of 10,000 — including around 5,000 children. But despite the huge number of passengers, there were many left disappointed at the port who were unable to find a place on the vessel.

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“They said to have a ticket to the Gustloff is half of your salvation,” Heinz Schön, who was a passenger on the ship, explained in a documentary aired on the Discovery Channel in the early 2000s. As the vessel prepared to leave, those who did not make it on board wept — little knowing how narrowly they had averted disaster.

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From the beginning, the final voyage of the Wilhelm Gustloff was plagued by disaster. Initially, the plan had been to send the former cruise liner in a convoy along with a number of other vessels. But soon after leaving Gdynia at midday on January 30, two of the ships experienced mechanical issues that sent them back to port.

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Now flanked by nothing more than a solitary torpedo boat, the Wilhelm Gustloff began its journey across the Baltic Sea alone. Worried about the presence of Soviet submarines in the area, passenger Wilhelm Zahn, himself a submarine commander, advised the captain to maintain a speed of 15 knots (17 miles an hour). At that pace, he claimed, the ship would be able to easily outrun any enemy vessels.

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However, the ship’s captain, Friedrich Petersen, had his own concerns. Namely, that the overladen Wilhelm Gustloff might struggle to complete the voyage after spending so many years inactive in Gdynia harbor. And so, he kept the speed of the vessel at a steady 12 knots — far below Zahn’s recommendations.

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And that wasn’t the only judgement that Petersen made which helped to determine the fate of the doomed vessel. According to reports, Louis Reese, the First Officer of the Wilhelm Gustloff, suggested keeping the ship as close to the coast as possible. However, the captain feared encountering Soviet mines, and chose instead to steer a course through the deep water.

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At around 6pm, Petersen received a message bearing a warning: minesweeping boats were active in the area. Wanting to avoid a collision, the captain switched on the Wilhelm Gustloff’s navigation lights — a decision that would ultimately seal the vessel’s fate. Strangely, however, the origin of the memo has never been traced, suggesting that it might have been a deliberate act of sabotage.

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Wherever the message came from, the Wilhelm Gustloff was now lit up against the evening sky. And before long, a Soviet submarine lurking in the water spotted the slow-moving vessel. Seeing an opportunity to make himself a war hero, Captain Alexander Marinesko decided to strike.

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By all accounts, Marinesko was a known drunk whose behavior had gotten him into trouble with his superiors. To him, the Wilhelm Gustloff must have presented a chance to salvage his reputation. Assuming that the ship was carrying troops and not refugees, he honed in on the easy target.

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At around 7pm, Marinesko began to shadow the Wilhelm Gustloff. Hoping to catch his victim unawares, he steered his submarine between the coastline and the German ship, where an attack would not be expected. And then, at around 9pm, he fired off a total of four torpedoes in the direction of the overcrowded vessel.

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While one of the torpedoes missed the Wilhelm Gustloff, the other three hit their mark. And as the explosions tore the ship apart, passengers were flung into the ocean by the force of the blast. With holes in its stern, bow and middle, the ship immediately began to list.

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In the aftermath of the attack, chaos reigned on the Wilhelm Gustloff. Trying to escape to safety across a deck covered in ice, many passengers simply slipped and tumbled into the freezing Baltic Sea. Meanwhile, others were trampled to death as the thousands of people on board began to panic.

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Only three decades earlier, the lack of lifeboats on board the liner Titanic had caused a scandal — after resulting in hundreds of deaths. But since then, ships had been better equipped with emergency vessels. However, this would not help those trying to escape the Wilhelm Gustloff as it quickly began to sink.

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While it was carrying over four times its intended capacity, the Wilhelm Gustloff was still equipped with enough life rafts and boats for 5,000 people. But in the icy conditions, many of them had frozen to the deck and could not be launched. Meanwhile, others claimed that the extreme listing of the vessel prevented those on board from floating the emergency craft.

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Tragically, things might have been different if there had been experienced sailors on hand to deal with the situation. But when the torpedoes hit, an automatic door had sealed off the forecastle at the front of the ship — trapping most of the ship’s crew inside. As such, it was left to those without sufficient training to try and manage the disaster.

