Forgotten History: The Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff

What was the deadliest maritime disaster? The Titanic seems like the most obvious answer. However, a little over thirty years after the Titanic tragedy, a 25,000 ton ship sunk in the Baltic Sea, taking almost 9,000 people down with it. This ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, was evacuating German civilians and soldiers from East Prussia as the Communist Army advanced. As the events of World War II continued around the ocean, the torpedos that sunk the Wilhelm Gustloff and the thousands of civilians that died were forgotten.


On January 30, 1945, thousands of soldiers and refugees, along with unregistered “stowaways” seeking shelter from the approaching Red Army, the enormous ship left the harbor and began sailing in the Baltic Sea. The Captain, Friedrich Petersen, was initially worried about how long the ship, originally a vacation and cruise vessel, had been sitting idle. He ignored the advice that the faster the ship traveled, the less likely it was for an attack, and decided the ship would travel no faster than 12 knots. Furthermore, he confidently established a deep water route rather than a route on the coastlines because he believed it would avoid mines.

Lowe and Wilheim Gustloff

The only vessel accompanying the Wilhelm Gustloff was the Löwe, a torpedo boat. When the ship received warning of a minesweeper convoy, neither the Wilhelm Gustloff nor the Löwe had received any clue. The Wilhelm Gustloff activated its navigation lights to avoid collisions and continued on Captain Petersen’s route.

Soviet Submarine Attack

At 7:00 PM, a Soviet submarine S-13 noticed the Wilhelm Gustloff. The commander, Captain Aleksandr Marinesko maneuvered his submarine for a strategic attack. His plan was to be situated between the coast and the Gustloff, waiting in an unexpected position.

Sinking of the Wilheim Gustloff

At 9:16 PM, three torpedoes were shot from the Soviet submarine and the Wilhelm Gustloff sank over the course of one hour. The crew quarters had been targeted by one of the torpedoes, so those equipped to handle the situation were unable to do so. Furthermore, lifeboats and preservers had been frozen to the deck, making it difficult for passengers to escape the sinking ship. Victims included soldiers, civilians, and refugees, many of whom were children. As the night continued, nine vessels were able to take on survivors. There were over 10,000 people aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, and only 1,239 were registered as survivors of the disaster.

Why is the Gustloff maritime disaster not known very well?

One reason why this maritime disaster is so unknown is the devastating historic background it faces. A former Nazi cruise liner, the Gustloff even had a reserved cabin for Hitler. However, over the course of World War II, the ship became a rescue ship used to transport wounded soldiers and civilians. The evacuation that was taking place before the sinking was known as Operation Hannibal. This was an effort to evacuate wounded soldiers and other refugees, mostly German, from East Prussia in order to escape the approaching Soviet Union army.

Disaster of Gustloff

Although many of the deaths onboard the Wilhelm Gustloff were civilians, the tragedy is not considered a war crime because Nazi soldiers were also on board. Set against a terrifying backdrop of war crimes that came out of World War II, the victims of the Wilhelm Gustloff have almost been forgotten. The disaster is considered a “result of war” rather than a warcrime, but the history and story is still important and deserves to be remembered.

Works Cited

McNally, Frank. “An Irishman’s Diary: Remembering the ‘Wilhem Gustloff.'” The Irish Times, Irish Times, 30 Jan. 2015, http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/an-irishman-s-diary-remembering-the-wilhem-gustloff-1.2084360. Accessed 3 May 2020.

Petrikowski, Nicki Peter. “Wilhelm Gustloff.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 30 Jan. 2020, Aleksandr Marinesko. Accessed 3 May 2020.

Wagener, Volker. “75 Years On, Little Known about the Wilhelm Gustloff Sinking.” Deutsche Welle, 30 Jan. 2020, http://www.dw.com/en/75-years-on-little-known-about-the-wilhelm-gustloff-sinking/a-18226012. Accessed 3 May 2020.

“World War II: MV Wilhelm Gustloff.” Encyclopædia Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/topic/MV-Wilhelm-Gustloff/images-videos. Accessed 7 May 2020.

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