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MV Wilhelm Gustloff

Wilhelm Gustloff as a hospital ship. Danzig, 23 September 1939
Name: MV Wilhelm Gustloff
Namesake: Wilhelm Gustloff
Owner: Deutsche Arbeitsfront
Operator: Hamburg-South America Line
Port of registry: Germany
Builder: Blohm & Voss
Cost: 25 million Reichmarks
Yard number: 511
Laid down: 1 August 1936
Launched: 5 May 1937
Acquired: 15 March 1938
In service: No
Out of service: Yes
Identification: Radio ID (DJVZ)
Fate: Requisitioned into the Kriegsmarine on 1 September 1939
Career (Germany)
Name: Lazarettschiff D (Hospital Ship D)
Operator: Kriegsmarine (German Navy)
Acquired: 1 September 1939
Career (Germany)
Name: Wilhelm Gustloff
Operator: Kriegsmarine
Acquired: 20 November 1940
Out of service: November 1940 – January 1945
Fate: Torpedoed and sunk 30 January 1945
Notes: Used as floating barracks for the Second Submarine Training Division until the vessel returned to active service ferrying civilians and military personnel as part of Operation Hannibal
General characteristics
Class & type: Cruise ship
Tonnage: 25,484 GRT
Length: 208.5 m (684 ft 1 in)
Beam: 23.59 m (77 ft 5 in)
Height: 56 m (183 ft 9 in) keel to masthead
Decks: 8
Installed power: 9,500 hp (7,100 kW)
Propulsion: 4 × 8-cylinder MAN diesel engines
2 × 4-blade propellers
Speed: 15.5 kn (28.7 km/h; 17.8 mph)
Range: 12,000 nmi (22,000 km; 14,000 mi) at 15 kn (28 km/h; 17 mph)

1,465 passengers (as designed) in 489 cabins:

  • 248 two-bed
  • 241 four-bed
  • 417 cruise ship
  • 173 naval
Armament: 3 × 105 mm (4.1 in) anti-aircraft guns
8 × 20 mm (0.79 in) anti-aircraft cannons[1]

The MV Wilhelm Gustloff was a German military ship which was sunk on 30 January 1945 by a Soviet submarine in the Baltic Sea while evacuating German civilians, officials and military personnel from Gdynia (Gotenhafen) as the Red Army advanced. By one estimate,[2] 9,400 people died which would make it the largest loss of life in a single ship sinking in history.

Constructed as a cruise ship for the Nazi Kraft durch Freude (Kriegsmarine (German navy) in 1939. She served as a hospital ship in 1939 and 1940. She was then assigned as a floating barracks for naval personnel in Gdynia before being put into service to transport evacuees in 1945.


  • Construction 1
  • Cruise liner 2
  • Military career 3
  • Operation Hannibal – Evacuation 4
    • Sinking 4.1
    • Losses 4.2
  • Aftermath 5
  • Wreckage 6
  • Books, documentaries and movies 7
    • Books in German 7.1
    • Books in English 7.2
    • Books in French 7.3
    • Dramatized films 7.4
    • Documentaries 7.5
  • See also 8
  • Notes 9
  • References 10
  • Further reading 11
  • External links 12


The Wilhelm Gustloff was constructed by the Blohm & Voss shipyards. Measuring 208.50 m (684 ft 1 in) long by 23.59 m (77 ft 5 in) wide with a capacity of 25,484 gross register tons, she was launched on 5 May 1937.

The ship was originally intended to be named Adolf Hitler but was named after Wilhelm Gustloff, a leader of the National Socialist Party's Swiss branch, who had been assassinated in 1936. Hitler decided on the name change after sitting next to Gustloff’s widow during his memorial service.[3]

Cruise liner

The Wilhelm Gustloff was the first purpose-built cruise liner for the Strength Through Joy). Its purposes were to provide recreational and cultural activities for German functionaries and workers, including concerts, cruises, and other holiday trips, and as a public relations tool, to present "a more acceptable image of the Third Reich."[4] She was the flagship of the KdF cruise fleet, her last civilian role, until the spring of 1939.

Military career

During the summer of 1939, she was pressed into service to bring the Condor Legion back from Spain after the victory of the Nationalist forces under General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

German soldiers wounded at Narvik being transported back to Germany on the Wilhelm Gustloff in July 1940.
From September 1939 to November 1940, she served as a hospital ship, with her official designation being Lazarettschiff D.

