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Thread: The Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff

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    The Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff

    by Karl Hoffman

    [From Walter Müller letter]

    On January 30, 1945, the German liner "Wilhelm Gustloff" sank in the Baltic Sea between the Bay of Danzig and the Danish island of Bornholm. An estimated 7,000-8,000 people, civilian refugees from East Prussia and wounded German soldiers, drowned in the icy waters. Three torpedoes fired from a Russian submarine had scored direct hits on the ship. The result was the largest and most horrible naval disaster of all time.

    The following is the story of Oberbootsmannsmaat Karl Hoffmann a survivor of the sinking. Karl Hoffmann is from the town of Frankenberg. The same town as our Advisory Board chairman Hans Goebeler. I would like to thank Hans and Erika Goebeler for providing this copy of Herr Hoffmann's letter.

    The Wilhelm Gustloff

    Before the war, the Wilhelm Gustloff was the flagship of the "Power Through Joy" workers recreational program's fleet of passenger liners. Starting in 1939, the ship was used as housing for U-Boat crewman undergoing training. The ship lay docked for over four years serving this purpose, until Admiral Dönitz, commander of the U-Boat fleet, ordered the evacuation of the U-Boat personnel away from the approaching Red Army.

    The Wilhelm Gustloff was skippered under a strange double-command structure. As a civilian ship, she was commanded by Merchant Marine Captain Friedrich Petersen. At the same time, as residential ship of the 2nd U-Boat Training Division, her military captain was a regular Navy officer, Commander Wilhelm Zahn.

    The Injured and Exhausted

    On the evening of January 22, 1945, the ship was readied by her crew and other navy personnel for the boarding of thousands of injured, exhausted and frost-bitten passengers, The themometer showed 14 degrees below zero. In the midst of military collapse and the impending arrival of the Russians, there prevailed an atmosphere of indescribable chaos.

    There were approximately 60,000 people crowed into the harbor of Gotenhafen. As soon as the gangplanks settled down into position, people stormed forward onto the ship. In the confusion, many children were separated from their parents.

    400 Female Naval Auxiliaries

    Although the ship was virtually filled, on board came approximately 400 female Naval auxiliaries, all between the ages of 17 and 25. They were accommodated in the former swimming pool area on E-Deck. Naturally, they were happy to get aboard and escape the advance of the Russian Army into East Prussia.

    In the morning hours of January 29 another hospital train arrived in Gotenhafen. The injured soldiers also embarked onto the ship, settling into the glazed area of the Gustloff's so called sundeck.

    Somewhere between seven to eight thousand people were now on board, the exact number has never been ascertained. Every last inch of the rooms and hallways were used, and the ship could not take on any more refugees. As a precaution against air attack, a couple of anti-aircraft guns were hastily mounted on the upper deck. Only about 60% of the passengers were equipped with life preservers, there was insufficient means of rescue for the remainder of them.

    Ten Degrees Below Zero

    Tuesday, January 30, 1945. 12:30 in the afternoon. Four tugboats came along and pulled the ship out of her berth and in the direction of the open sea. The weather was bad: wind strength of 7, snow, ten degrees below zero, ice flows on the water's surface. As the tugboats retreated into the distance back toward the Bay of Danzig, the Wilhelm Gustloff began pounding her way under her own power westward into the blustery Baltic Sea.

    It was freezing cold as layers of ice began to forming on the deck. In order to be ready for any emergency we crewmen had to constantly work to remove ice from the guns. A small mine sweeper patrolled in front of the Gustloff in search of mines. Night fell and it became even colder. Below decks, the high spirits of the refugees began to wane as many became seasick. But most were lulled into a false sense of secruity, believing that in a few days they would reach Stettin or the coast of Denmark.

    Deadly Torpedos

    I had been designated crew chief of one of the anti-aircraft guns. My second watch began at 9:00PM. So far, all had been quiet on board. Suddenly, at about 9:10PM, the torpedos struck. At first I thought "We have run into mines!" But the Gustloff had been hit by three deadly torpedos fired from the Russian submarine S-13. I found out later that it was commanded by Alexander Marinesko.

    Thousands of people immediately broke into a terrible panic. Many plunged overboard into the icy waves of the Baltic Sea. At first the ship leaned to starboard under the force of the explosion, but then righted herself, only to suffer another hit by the forecastle. We were off the coast of Stolpmunde, Pommerania. We immediately began to broadcast an SOS and fire signal flares.

    The first torpedo had hit the Gustloff at the bow, directly below the helm and deep below the waterline. The second torpedo exploded under the swimming pool on E-Deck where the 400 Naval auxiliaries were being quartered, almost all lost their lives. The third torpedo hit amidships in the forward part of the engine room, ripping the ship hull and shattering the machinery.

    Panic on all Decks

    I attempted to retrieve a few personal items from my room on C-Deck, but it was impossible. The desperate crowd of thousands had only one thought: to reach the upper decks, away from the massive flood of water.

    They clawed their way upward, pushing and shoving mercilessly. Those who fell were lost. Children that slipped from their mothers arms were trampled to death. No one was able to assist the most helpless of the passengers: pregnant wives and severely wounded soldiers. The surging mass of people attempted to storm the lifeboats, hardly anyone hearing the command: "women and children first" No one obeyed: he that was stronger took advantage. Many of the ice-covered lifeboats could not be lowered into the water. I saw boats full of people snag and hang by the bowline, spilling the screaming people into the waves. The Gustloff continued listing, the forecastle railings already underwater. The launching of the lifeboats became increasingly more difficult.

