The Wilhelm Gustloff was a German passenger ship constructed by the Blohm and Voss shipyards. She was named after Wilhelm Gustloff, the assassinated German leader of the Swiss Nazi party (NSDAP). The Wilhelm Gustloff was launched on May 5, 1937 measuring 208.50 meters (684 feet) long by 23.59 meters (77.39 feet) wide with a capacity of 25,484 gross register tons. She was requisitioned into the Kriegsmarine (German Navy) on September 1, 1939 and served as a hospital ship during 1939 and 1940. Beginning on November 20, 1940 she was stripped of her medical equipment and repainted from her hospital ship colors (white with a green stripe) to standard naval grey. The Wilhelm Gustloff was then assigned as a floating barracks for naval personnel at the Baltic port of Gotenhafen (Gdynia) – near Danzig from 1940 onwards.
The Wilhelm Gustloff's final voyage was during Operation Hannibal in January 1945, when she was sunk while participating in the evacuation of civilian refugees, German soldiers, and U-boat personnel trapped by the Red Army in East Prussia. She was hit by three torpedoes from the Soviet submarine S-13 in the Baltic Sea on the night of January 30, 1945 and sank in under 45 minutes, taking an estimated 9,400 people with her. which if accurate makes the sinking of the Wilhem Gustloff the largest known loss of life in a single sinking in maritime history.
From September 1939 to November 1940, she served as a hospital ship with her official designation being Lazarettschiff D. On her first mission to the Baltic Sea, she treated 650 wounded Polish soldiers.
Beginning November 20, 1940, the medical equipment was removed from the ship and it was repainted from the hospital ship colours of white and green to standard naval grey. As a consequence of the British blockade of the German coastline, she was used as an accommodations ship (barracks) for approximately 1,000 U-boat trainees of the 2nd Submarine Training Division (2. Unterseeboot-Lehrdivision) in the Baltic port of Gotenhafen (Gdynia) – near Danzig (Gdańsk). The Wilhelm Gustloff sat dockside for over four years until she was put back in service to transport military personnel and civilian refugees as part of Operation Hannibal.
The ship's final voyage was to evacuate civilians, Kriegsmarine sailors, and wounded German soldiers from Gotenhafen to Kiel. The ship's complement and passenger lists totaled 6,050 people on board, but this did not include many refugees who boarded the ship without being recorded in the ship's official embarkation records. Heinz Schön, who carried out extensive research into the sinking during the 1980s and 1990s, concluded that the Wilhelm Gustloff was carrying a crew of 173 (naval armed forces auxiliaries), 918 officers, NCOs, and men of the 2nd Submarine Training Division (2. Unterseeboot-Lehrdivision), 373 female naval auxiliary helpers, 162 badly wounded soldiers, and 8,956 refugees, for a total of 10,582 passengers and crew. Although the ship was built for 1,465 passengers, she had the capacity to board many more for a short trip by utilizing her public recreation spaces to accommodate people, but she was carrying less than 50% of the rescue equipment necessary for the extra passengers.
The ship left Gotenhafen early on 30 January 1945, accompanied by the passenger liner Hansa, also filled with refugees and soldiers, and two torpedo boats. The Hansa and one torpedo boat developed problems and could not continue, leaving the Wilhelm Gustloff with one torpedo boat escort, the Löwe. The ship had four captains on board, three civilian and one military, and they could not agree on the best course of action to guard against submarine attacks. Against the advice of the military commander, Lieutenant Commander Wilhelm Zahn (a submariner who argued for a course in shallow waters close to shore and without lights), the senior civilian captain, Friedrich Petersen, decided to head for deep water. When he was informed by radio of an oncoming German minesweeper convoy, he decided to activate his ship's red and green navigation lights so as to avoid a collision in the dark, making the Wilhelm Gustloff easy to spot in the night. As the ship's equipment included antiaircraft weapons, it had been travelling blacked-out, it was not marked as a hospital ship, and it was transporting combat troops, it did not have any protection as a hospital ship under the international accords governing this.