Beginning on 20 November 1940, the medical equipment was removed from the ship and it was repainted from the hospital ship colors of white with a green stripe to standard naval grey.[5] As a consequence of the British blockade of the German coastline, she was used as an accommodations ship (barracks) for approximately 1,000 U-boat trainees of the 2nd Submarine Training Division (2. Unterseeboot-Lehrdivision) in the port of Gdynia, which had been occupied by Germany and renamed Gotenhafen, located near Danzig. In 1942, the SS Cap Arcona was used as a stand-in for the Titanic in the German film version of the disaster. Filmed in Gotenhafen, the 2nd Submarine Training Division acted as extras in the movie.[5] The Wilhelm Gustloff sat dockside for over four years, until she was put back in service to transport civilians and military personnel as part of Operation Hannibal.

Operation Hannibal – Evacuation

Operation Hannibal was the naval evacuation of German troops and civilians from Courland, East Prussia and the Polish Corridor as the Red Army advanced. Wilhelm Gustloff's final voyage was to evacuate German refugees and military personnel as well as technicians who worked at advanced weapon bases in the Baltic[6] from Gdynia, then known to the Germans as Gotenhafen, to Kiel.[7]

The ship's complement and passenger lists cited 6,050 people on board, but this did not include many civilians who boarded the ship without being recorded in the ship's official embarkation records. Heinz Schön, a German archivist and Gustloff survivor who carried out extensive research into the sinking during the 1980s and 1990s, concluded that the Wilhelm Gustloff was carrying a crew of 173 (naval armed forces auxiliaries), 918 officers, NCOs, and men of the 2 Unterseeboot-Lehrdivision, 373 female naval auxiliary helpers, 162 wounded soldiers, and 8,956 civilians of which an estimated 5,000 were children, for a total of 10,582 passengers and crew.[7] Besides soldiers, the passengers included Nazis dignitaries, as well as members of Gestapo and Todt organization.

The ship left Gotenhafen early on 30 January 1945, accompanied by the passenger liner Hansa, also filled with civilians and military personnel, and two torpedo boats. The Hansa and one torpedo boat developed mechanical problems and could not continue, leaving the Wilhelm Gustloff with one torpedo boat escort, the Löwe.[8] The ship had four captains (the Gustloff's captain, two merchant marine captains and the captain of the U-Boat complement housed on the vessel) on board, and they could not agree on the best course of action to guard against submarine attacks. Against the advice of the military commander, Lieutenant Commander Wilhelm Zahn (a submariner who argued for a course in shallow waters close to shore and without lights), the Gustloff's captain—Friedrich Petersen—decided to head for deep water which was known to have been cleared of mines. When he was informed by a mysterious radio message of an oncoming German minesweeper convoy, he decided to activate his ship's red and green navigation lights so as to avoid a collision in the dark, making the Wilhelm Gustloff easy to spot in the night. The source or authenticity of this radio message was never confirmed and there was no oncoming German minesweeper convoy as it later turned out.

As the Wilhelm Gustloff had been fitted with anti-aircraft guns, and the Germans in obedience to the rules of war did not mark it as a hospital ship (unlike the Soviet hospital ship Armenia which had carried anti-aircraft guns with red cross markings), no notification of it operating in a hospital capacity had been given and, as it was transporting military personnel, it did not have any protection as a hospital ship under international accords.[9]


The ship and its escorting torpedo boat were soon sighted by the Soviet submarine S-13, under the command of Captain Alexander Marinesko. The U-boat sensing equipment on board the escorting torpedo boat had frozen rendering it inoperable as had the Gustloff's anti-aircraft guns, leaving the vessels defenceless. Marinesko followed the ships for two hours before launching three torpedoes at the Wilhelm Gustloff′s port side about 30 km (16 nmi; 19 mi) offshore between Großendorf and Leba soon after 21:00 (CET), hitting it with all three. (Marinesko intended to fire four torpedoes but the fourth misfired and the crew had to disarm it.)[7] The first torpedo (with a text written on it: "For the Motherland") struck near the port bow. The second torpedo ("For the Soviet people") hit just ahead of midships. The third torpedo ("For Leningrad") struck the engine room in the area below the ship's funnel, cutting off electrical power to the ship. The Gustloff took a light list to port and settled rapidly by the head. The fourth torpedo (disarmed) was named "For Stalin".[10]