    Many Chose Suicide

    Up until this time I had stood alone on the sundeck, unable to escape, witnessing the horible chaos. I saw families shoot themselves rather than suffer slow and terrifing death through drowning that awaited them. Those with a pistol chose suicide. Thousands clung to the ship, hoping to be saved, while the Gustloff sank ever more quickly.

    I thought that my life, too, was soon to end. I jumped into the water, swimming quickly away from the ship so that the suction would not carry me into the depths. At first I did not feel the icy cold of the water at all. I grabbed the side of a fully loaded lifeboat and held on for dear life. What I saw was then was terrible. Children hung in lifejackets, their stiff legs sticking straight up. Elderly people bobbed dead in the water. Death screams and cries for help filled the air. Two children who were still alive clung solidly onto me and screamed for their mother. I lifted them the best I could into the crowded lifeboat. If they were later rescued, I can not say.

    Suddenly, Deathly Silence

    I then noticed that I was weakening because of hypothermia. I grabbed a little sheet-metal raft and tried to keep swimming away from the suction. I was about 50 yards away from the Gustloff and saw the forecastle was already halfway underwater. The stern began to show itself. Hundreds of people were still there, desperately screaming in mortal fear. The ship sank faster and faster. Then suddenly, a deadly silence. The Wilhelm Gustloff had slipped beneath the waves, carrying most of the passengers with her. The greatest and most terrifing naval catastrophe had lasted about 50 minutes.

    A Miracle

    For about 20 minutes, the most dreadful moments of my life, I swam through the water. Time and again, I was covered by sheets of ice. Occasional cries for help became fewer and fewer. What happened then bordered on the miraculous. I saw a dark shadow coming directly toward me and I recognized the outlines of a ship. I screamed with the last of my strength. I was noticed and pulled into a boat.

    I was taken into the engine area of the German torpedo boat T-36. Sailors took care of us rescued castaways, giving us hot tea and massages. Many died during the night of exposure and exhaustion. Among the rescued were some pregnant wifes. During the night, three children were born on board the torpedo boat, with sailors acting as midwifes.

    Torpedo boat T-36 was part of the squadron commanded by Lieutenant Herring and had been assigned as escort to the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper. Both ships had also sailed from East Prussia, loaded with refugees.

    With a sudden roar of the engines, the ship took a new course. As I later found out, two torpedos were sighted. One passed to starboard, and the T-36 escaped from the other by means of a violent change of direction. The ship sped so quickly that some of the personnel in lifeboats were thrown off and drowned. To the joy of the commanders, 550 people were saved. Because of the great danger of submarine attack, the T-36 turned away and at 2:00PM, January 31, 1945, arrived at Sassnitz.

    996 Survivors

    The survivors of the Gustloff were taken on board the Danish military hospital ship Prinz Olaf, which was anchored there. Many had to be carried ashore on stretchers. We in the Navy were accommodated in barracks. The many dead people on board were also carried off. Lieutenant Herring viewed the proceedings from the command bridge, and as the last passenger left the ship, he saluted. I found out later that only 996 of the approximately 8,000 Gustloff passengers survived this dreadful tragedy.

    We, the almost 1,000 survivors, had escaped death one more time. We members of the German Navy were comrades, loved our homeland, and believed we were doing the right thing through our service. None of us wanted to be heroes, and we do not honor our casualties as such, only as human beings who had done their duty according to the oath they had taken.

    The Wilhelm Gustloff, a mass grave bearing the names of thousands of young people, has to warn us, the living and influence the leaders of nations in such a way that wars, which bring unspeakable suffering to mankind, will never be allowed to start again.

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    Quote Originally Posted by friedrich braun
    The Wilhelm Gustloff, a mass grave bearing the names of thousands of young people, has to warn us, the living and influence the leaders of nations in such a way that wars, which bring unspeakable suffering to mankind, will never be allowed to start again.
    Unfortunately, war will remain a fact of life, and I'm very sorry to say, that the current "World Order" will be changed only by the bloodiest and most savage conflict ever witnessed on Earth.

    All we can hope for, next time, is that the GOOD GUYS win.
    ?In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.?

    -- George Orwell

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    The Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff

    The destruction of the Wilhelm Gustloff by the Soviets was one of the greatest warcrimes and disasters on sea of modern history. Unfortunately, this event is not been teach on schools, it is not a subject well-known. A couple of years ago, there was a full documentary on it on TV on German TV, with survivers, it wasa heartbreaking to hear their lifestories. Everyone always says the Titanic was the greatest disaster on sea, well, that is not true.

    To get the whole story:
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    Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff

    by Dr. William Pierce

    What's said to be the most expensive motion picture ever made was released a few weeks ago and has been earning record money at the box office. The film, of course, is Titanic, and it's about the sinking of the ocean liner S.S. Titanic on April 15, 1912, with the loss of 1,513 lives, after the ship struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic.

    There are many superlatives in the film. The Titanic was the largest ship ever built at the time. It also was the most luxurious ship, intended to provide high-speed trans-Atlantic transportation in comfort for the rich and pampered. The implication of the film is that the sinking of the Titanic is the greatest maritime disaster of all time. I'm sure that the great majority of the American public believes that to be the case, but it isn't. Everyone has heard about the sinking of the Titanic, and very few have heard about the sinking of the S.S. Wilhelm Gustloff, which was the greatest maritime disaster.

