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The Wilhelm Gustloff: a forgotten tragedy

Updated: Dec 27, 2022

Everyone knows about the Titanic, or the Lusitania; both are famous sea catastrophes that have reached celebrity status. However, the deadliest maritime disaster by far was one that even now little is known about: the MV Wilhelm Gustloff.

Picture this: January 30, 1945 in Germany, the Russians are advancing. Thousands of civilians desperate to be evacuated. It's not just Germans crowding up the docks; Croatians, Estonians, Lithuanians, Poles, Latvians and Prussian are all queuing up as well, waiting for their escape. Their saving grace? A repurposed former luxury ocean liner set to ferry them across the Baltic Sea to freedom. The Wilhelm Gustloff was part of a huge evacuation effort Operation Hannibal, created to save people and equipment. Little did the evacuees know that underwater lay the Soviet Navy, ready to attack with torpedoes.

At first, the German officers checked for tickets, but as the hours drew on, the cold and exhausted civilians scrambled onto the ship, overpowering the officers and taking up any available space in pursuit of safety. Therefore, without a reliable list of passengers, it’s hard to say just how many were killed in this terrible accident. However, it’s estimated that around 9,000 people were onboard the ship which had originally been built to accommodate just under 2,000. That's one reason why the fatality rate was so high. As soon as the Soviet submarines spotted the Gustloff, they shot 3 torpedoes after it. There weren't enough lifeboats to safely carry the survivors away and the majority of the passengers drowned in the freezing waters.

This tragic disaster has affected thousands, yet is not very well known by the public. One reason why it isn’t that well known is because the Nazi regime tried to cover it up, as they were amidst an evacuation and didn't want the people to lose morale. Another possible reason could be that the submarine captain who had launched the torpedoes, Alexander Marinesko was discharged with honour shortly after. Perhaps the Soviets didn't want to shine light on him and therefore concealed the information.

If you enjoyed this article and like historical fiction, you might be interested in Salt to the Sea, a novel by Ruta Sepetys on four young people who embark on the Wilhelm Gustloff.

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