The first torpedo caused the watertight doors to seal off the bow which contained the crews' quarters where off-duty crew members were sleeping. The second torpedo hit the accommodations for the Women’s Naval Auxiliary (located in the ship's drained swimming pool); only three of the 373 quartered there survived. The third torpedo was a direct hit on the engine room, cutting all power and communications. Reportedly, only one lifeboat was able to be lowered, the rest had frozen in their davits and had to be broken free with some lost when they fell or capsized as a result of the panic.[10] The water temperature in the Baltic Sea at this time of year is usually around 4 °C (39 °F); however, this was a particularly cold night, with an air temperature of −18 to −10 °C (0 to 14 °F) and ice floes covering the surface. Many deaths were caused either directly by the torpedoes or by drowning in the onrushing water. Others were crushed in the initial panic on the stairs and decks, and many jumped into the icy Baltic. The majority of those who perished succumbed to exposure in the freezing water.[11]

Less than 40 minutes after being struck, the Wilhelm Gustloff was lying on her side and sank bow-first, in 44 m (144 ft) of water. Thousands of people were trapped inside on the promenade deck.

German forces were able to rescue some (a total of 1,252) of the survivors from the attack: torpedo boat T-36 rescued 564 people; torpedo boat Löwe, 472; Minesweeper M387, 98; Minesweeper M375, 43; Minesweeper M341, 37; the steamer Göttingen saved 28; torpedo-recovery boat (Torpedofangboot) TF19, seven; the freighter Gotland, two; and Patrol boat (Vorpostenboot) V1703 was able to save one baby.

All four captains on the Gustloff survived its sinking, but an official naval inquiry was started only against Wilhelm Zahn. His degree of responsibility was never resolved, however, because of Nazi Germany's collapse in 1945.[12]


The figures from the research of Heinz Schön make the total lost in the sinking to be about 9,343 total, including about 5,000 children.[13] This would represent the largest loss of life resulting from the sinking of a single vessel in maritime history.
A porthole window from the Wilhelm Gustloff, salvaged in 1988 by Philip Sayers on behalf of Rudi Lange (the radio operator on board at the time of sinking) and donated to the museum ship Albatross in Damp in 2000. The porthole has two steel bars on the outside.

Heinz Schön's more recent research is backed up by estimates made by a different method. An episode of Unsolved History that aired in March 2003 [2] on the Discovery Channel program undertook a computer analysis of its sinking. Using software called maritime EXODUS [14] it was estimated 9,400 souls were lost of over 10,600 on board. This analysis considered the passenger density based on witness reports and a simulation of escape routes and survivability with the timeline of the sinking.[15]


Many ships carrying civilians were sunk during the war by both the Allies and Axis.[16] However, based on the latest estimates of passenger numbers and those known to be saved, the Wilhelm Gustloff remains the largest loss of life resulting from the sinking of one vessel in maritime history. Günter Grass, in an interview published by the New York Times in April 2003, "One of the many reasons I wrote Crabwalk was to take the subject away from the extreme Right...They said the tragedy of the Gustloff was a war crime. It wasn't. It was terrible, but it was a result of war, a terrible result of war."[17]

About 1,000 German naval officers and men were aboard during, and died in, the sinking of the Gustloff. The women on board the ship at the time of the sinking were inaccurately described by Soviet propaganda as "

  • Details, map and position info on (English) (German) (French) (Dutch)
  • Location of the wreck
  • Maritimequest Wilhelm Gustloff Photo Gallery
  • National Geographic Channel Timeline
  • Sinking the Gustloff (Film about Gustloff survivors)
  • The Wilhelm Gustloff Museum – The Ultimate Visual Record
  • Wilhelm Gustloff hi-rez images gallery
  • Wilhelm Gustloff Cruise Ship History

External links

  • Bishop, Leigh; Shipwreck Expedition May 2003, led by Mike Boring, 2003
  • Prince, Cathryn J. Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
  • Sellwood, A.V. The Damned Don't Drown: The Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff
  • Weston, Roger. Fatal Return. (Self-published/ASIN: B008QPW2YI)

Further reading

  • The Cruellest Night by Christopher Dobson, John Miller & Ronald Payne (1979, Hodder & Stoughton, London) ISBN 0-340-22720-6 (a book on Germany's Dunkirk, estimates c7,000 dead).
  • Kappes, Irwin J.; The Greatest Marine Disaster in History...and why you probably never heard of it, 2003.
  • Leja, Michael; Die letzte Fahrt der "Wilhelm Gustloff"; ZDF (1 August 2005), reports that earlier estimates of approximately 6000 drowned have been revised upwards by more recent sources to about 9300. An article in German.
  • Pipes, Jason; A Memorial to the Wilhelm Gustloff
  • Schön, Heinz; Die Gustloff Katastrophe (Motorbuch Verlag, Stuttgart, 2002)
  • Williams, David; Wartime Disasters at Sea (Patrick Stephens Limited, Nr Yeovil, UK, 1997) ISBN 1-85260-565-0.
  • Novel linked to the history and sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Fatal Return.