    It is easy to understand why everyone has heard about the Titanic: it was a very big, very expensive ship, claimed to be virtually "unsinkable," which went down on its maiden voyage with a record number of celebrities and tycoons aboard. The irony of the sinking helped generate public interest and an enormous media coverage. When the Wilhelm Gustloff went down, on the other hand, with the loss of more than 7,000 lives, the controlled media adopted the deliberate policy that it was a non-event, not to be commented on or even reported. The Wilhelm Gustloff, like the Titanic, was a big passenger liner and was reasonably new and luxurious. But it was a German passenger liner. It was sunk in the Baltic Sea on the night of January 30, 1945, by a Soviet submarine. It was packed with nearly 8,000 Germans, most of them women and children escaping from the advancing Soviet Army.

    Many of these German refugees lived in East Prussia, a part of Germany that the Communist and democratic Allies had agreed would be taken from Germany and given to the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War. Others lived in Danzig and the surrounding area, which the democrats and Communists had decided would be taken from Germany and given to Poland. All of these refugees were fleeing in terror from the Reds, who already had demonstrated in East Prussia what was in store for any German unfortunate enough to fall into their hands.

    As Soviet military units overtook columns of German civilian refugees fleeing to the west, they behaved in a way which has not been seen in Europe since the Mongol invasions of the Middle Ages. Often the men, most of them farmers or Germans who had been engaged in other essential occupations and thus exempted from military service, were simply murdered on the spot. The women were, almost without exception, gang-raped. This was the fate of girls as young as eight years old and old women in their eighties, as well as women in the advanced stages of pregnancy. Women who resisted rape had their throats cut or were shot. Very often women were murdered after being gang-raped. Many women and girls were raped so often and so brutally that they died from this abuse alone.

    Sometimes Soviet tank columns simply rolled right over the fleeing refugees, grinding them into the mud with their tank treads. When Soviet Army units occupied East Prussian villages, they engaged in orgies of torture, rape, and murder so bestial that they cannot be described fully on this program. Sometimes they castrated the men and boys before killing them. Sometimes they gouged their eyes out. Sometimes they burned them alive. Some women after being gang-raped were crucified by being nailed to barn doors while still alive and then used for target practice.

    This atrocious behavior on the part of the Communist troops was due in part to the nature of the Communist system, which had succeeded in overthrowing Russian society and the Russian government in the first place by organizing the scum of Russian society -- the losers and ne'er-do-wells, the criminals, the resentful and the envious -- under the Jews and setting them against the successful, the accomplished, the refined, and the prosperous, promising the rabble that if they pulled down their betters then they could take the place of the latter: the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

    It was the members of this rabble, this scum of Russian society, who became the bosses of local soviets and collectives and workers' councils -- when the positions had not already been taken by Jews. The Soviet soldiers of 1945 had grown up under this system of rule by the worst; for 25 years they had lived under commissars chosen from the dregs of Russian society. Any tendency toward nobility or gentility had been weeded out ruthlessly. Stalin had ordered the butchering of 35,000 Red Army officers, half of the old Russian officers' corps, in 1937, just two years before the war, because he did not trust gentlemen. The officers who replaced those shot in the 1937 purge were not much more civilized in their behavior than the commissars.

    An even more specific and immediate cause of the atrocities committed against the German population of East Prussia was the Soviet hate propaganda which deliberately incited the Soviet troops to rape and murder -- even to murder German infants. The chief of the Soviet propaganda commissars was a hate-filled Jew named Ilya Ehrenburg. One of his directives to the Soviet troops read:
    # "Kill! Kill! In the German race there is nothing but evil; not one among the living, not one among the yet unborn but is evil! Follow the precepts of Comrade Stalin. Stamp out the fascist beast once and for all in its lair! Use force and break the racial pride of these German women. Take them as your lawful booty. Kill! As you storm onward, kill, you gallant soldiers of the Red Army."

    Not every Russian soldier was a butcher or a rapist, of course: just most of them. A few of them still had a sense of morality and decency which even Jewish Communism had not destroyed. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was one of these. He was a young captain in the Red Army when it entered East Prussia in January 1945. He wrote later in his Gulag Archipelago:
    # All of us knew very well that if the girls were German they could be raped and then shot. This was almost a combat distinction.

    In one of his poems, "Prussian Nights," he describes a scene he witnessed in a house in the East Prussian town of Neidenburg:
    # Twenty-two Hoeringstrasse. It's not been burned, just looted, rifled. A moaning by the walls, half muffled: the mother's wounded, half alive. The little daughter's on the mattress, dead. How many have been on it? A platoon, a company perhaps? A girl's been turned into a woman, a woman turned into a corpse. . . . The mother begs, "Soldier, kill me!"

    For his failure to take Comrade Ehrenburg's directive to heart, Solzhenitsyn was reported by the political commissar in his unit as not being Politically Correct and was packed off to the gulag: that is, to a Soviet concentration camp.

