Forgotten History: The Wreck Of The Wilhelm Gustloff
The Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff is the Largest Maritime Disaster in history, yet few know of it. The tragedy was six times deadlier than the sinking of the Titanic, with the loss of an estimated 9,400 souls.
I recently read Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys which was set in the Winter of 1945. The book follows the fictional but compelling stories of 4 different people who are united at the voyage of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Outside of history buffs, few likely know the ill fated story of the Wilhelm Gustloff.
Designed as a cruise liner:
The Wilhelm Gustloff was launched on May 5th, 1937. Constructed by German engineering company Blohm+Voss, as a cruise liner for the German Labor Front. Her main purposes were to provide recreational and cultural events for German functionaries and workers, including concerts, cruises, etc. Her maiden voyage took place between March 24 through 27 of 1938 when she carried Austrians in an attempt to convince them to vote for the German annexation of Austria.
The ship was originally supposed to be named “The Adolf Hitler” but was changed to honor Wilhelm Gustloff who was the leader of the National Socialist Party’s Swiss branch after his Assassination in 1936. In September of 1939, she was converted into a hospital ship and served in that capacity until November of 1940.
Operation Hannibal was the naval evacuation of German troops and civilians as the Red Army advanced. Because the countless wounded soldiers and refugees from Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, and other countries that were brought to board the Wilhelm Gustloff, the ship was very overcrowded. On a ship that was originally designed to service under 1,500 people, there were over 10,000 on board. On January 30, 1945, the ship was sighted by a Soviet Submarine S-13 which carried 3 torpedoes.
All were launched and their target was the Wilhelm Gustloff. In less than 50 minutes, the ship sunk bow-first into the dark Ice Cold waters of the Baltic Sea.
Of the 10,000 plus souls on board, 996 were rescued by German Forces while the remaining perished that day including five thousand children. Each one was the author of their story. That story was their lives. Each one had an origin, a family. And their stories ended that day.