German Refugee Ship Wilhelm Gustloff Sunk in 1945
In January, 1945 Nazi Germany was collapsing and what was left of its armed forces were in full retreat from the vast Eastern Front pursued by an avenging Russian army. The Russian Red Army was intent on revenge for German atrocities committed throughout the war and the entire East Prussian population was fleeing to the West, terrified of being caught by the Russians. For many German nationals, the only real chance to escape was by sea. The German ship Wilhelm Gustloff was to sail on 30 January 1945 with thousands of refugees bound for Kiel.
The Wilhelm Gustloff was a former luxury liner built in 1937 entirely with Nazi funds. The ship was the flagship of a German luxury fleet and was intended to hold less than 2,000 passengers on holiday cruises. With five lower decks and three upper decks there was plenty of space during normal holiday cruising. When World War Two began in 1939 the Wilhelm Gustloff was converted as a hospital ship and served in the German invasions of Poland and Norway. Later in the war the Wilhelm Gustloff was based in Gotenhafen and converted to carry troops then refugees.
It was to the Wilhelm Gustloff in Gotenhafen that thousands of fleeing German nationals rushed to make their escape from the Russians. It was first thought that over 6,000 German nationals managed to scramble aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff before the crew cast off but later estimates, made after the war, put this figure at over 10,000 passengers. The Wilhelm Gustloff was preparing to sail to the safety of Kiel much further west.
The Wilhelm Gustloff was attacked by a Russian submarine on 30 January 1945 just 9 hours after putting to sea. Three torpedoes hit her on the port side and resulted in the overloaded Wilhelm Gustloff taking less than an hour to sink with no time for the thousands of passengers below decks to leave. Although several hundred passengers managed to survive many thousands perished in the cold waters of the Baltic Sea. The true death toll is unlikely to ever be known but what is certain is that the sinking of the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff was the worst maritime disaster in history.
The MV Wilhelm Gustloff now lies off the northern coast of Poland, 450 metres at the bottom of the Baltic Sea.