    And so, German civilians were fleeing in terror from East Prussia, and for many of them the only route of escape was across the icy Baltic Sea. They packed the port of Gotenhafen, near Danzig, hoping to find passage to the west. Hitler ordered all available civilian ships into the rescue effort. The Wilhelm Gustloff was one of these. A 25,000-ton passenger liner, it had been used before the war by the "Strength through Joy" organization to take German workers on low-cost vacation excursions. On January 30, 1945, when it steamed out of Gotenhafen it carried a crew of just under 1,100 officers and men, 73 critically wounded soldiers, 373 young women of the Women's Naval Auxiliary, equivalent to our WAVES, and more than 6,000 desperate refugees, most of them women and children.

    Soviet submarines and aircraft were a constant menace to this rescue effort. They regarded the refugee ships in the light of Ehrenburg's genocidal propaganda: the more Germans they could kill the better, and it didn't make any difference to them whether their victims were soldiers or women and children. At just after 9:00 PM, when the Wilhelm Gustloff was 13 miles off the coast of Pomerania, three torpedoes from the Soviet submarine S-13, under the command of Captain A.I. Marinesko, struck the ship. Ninety minutes later it sank beneath the icy waves of the Baltic. Although a heroic effort to pick up survivors was made by other German ships, barely 1,100 were saved. The rest, more than 7,000 Germans, died in the frigid water that night.

    A few days later, on February 10, 1945, the same Soviet submarine sank the German hospital ship, the General von Steuben, and 3,500 wounded soldiers aboard the ship, who were being evacuated from East Prussia, drowned. To the Soviets, inflamed by Jewish hate propaganda, the sign of the Red Cross meant nothing. On May 6, 1945, the German freighter Goya, also part of the rescue fleet, was torpedoed by another Soviet submarine, and more than 6,000 refugees fleeing from East Prussia died.

    The lack of knowledge in the United States about any of these terrible maritime disasters of 1945 is profound, even among people who consider themselves knowledgeable on naval matters. And this ignorance stems from the deliberate policy of the controlled media, a policy which has relegated these disasters to the category of non-events. The reason for this media policy originally was the same reason which led the Jewish media bosses to blame the slaughter of 15,000 Polish officers and intellectuals in the Katyn woods in 1940 on the Germans. They knew that the Soviets had done it, as part of their effort to "proletarianize" Poland and make the Poles more amenable to Communist rule, but they didn't want to tarnish the image of our "gallant Soviet ally," as the Reds were called by the controlled U.S. media during the war. They wanted Americans to think that the Germans were the bad guys and the Soviets were the good guys, so they simply lied about the Katyn massacre.

    Likewise, even in the last months of the war, they didn't want Americans alerted to the fact that our "gallant Soviet ally" was butchering and raping the civilian population of East Prussia and deliberately sinking the civilian refugee ships which were helping the East Prussians escape across the Baltic Sea. That might damage America's enthusiasm for continuing the destruction of Germany with the help of our "gallant Soviet ally." So the controlled media simply didn't report these things.

    After the triumph of the democratic and Communist Allies and the unconditional surrender of Germany this reason no longer was valid, of course. But by then another motive had taken its place. The Jews were beginning to build their "Holocaust" story and were demanding sympathy from the world -- and reparations money from anyone they could get it from. As they began wailing about the supposed extermination of six million of their kinsmen in "gas ovens" by the wicked Germans and portraying themselves as the innocent and inoffensive victims of the greatest crime in history, they didn't want any facts getting in the way -- and they certainly didn't want Americans to see both sides of the conflict; they didn't want the Germans seen as victims too. All Germans were evil, just like Comrade Ehrenburg had said; all Jews were good; and that was it. The Jews suffered, and the Germans didn't, and so now the world owed the Jews a living for not stopping the "Holocaust."

    It really wouldn't help their "Holocaust" propaganda at all to have the American public learn about what had happened in East Prussia or in the Baltic Sea -- or to learn that our "gallant Soviet ally" had deliberately murdered the leadership stratum of the Polish nation in the Katyn woods, and that some of the murderers involved in that horrendous act were Jews. And so there has been a conspiracy of silence in America on the part of the Jewish media bosses. That's why Hollywood was willing to spend $200 million producing the film Titanic but would never consider any film dealing with the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. It's not that such a film couldn't make money -- I think that a film about East Prussia and the Wilhelm Gustloff could be a real blockbuster -- it's that there must be no sympathy for the Germans. There must be no rethinking of America's reasons for waging war against Germany, no questioning of whether or not we did the right thing in allying ourselves with Communism on behalf of the Jews. And beside these considerations, the truth simply doesn't count -- at least, not to the Jews who control our mass media.

    This bit of history -- America's motivations for engaging in the war in Europe, which really was something altogether separate from the war in the Pacific, despite the alliance between Germany and Japan -- this bit of history always has fascinated me. And one of the interesting aspects about it is the unwillingness of so many Americans to examine it. I understand the sentiments of the Clintonista elements. To the kind of people who voted for Clinton, the Soviets were the good guys and the Germans were the bad guys on ideological grounds. Gang-rape, mass murder, and the sinking of refugee ships are not really crimes in the eyes of the Bill-and-Hillary types when they're done by Communists against "Nazis."

    But there also were a lot of decent Americans who fought in the war in Europe, anti-Communist Americans, and many of them don't want to think about the fact that they fought on the wrong side. These American Legion and VFW types don't want to hear about who really killed all of those Polish intellectuals and leaders in the Katyn woods. They don't want to know what happened in East Prussia in 1945. They hate it when I ask them, why did we fight Germany in the name of freedom and then turn half of Europe over to Communist slavery at the end of the war? They become angry when I suggest that perhaps Franklin Roosevelt was the same sort of lying, Jew-collaborating traitor that Bill Clinton is, and that in return for media support he lied us into the war on behalf of the Jews, just the way Clinton is lying us into a war in the Middle East on behalf of the Jews.