  1. ^ Kriegsmarine Coastal Forces Gordon Williamson, page 39,Osprey Publishing 2009
  2. ^ a b "Wilhelm Gustloff: World's Deadliest Sea Disasters". Unsolved History, The Discovery Channel. Season 1, Episode 14. (Original air date: March 26, 2003)
  3. ^ "DID YOU KNOW?". Retrieved 15 February 2014. 
  4. ^ Williams, David, Wartime Disasters at Sea, Patrick Stephens Limited, Nr Yeovil, UK, 1997, p. 227.
  6. ^ Submarines of the Russian and Soviet navies, 1718–1990 Von Norman Polmar,Jurrien Noot, page 190 Naval Institute Press 1991
  7. ^ a b c Pipes, Jason. A Memorial to the Wilhelm Gustloff
  8. ^ Löwe Torpedoboot 1940–1959 Sleipner Class
  9. ^ The Avalon Project – Laws of War: Adaptation to Maritime War of the Principles of the Geneva Convention (Hague X); October 18, 1907
  10. ^ a b M.S. Wilhelm Gustloff – SINKING
  11. ^ Roger Moorhouse (19 June 2013): Death in the Baltic History Today, retrieved 19 June 2013
  12. ^ M.S. Wilhelm Gustloff – FACTS – Glossary | Individuals
  13. ^ Pipes, Jason. In A Memorial to the Wilhelm Gustloff Pipes cites Heinz Schön as reporting in Die Gustloff Katastrophe that the loss of life was 9,343, almost 5000 of whom were children.
  14. ^ Fire Safety Engineering Group, University of Greenwich. maritime EXODUS software. Current exodus products. Specifically: maritimeEXODUS The Evacuation Model for the Marine Environment (pdf)
  15. ^ Michael Leja, References (a source in German)
  16. ^ George Martin Maritime Disasters of World War II
  17. ^ Riding, Alan. Still Intrigued by History's Shadows; Günter Grass Worries About the Effects of War. New York Times, 04/08/2003
  18. ^ Потопленный миф
  19. ^ Cathryn J. Prince: Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. New York: Palgrave macmillan, 2012. Page 119
  20. ^ E. Kosiarz, Druga Wojna Światowa na Bałtyku, page 614.
  21. ^ Irwin J. Kappes References
  22. ^ [ZARZĄDZENIE PORZĄDKOWE NR 9 DYREKTORA URZĘDU MORSKIEGO W GDYNI z dnia 23 maja 2006 r. w sprawie zakazu nurkowania na wrakach statków-mogiłach wojennych]
  23. ^ Mark Landler Poles riled by Berlin exhibition originally published in The New York Times, 30 August 2006; republished in the International Herald Tribune


See also

  • Killer Submarine, 1999.
  • Die große Flucht. Der Untergang der Gustloff (The Great Escape. The sinking of the Gustloff), 2001.
  • "The Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff", The Sea Hunters (television program), 2002.
  • "Wilhelm Gustloff: World's Deadliest Sea Disaster", Unsolved History (television program), 2003.
  • Ghosts of the Baltic Sea, 2006.
  • Sinking Hitler's Supership, 2008. National Geographic documentary using extensive footage from the 2008 German miniseries.
  • "Sinking the Gustloff", 2009
  • The Nazi Titanic (television program), 2010.


  • Nacht fiel über Gotenhafen (Night fell over Gotenhafen), feature film, 1959
  • Die Gustloff (The Gustloff), two-part telemovie by Joseph Vilsmaier, 2008 (Ship of No Return: The Last Voyage of the Gustloff, Australian title)

Dramatized films

  • Eric Dupont: La Fiancée Américaine, Ed. Marchand de Feuilles, 2012, ISBN 9782923896151 .

