As we saw the other day, the beginning of 1945 was also the beginning of the end of Nazi Germany. At just about the same time the Russians were freeing the few remaining prisoners still alive in Auschwitz, they were also bearing down on Prussia. Rumors of Soviet brutality went ahead of the actual armies, convincing soldier and civilian alike that westward movement was in their best interests.
Operation Hannibal was the German operation to evacuate troops, officers, and citizens from the path of approaching enemy. One of the ships used in the evacuation was passenger liner Wilhelm Gustloff. Built to carry 1,450 passengers, the ship was packed to the gills with more than 10,000 German officers, wounded soldiers, men, women, and children. The ship left the Polish port of Gdynia (just north of Gdansk) shortly after noon on January 30, 1945, headed for Germany and relative safety. With temperatures at 0°F and a mixture of sleet and hail being thrown about by high winds, the passengers mostly huddled below decks and just waited for the trip through the Baltic Sea to be over.
As evening fell, the ocean liner, almost completely unguarded except by an old torpedo boat whose sonar was frozen, was sighted by Soviet submarine S-13. Captain Alexander Marinesko and his crew had found few targets of opportunity in the three weeks since they’d set sail from Finland. And here was an unprotected ship of enormous size.
At just after 9:00pm, with the echoes of Adolf Hitler’s speech commemorating the 12th anniversary of his rise to power still echoing over the decks, three torpedoes slammed into the Wilhelm Gustloff. Named “For the Motherland“, “For the Soviet People“, and “For Leningrad“, they hit the bow, just behind the bow, and the engine room. A fourth torpedo, “For Stalin“, failed to launch.
An hour later, the liner slipped below the frigid waters of the Baltic. Of the 10,500 passegers and crew, only 1,230 survived. With more than 9,000 dead, the sinking of the Wihlem Gustloff was (and still is) the largest disaster in maritime history.
Recommended Reading: WilhelmGustloff.com – All the details you’d want, all the photos they can legally show you.