    I was far too young for military service in the Second World War, but I am sure that if I had fought in that war, I'd be even more interested in understanding what was behind it. I believe that knowing the truth about these things is far more important than protecting our carefully nurtured belief that we were on the side of righteousness. I believe that understanding how we were deceived in the past is necessary, if we are to avoid being deceived in the future.

    © 1998 National Vanguard Books · Box 330 · Hillsboro ·WV 24946 · USA

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    The first picture posted by Wittekind is the cover of the album dedicated to the tragedy by the martial music project, A Challenge of Honour.

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    The Sinking and Wreck of the Wilhelm Gustloff January 30th, 1945​

    Fleeing from a brutal Soviet Red Army onslaught, the Wilhelm Gustloff is ready to leave port jammed with over 10,000 German refugees, naval personnel, and wounded soldiers aboard. The vessel is designed to hold a maximum of 1,880 passengers and crew. Of the refugees, a staggering 4,000 are infants, children, and youths on their way to promising safety in the West. Minus 18° Celsius, 0° Fahrenheit weather grips the Oxhöft Pier in Gotenhafen on Tuesday, January 30th, 1945.

    For the first time in four years, the former flagship of Nazi pleasure cruising sets a course towards the sea and Kiel on mainland Germany. Icebreakers busily work to carve a path through the Bay of Danzig to allow passage to the unforgiving winter waters of the Baltic Sea. On the bridge, disagreement and tension is budding. Two main senior officers command the ship. Both Petersen and Zahn continue their arguing, now focused on the course the Gustloffshould take. Köhler and Weller are also there to add their opinions from their respective places of command.

    Around 12:30pm, the Wilhelm Gustloff departs. Unlike its days of joyful peacetime cruising, there are no music bands, flag waving or cheerful send-offs. Instead, anxious hope for the very survival of family members and friends privileged enough to be aboard is evident. Envy and frustration from those who could not board filter through the dejected crowd left at the harbor. Their only hope is to gain passage on one of the other passenger ships anchored at their piers. The Gustloff's pier mate - the Hansa, would also be leaving at the same time with the Gustloff and the torpedoboat Löwe as an escort. The painting at right shows what this would have looked like in calmer weather.Shortly after her departure, a final round of refugees came on board the when the ship Reval had to transfer almost 600 people to the Gustloff. ​​​ The Wilhelm Gustloff sailed out of Gotenhafen and a transmission was intercepted by what is assumed to be a British station noting her movements at 3:06pm.

    ADM (2)
    To: ID8G ZIP/ZTPG/334700
    From: NS​​

    4282 KC/S T00 1416 T0 1 1506/30/1/45
    From: 'Gustloff'


    0437/2/2/45 ++++CEL/FA​​​​​​​

    ​​​​​ With the weather as cold and snowy as it was, few could survive for long on her decks and most filled the cramped corridors where one could only stand. As the convoy began their voyage, the Hansa radioed that she was having engine trouble and had to turn back to Gotenhafen. Apparently, time at the pier did not bode well for her machinery. The TF-1 met the same fate and also had to turn around back to port. It was now just the Wilhelm Gustloffand Löwe left to finish the voyage to Kiel.

    ​ The situation outside deteriorated as the two ships pressed on. Heavy snowfall was mixed with hail pelting every section of the 684 foot long ship. The wind came howling out of the WNW in near gale strength. Foam from breaking waves is blown into streaks along wind direction. Moderate amounts of airborne spray hit anyone on is standing out on the decks where the temperature is now beginning to hit negative numbers.

    Below deck, thousands of passengers attempt to settle into their assigned areas for the journey. Last minute arrivals carve out any reasonable living space they are lucky to find. Every possible space on the ship is occupied. All are instructed over the loudspeaker to wear the lifejackets provided to them. Under no circumstances are they to remove them. Above deck, wind, snow, and hail continue to pelt the Gustloff. ​​The seas become rougher as the bay is left behind. Seasickness begins to set in for many. Unable to relieve themselves overboard, on board toliets become clogged and the stench nauseating.

    ​January 30th, 1945

    Most refugees were in such shock after escaping with their lives, they just found an area of the ship to huddle in for the long voyage. Below decks, the situation was far worse. Cabins that were already cramped with the standard 2 or 4 passengers were double or triple that size. Hallways that were only 5 or 6 feet across were virtual barricades with humans acting as the obstacles. The Gustloff's restroom facilities were maxed out and broken from such mass use. Excrement flowed up and out of the toilets and onto the floors of the mid-ship lavatories. Those cornered in cabins were forced to do their business in whatever corner they were in without the use of anything to clean themselves. Combined with the heat, sweat, and dirty nature of those who haven't had a bath in days or weeks, the smell was suffocating to those who recalled it. Even so, for many it is a small price to pay for the hardships endured.

    ​ Up on the bridge, arguments among the four captains and senior officers continue. They hotly debate such things as route, optimal speed and whether the Gustloff should be following a zigzag course to avoid detection. One thing the captains can agree on: they are not pleased with the inadequacy of their escort. The Gustloff is supposed to be accompanied by the Hansaand two aging torpedo boats. Two had to turn back just as the voyage begun.