Books in French

  • Roger Weston: Fatal Return, 2012. Novel linked to the history and sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff.
A film set for the German 2008 TV movie "Die Gustloff"
  • Cathryn Prince: Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2013, ISBN 978-0230341562
  • Christopher Dobson, John Miller, and Ronald Payne: The Cruellest Night, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1979, ISBN 0-340-22720-6.
  • A.V. Sellwood: The Damned Don't Drown. The Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1973, ISBN 1-55750-742-2 (fiction). In Sellwood's own words, this is a "reconstruction of the tragedy", with material drawn from "interviews with some of the survivors and official documents".
  • Günter Grass: Im Krebsgang, which has been translated into English as Crabwalk. Steidl Verlag, Göttingen 2002, ISBN 3-88243-800-2 (fiction). Combines historical elements, such as the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, with fictional elements, such as the book's major characters and events.
  • Clive Cussler & Paul Kemprecos: Polar Shift, Puttnam, New York, 2005, ISBN 978-0399152719. Novel containing lengthy sequences set on the Gustloff.
  • John Ries: "History's Greatest Naval Disasters. The Little-Known Stories of the Wilhelm Gustloff, the General Steuben and the Goya". In the controversial Journal of Historical Review, 1992, vol. 12, no. 3, pp. 371–381.

Recent years have seen increased interest in the Wilhelm Gustloff disaster in countries outside Germany, with various books either written in or translated into English, including:

Books in English

  • Der Untergang der "Wilhelm Gustloff". Tatsachenbericht eines Überlebenden. (The sinking of the "Wilhelm Gustloff". Factual account of a survivor.) Karina-Goltze-Verlag K.-G., Göttingen 1952;
  • SOS Wilhelm Gustloff. Die größte Schiffskatastrophe der Geschichte. (SOS Wilhelm Gustloff. The biggest shipping disaster in history.) Motorbuch Verlag Pietsch, Stuttgart 1998, ISBN 3-613-01900-0;
  • Die Gustloff – Katastrophe. Bericht eines Überlebenden über die größte Schiffskatastrophe im Zweiten Weltkrieg. (The Gustloff catastrophe. Account of a survivor of the biggest shipping disaster in the Second World War.) Motorbuch Verlag, 2002, ISBN 3-613-01027-5;
  • Die letzte Fahrt der Wilhelm Gustloff. Dokumentation eines Überlebenden. (The last trip of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Account of a survivor.) Motorbuch Verlag, Stuttgart 2008, ISBN 3-613-02897-2.
  • Günter Grass: Im Krebsgang, which has also been translated (by Miguel Sáenz) from German to Spanish as A Paso de Cangrejo. Alfaguara – Santillana Ediciones Generales, S.L. 2002 (Madrid), ISBN 9788420464589.

The most prolific German author and historian on the subject of the Wilhelm Gustloff is Heinz Schön, one of the shipwreck's survivors, whose books (in German) include:

Books in German

Books, documentaries and movies

In 2006, a bell recovered from the wreck and subsequently used as decoration in a Polish fish restaurant was lent to a privately funded "Forced Paths" exhibition in Berlin.[23]

Noted as "Obstacle No. 73" on Polish navigation charts,[21] and classified as a war grave, Gustloff rests at 55.0729°N 17.4213°E / 55.0729; 17.4213 / 55°04′22″N 17°25′17″E, about 30 km (16 nmi; 19 mi) offshore, east of Łeba (17.33E) and west of Władysławowo (18.24E). It is one of the largest shipwrecks on the Baltic Sea floor and has been attracting much interest from treasure hunters searching for the lost Amber Room. In order to protect the property on board the war grave-wreck of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff and to protect the environment, the Polish Maritime Office in Gdynia has forbidden diving within a 500 m (1,600 ft) radius of the wreck.[22]

A model of the Wilhelm Gustloff at the Laboe Naval Memorial


Before sinking the Gustloff, Alexander Marinesko was facing a court martial due to his problems with alcohol and was thus deemed "not suitable to be a hero" for his actions and was instead awarded the Order of the Red Banner. Although widely recognized as a brilliant commander, he was downgraded in rank to lieutenant and dishonorably discharged from the Navy in October 1945. In 1960 he was reinstated as Captain Third Class and granted a full pension. In 1963 Marinesko was given the traditional ceremony due to a captain upon his successful return from a mission. He died three weeks later from cancer. Marinesko was posthumously awarded Hero of the Soviet Union by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990.

Just 11 days after the sinking, the S-13 would sink another German ship, the SS General von Steuben, on 10 February, in which around 3,000 people lost their lives. Following the sinking of the Steuben, Hitler had Alexander Marinesko declared a "personal enemy."


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