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As the Wilhelm Gustloff sank, many of the passengers were forced to make drastic decisions. In documentary aired on the National Geographic channel, The Last Voyage of the Wilhelm Gustloff, Schön recounted the story of a Nazi officer who chose to kill his wife and child with a pistol rather than see them drown. After shooting them, Schön recalled, the man found that he was out of bullets and jumped into the sea instead.

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Meanwhile, the Wilhelm Gustloff’s second officer, Paul Vollrath, was attempting to man one of the few lifeboats that had been able to launch. On board, he had been unable to persuade some passengers to leave the higher side of the sinking ship behind to reach the emergency vessel below. But even so, his craft was way over capacity when it finally cast out to sea.

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As they watched the carnage around them, the passengers in the lifeboat grew restless and Vollrath used a firearm to keep the peace on board. Meanwhile, the officer was stuck in a torturous position: although he could take no more passengers, people were dying all around him in the water. And even as the Wilhelm Gustloff sank beneath the waves, he saw a lone figure still standing on the side of the ship’s huge chimney.

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From the moment when the torpedoes struck, it had taken only a little over an hour for the Wilhelm Gustloff to sink beneath the waves. Meanwhile, other boats had arrived to come to the aid of the passengers — most of whom were now floating in the freezing Baltic Sea. But with the threat of the Soviet submarine still present, it was difficult to mount a rescue mission.

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The number of people who survived the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff varies with each estimate but few put it higher than 1,250. In fact, some beleive that no more than 800 people made it out of the wreck alive. As such, with around 10,000 people on board, the death toll of around 9,000 far exceeds the 1,500 who perished on the Titanic, making the incident the deadliest maritime disaster of all time.

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As the sun rose on the scene the following morning, it illuminated a sea full of bodies floating in a watery grave. Tragically, many of the dead were children who had drowned as their ill-fitting life jackets failed to keep their heads above the surface. According to reports, there was just one survivor plucked from the sea — a baby who was later adopted by the man who found him.

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Despite the huge loss of life, however, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff has never achieved the notoriety of other disasters such as the Titanic. Even at the time, in fact, the tragedy was swept under the rug. With the tide of the war turning, Nazi officials were unwilling to admit that a civilian evacuation had gone so horrifically wrong.

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In later years, some even claimed that the Nazi party had actively tried to cover up the incident. In a 2016 interview with Time, Ruta Sepetys, author of Salt to the Sea a YA historical novel about the Wilhelm Gustloff, explained what her research had revealed. “Some survivors reported that when they spoke of it, there was a knock on their door, and they were told, ‘Why are you telling stories about some ship? That didn’t happen,’” she said.

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Later, once the war was over, survivors were reluctant to talk about their experiences. In a January 2020 interview with the Smithsonian Magazine, the online Wilhelm Gustloff Museum’s curator Edward Petruskevich talked about the issue. “There was a stigma about discussing any sort of German suffering during the war after everything the Nazis did to the rest of Europe,” he said.

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Interestingly, this stigma continues to this day. In 2008 Germany’s ZDF Channel aired Die Gustloff, a two-part television drama about the sinking. However, national news outlet Der Spiegel published a review criticizing the writers for not mentioning the crimes of Nazi Germany. “The production makes the outrageous suggestion that a nation of innocents drowned,” it read.

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Alternatively, some have called the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff a war crime due to the large number of civilians aboard. However, the vessel was also carrying weapons and around 1,000 members of the Nazi military when the torpedoes hit. And as such, there does not appear to be sufficient grounds for these charges.

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While the Wilhelm Gustloff has been largely forgotten by history, however, its wreck still holds a certain degree of fascination. According to reports, some witnesses claim that the vessel was carrying pieces of the Amber Room, a priceless chamber looted from a Russian palace, when it sank. And after the war, the story goes, divers went down in search of the treasure.

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However, the expedition came back empty-handed. According to rumors, a hole had been cut into the wreck of the Wilhelm Gustloff – and the Amber Room was nowhere to be seen. Today, the remains of the ship are protected by the Polish Maritime Office, and divers are barred from coming within 1,600 feet of what is considered a war grave. Here, the victims of history’s deadliest maritime disaster will continue to guard their secrets for many years to come.

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