    Petersen and Zahn are at each others throats from everything to why the lifeboats aren't swung out incase of an emergency to the decision to sail without more protection from escorts. Two issues would become central to the Wilhelm Gustloff's fate. The first was the path the Gustloff would take to Kiel. Two options presented themselves. They could sail the ship closer to the shore, where there was the danger of running into a mine, but the waters were too shallow for a submarine to operate in. They could also use the shipping channel Lane No. 58 that runs north of the Stolpe Bank. There would be no danger of mines, but Soviet submarines could be lurking in the deep. Since the general agreement seemed to be that submarines could not operate in such severe weather conditions, the Wilhelm Gustloff made for the open shipping channel away from the coast. Approximately 1.5 hours after leaving Gotenhafen, the Gustloff settles into a course further away from the coast in Lane No. 58 - an officially mine swept channel. It was also decided that rather than a zig-zag pattern, the ship would run a straight course towards Kiel.

    ​Zahn was demanding that his men reach the port with all speed to help the war effort and man the new Type XXI u-boats being perfected after a slew of production issues arose during their construction. The final decision that needed to be made came when the Gustloff's radio technician, Rudi Lange, received word around 6:00pm that a convoy of minesweepers was also sailing in the channel and coming from the opposite direction. They were currently sailing in the dark without any lights to avoid detection from the enemy. Continuing on this path risked one of the largest passenger liners in the German fleet having a head-on collision with a minesweeper. They could turn on the ship's navigation lights to alert the convoy to the presence, but who else would they also give their location away to? Rudi Lange hadn't received any messages of enemy ships, planes, or submarines in the area. Unfortunately for the Petersen and Zahn, the enemy's submarines were spotted in the area, but the bad weather caused messages to not get through or deciphered by Lange. If they were spotted by planes, the anti-aircraft guns were already frozen and useless on the deck. The Löwe would be useless in such an attack. Zahn wanted the navigation lights turned off to follow war protocol and Petersen wants them on. After continued arguing, Petersen flips the switch up and red and green shone across the sea through the darkness. The Wilhelm Gustloff's fate was sealed.

    Despite the bitter cold outside, heat and humidity is rising below decks. Many ignore Petersen's order to keep lifejackets on - a risk they're willing to take to relieve tremendous discomfort. Cries are heard from some of the thousands of children on board. Those able to stomach it are offered soup, sandwiches, and other basic food items. Some are even able to be lulled to sleep. In the enclosed glad deck below the bridge, wounded soldiers and pregnant mothers are cared for. The Hitler Suite, an elaborate set of rooms for the Führer were occupied by the mayor of Gotenhafen and his family. This was the first time the suite would see anyone staying there. ​

    The S-13 Spots the Wilhelm Gustloff​

    Soviet submarine captain Alexander Marinesko slips into the Gulf of Danzig without informing his central command. Having patrolled with other Russian submarines off the coast near Memel, opportunities are scant. Aware of enemy activity around ports in the Danzig, he hopes for better odds. Also aware of a court-martial hanging over him for previous onshore indiscretions, he needs better odds. It is a calculated risk for the bold captain and his crew of 47 men.

    Now he was topside and charging his batteries for his 780 ton, 256 foot long S-13 built in 1934 and around 8:00pm, he noticed lights in the distance. At first, he mistook them for the Hel Lighthouse on the coast. When he caught a break in weather, he went to look through his periscope and recalled, "I saw a silhouette of an ocean liner. It was enormous. It even had some lights showing. There and then I decided it was about 20,000 tons, certainly not less. And I was quite sure it was packed with men who had trampled on Mother Russia and were now fleeing for their lives. It had to be sunk, I decided, and the S-13 would do the job."

    Back on the Wilhelm Gustloff, passengers tried to pass the time as best they could. No one is aware of the danger lurking in the darkness. The u-boat sensing equipment on board the escorting torpedo boat Löwe has frozen and is useless. Crews on both vessels must rely on outlooks - a tough order in these conditions. Cheerful music piping through the ship's speakers is interrupted sometime after 8:00pm. Hitler, live on the radio, makes an impassioned speech to commemorate the 12th anniversary of the Nazi rise to power. It echoes through the corridors of the ship. No doubt, it provides comfort to some while invoking quiet cynicism from many others.

    While the speech is being broadcast, Marinesko catches up with the Wilhelm Gustloff and overtakes her on the port side in the shallow water off land. This was a daring move as he risked running aground, but gained the advantage of surprise. ​Marinesko has four torpedoes loaded into the S-13's tubes. Each one bears a special message for the Germans:

    Torpedo #1 - For the Motherland
    Torpedo #2 - For Stalin
    Torpedo #3 - For the Soviet people
    Torpedo #4 - For Leningrad​​​​​ ​​​​​

    It would be the last speech Hitler makes and before he signs off, he states, "However grave the crisis may be at the moment, it will, despite everything, finally be mastered by our unalterable will, by our readiness for sacrifice and by our abilities. We shall overcome this calamity, too, and this fight." The timing of everything is suited for a Shakespearean play.