The ship was soon sighted by the S-13, under the command of Captain Third Class Alexander Marinesko, which fired three torpedoes at the Wilhelm Gustloff's port side about 30 km (20 miles) offshore between Großendorf and Leba soon after 21:00 (CET) hitting her with all three. The first torpedo hit near the port bow, the second torpedo hit behind it just ahead of mid-ship. The third torpedo struck the engine room in the area below the ships funnel, cutting off engine and electrical power to the ship.The ship took a list to starbord and was settling by the head.Later the Wilhelm Gustloff listed to port.
In the panic that followed, many of the refugees were trampled in the rush to the lifeboats and life jackets. Some equipment was lost as a result of the panic. The water temperature in the Baltic Sea at this time of year is usually around 4°C; however, this was a particularly cold day, with an air temperature of −10° to −18°C and ice floes covering the surface. Many deaths were either caused directly by the torpedoes or by instant drowning in the onrushing water. Others were crushed in the ensuing panic on the stairs and decks, and many jumped into the icy, dark Baltic. Reports talk about children clinging onto adults and women trying to save their babies, though constant waves dragged them away from them, most never to be seen again. Small children fitted with life jackets for adults drowned because their heads were under water while their legs were in the air.
Less than 45 minutes after being struck, the Wilhelm Gustloff went down bow first in 44 metres (150 feet) of water. German forces were able to rescue some of the survivors from the attack: torpedo boat T-36 rescued 564 people; torpedo boat Löwe, 472; Minesweeper M387, 98; Minesweeper M375, 43; Minesweeper M341, 37; the steamer Gottingen saved 28; torpedo-recovery boat (Torpedofangboot) TF19, seven; the freighter Gotland, two; and Patrol boat (Vorpostenboot) V1703 was able to save one baby. These figures are from the research of Heinz Schön, and that would make the total lost in the torpedoing and subsequent sinking to be 9,343 men, women, and children. This would make it the largest loss of life in a single sinking in maritime history.
In an article in the magazine "Sea Classics", Irwin Kappes mentions that "there were over 6,000 passengers on board". He also states that the escort ship Löwe was alongside within 15 minutes, taking off as many survivors as she could carry, and that when Captain Henigst of the cruiser Admiral Hipper, herself carrying 1,500 evacuees, received reports from her lookouts that she was under torpedo attack, he chose not to stop to pick up survivors. Kappes gives a precise total of those lost in the sinking as 5,348. The source of this information was the German book "Die Gustloff Katastrophe" written by Heinz Schön, who later revised his original numbers.
Heinz Schön's more recent research is backed up by estimates made by a different method. The Discovery Channel program Unsolved History has undertaken a computer analysis (using software called maritime EXODUS) of the sinking, which estimated 9,400 dead −85% (among over 10,600 on board); this analysis considered the load density based on witness reports and a simulation of escape routes and survivability with the timeline of the sinking.
Many ships carrying civilians were sunk during the war by both the Allies and Axis. However, based on the latest estimates of passenger numbers and those known to be saved, the Wilhelm Gustloff remains the largest loss of life resulting from the sinking of one vessel in maritime history. Günter Grass, in an interview published in The New York Times on Tuesday April 8, 2003 said, "One of the many reasons I wrote Crabwalk was to take the subject away from the extreme right... They said the tragedy of the Gustloff was a war crime. It wasn’t. It was terrible, but it was a result of war, a terrible result of war.
According to the Soviet propaganda version, more than a thousand German officers, including 70–80 submarine crews died with the Gustloff. Women from the ship were described, perhaps falsely, as SS personnel from German concentration camps
In 2006, a bell recovered from the wreck, and subsequently used as decoration in a Polish fish restaurant, was loaned to the "Forced Paths" exhibition in Berlin. In 2007, the ship's bell was placed on display at the Gdańsk Museum in Krantor.