    ​Shortly before 9:00, Gerhard Grasshoff and his comrades went on guard duty. They put on their coats and field boots to face the cold and snow. Alexander Marinekso orders all 4 torpedoes fired from the S-13 at the same time. Three torpedoes speed toward his unknown, but enormous target. One torpedo - For Stalin - remains behind. It is stuck in its launching tube with its primer fully armed, threatening to blow up the submarine to bits with the slightest jolt. If not for the quick and delicate actions of the crew on the S-13 to disarm it, history may never have known what hit the Gustloff. On the bridge, there is a cautious sense of relief among the four captains that they have now reached the Stolpe Bank. They share a sentiment that the most dangerous waters are now behind them.

    Artist representation of the sinking.

    In addition to their first meal since departure, a round of cognac is poured to toast good fortune. Captain Weller remains on duty at the bridge. Shortly after Gerard stepped outside, the first torpedo struck the Wilhelm Gustloff's port side and shook the entire ship about 9:16pm. It struck the forward crew cabins and cargo areas in the bow, blasting a hole in the side of the ship with a huge water plume shooting up in the air. Many crew members housed here were killed instantly. Immediately, the thought was they had hit a mine.

    ​A few seconds later, the second torpedo strikes further aft than the first. It strikes the area which holds the Wilhelm Gustloff's swimming pool and 373 of the Women's Naval Auxiliary. The torpedo first blew through the locker rooms on the port side, then shattering the beautiful tile mosaics and turning them into lethal pieces of flying shrapnel that was sure to have killed many of the women where they slept. The large glass ceiling over the pool also shattered, coming down onto the women and impaling them to the bottom of the pool. For a brief time, the swimming pool turned red with the blood of those injured in the blast. The explosion and smoke soon gave way to a torrent of water flooding the area for the first time in years. But this time, floating corpses and body parts swim in its water rather than excited passengers. Of the 373 Marinehelfern kept there and in the surrounding cabins, only two are known to have escaped.

    ​Waltraud Grüter was lucky because while she was in a lower cabin of the ship, she was not in the pool itself when the second torpedo hit. She began her escape recalling that "each hit sounded like a closet full of glasses tipping over." The third torpedo was next. It hit the Wilhelm Gustloff in her engine room midship and knocked out her power with the incoming rush of seawater, smoke, and fire. For a few moments, one can only hear the mayhem of screaming and shouting, along with the rushing in of water. Everyone could feel the ship already begin to list to the port side. The Wilhelm Gustloff's emergency lights flickered on - illuminating chaos in a dull light that makes the desperate boarding in Gotenhafen look like a garden party. Indescribable chaos ensued for those 10,000 on board in the following hour.


    Captain Weller tried to call the engine room for a status update, but there was no reply. Petersen ordered the watertight doors closed, sealing off those crew still alive in the bow. They were the few on board that knew how to operate the lifeboats. Rudi Lange tried to send out an SOS signal, but was forced to use a small emergency radio transmitter with no power to run the main one. With a transmission range of only 2,000 meters, only the Löwe was able to receive the distress call. The Löwe picked up the SOS and began transmitting it further with their powerful radio.

    Below decks, the frantic rush to get topside began. Refugees trampled over one another kicking and screaming as water began flooding cabins and corridors. Many do not survive the frenzied charge to the decks. Appeals from the P.A. system to maintain order are largely ignored and become background tones mixed with alarm sirens. The "women and children first" rule is ignored by many in their terrified efforts to get on the decks and to the lifeboats. Stairwells jam as mobs of people attempt escape the rushing water below decks. To fall on the way means almost certain death. Many trapped in the throng can barely breathe - unable to move their feet or arms and are 'carried' up by the swarm.

    Waltraud recalled, "I struggled from my cabin​​​ to the Sun Deck after the torpedo hits. I climbed over the people who were in the corridors or the stairs, injured or trampled by others. Once at the top of the railing, I thought in a panic, what to do? The ship got more and more inclined, people lost their grip and slid over the icy deck into the water. A soldier asked me to slide down the ship's hull into the water." As she walked past the windows of the Lower Promenade Deck, she saw scenes that she should remember forever: "fearful faces, torn eyes of women and children. Panicked with their fists against the indestructible glass wall. About 1,000 people were trapped in the belly of the ship and abandoned to death. I heard loud gurgling, and hundreds calling for help." On the upper decks, crew members and civilians alike made attempts to free and launch the ship's lifeboats. Once freed, there was a mad rush to get on them while others jumped in from upper decks. Several lifeboats capsized into the water, dumping their human cargo into the Baltic Sea to freeze to death. Gun shots were soon ringing out as officers took their families into their cabins to kill everyone, then themselves in order to avoid a death of drowning or freezing. The Löwe began to pick up survivors right away, throwing nets down her hull and launching lifeboats of her own to pick up those who they could. Gerhard Grasshoff was lowering lifeboats, helping women and children in. Once he put them into a lifeboat, he saw room on the other side of a lifeboat, and he ran over, slid down the railing of the ship and swam out to the lifeboat.

    On deck, the combination of ice and lack of trained crew members exacerbated the situation. People slide off the icy decks and into the freezing water. The ship lists more and more with each passing minute. Lifeboats are frozen to their davits. People claw and smash at them with bare hands trying to free them. Even if they are able to knock them loose, many of the very crew members trained to lower them are trapped behind the watertight doors. Reportedly, only one lifeboat is lowered correctly during the sinking and roughly 5 others still make it away from the stricken passenger liner. One lowers with only 12 sailors in it. Others have cables snap, fall, and capsize - tossing their occupants into the icy water or crushing those already in it. At one point, the useless anti-aircraft guns break free and plummet overboard, landing on a fully-occupied lifeboat.

    Below right: The Gustloff sinking in the 1960 movie Nacht fiel über Gotenhafen.

    Some report seeing a high-ranking officer with his wife lowering a motorboat only half occupied. It passes right by the plate glass of the enclosed promenade, jammed with desperate women and children. We can only imagine what those on both sides of the glass were thinking. It seems selfish acts are not reserved strictly for the passengers.

    ​Back on Löwe, her SOS signal was picked up by the Admiral Hipper and T-36 under Lt. Commander Robert Hering and both ships were heading in the direction of the sinking ship. By this time, the Wilhelm Gustloff was listing even further onto her port side. The situation was dire on the ship. Those wounded and unable to get off their beds were left to their fate on the upper decks. As the Gustloff keeled over, they would've slid across the room into the wall with anything else not nailed down. If the impacts didn't kill them, the influx of water rushing into the interiors would've. It's hard to imagine laying there without the use of your limbs, knowing you've been left to die on a sinking ship and you have 15, 30, 45 minutes to contemplate the last few minutes of your life on Earth. The grand piano, the only piece of furniture left in the Music Hall, slammed into people against the wall as the ship sank according to other survivors. Up on the Sun Deck, rafts and boats that were unable to have been launched rolled down the deck, smashing through the railing and landing in the sea. By this time, the S-13's unfired torpedo was diffused and Marinesko watched the death throes of his target through the periscope. The Admiral Hipper and T-36 get closer as the Gustloff's funnel was almost level with the water.

    ​All four captains manage to save themselves from the sinking ship while people trapped behind the glass of the Lower Promenade Deck struggled to break the glass before they would drown. Despite the window's ability to slide down, the ice and snow prevented this. Survivors reported standing on the outside of the Gustloff as she was on her side watching through the glass as the water rose and eventually claimed hundreds on the other side. After picking up the sound of the S-13, the Admiral Hipper decided with 1,600 refugees already on board, she would flee the scene rather than risk getting sunk herself. The biggest ray of hope for those in the water was soon gone.

    ​Soon, the Wilhelm Gustloff was in her final moments. Thousands of screams filled the black night air as the sounds of splashing surrounded everyone on all sides. Just before the Gustloff sank, her stern began to rise out of the air. Eerily, as if to say her final good-bye, the entire ship regained power and every light on board illuminated the entire night sky. In a final blaze of farewell, wailing siren drown with the ship as it descends into the depths. The Wilhelm Gustloff had sunk taking 9,343 souls with her in 70 minutes. 1,252 survived.


    ​​ Those left flailing in the freezing stormy water of the Baltic won't last long. Many try to grasp at lifeboats or rafts - only to be clubbed or beaten off by desperate and paranoid occupants. Bodies of victims, made buoyant by their lifejackets, bob up and down lifelessly in the sea. Corpses of younger children float upside down, the ill-fitting life jackets not designed for smaller sizes. It's almost as if the lifejackets themselves could never have anticipated such an unimaginable tragedy to befall upon a child.

    ​In the cold Baltic Sea, the T-36 worked overtime rescuing survivors and protecting herself from the sounds of the S-13. Hering ordered depth charges dropped in an attempt to eliminate the sub. While the S-13 was able to slip away into the deep, the depth charges exploded with survivors in the water, each killing scores with each blast. In the end, several ships rescued survivors from the disaster. The T-36 rescued 564 people, the torpedo boat Löwe saved 472 people, Minesweeper M387 saved 98 people, Minesweeper M375 saved 43 people, and the MinesweeperM341 rescued 37 people. Waltraud was saved in a lifeboat that held 35 men and women. "When we were saved, there were 5 of us. Three officers, a Berliner, and myself. Those who froze to death we had to throw back to the sea." Her lifeboat was picked up by the steamer Göttingen which saved 28 people. Last, the torpedo practice boat TF19 saved 7, and the freighter Gotland saved 2 people.

    In any tragedy however, miracles can happen. Seven hours after the ship went down, a small patrol boat, VP-1703 arrives to a sea of floating bodies. Its on board searchlight finds a lifeboat. When Petty Officer Werner Fick jumps in to inspect it, he discovers an infant wrapped tightly in a wool blanket - astonishingly alive among the frozen corpses. This is the last official survivor of the Wilhelm Gustloff.

    Two of the most graphic images relating to the Wilhelm Gustloff: "Bodies washed ashore along the Pomeranian coastline for weeks after the tragic Gustloff sinking. Most of the victims died from prolonged exposure to the icy waters." This is the same area where the deck wood carved into the Madonna was discovered laying on the beaches among the dead.

    Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff - January 30th, 1945
    ​List of dead, missing, and survivors by Heinz Schön

    Much of the information we know today from the Wilhelm Gustloff is through the efforts of Heinz Schön​, who was on board the Wilhelm Gustloff and survived her sinking. Interviewing witnesses and survivors, he began the Gustloff Archive and in 1952 published "The Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff".

    Very few people realize that through his efforts, there is an incomplete list of those who were missing, died, and survived the sinking that night. While published in his works in Germany, I wanted to share his lists here for those who are seeking information on loved ones or family that were on board that fateful night. Heinz died on April 7th, 2013 and his ashes were laid to rest on the wreck on May 10th. 09 II 2020.

    wilhelmgustloffmuseum site worth looking at.

    75th anniversary and it's not mentioned.

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