As dawn broke on January 30, 1945 the weather was bleak and heavy at the Baltic seaport of Gotenhafen (present day Gdynia, Poland). Located on the coast of Prussia, the city was still officially part of the Third Reich, but this would not last much longer. The Red Army was approaching from the east with a ferocity not seen in Europe by a conquering army since the Mongol invasions. Stories from the borderland cities and countryside of East Prussia told of murder without reason, mass rape and even crucifixion. No matter their age or circumstances ethnic Germans were targeted. Terrified citizens from all across Prussia attempted to flee westward. This brought tens of thousands of them to Gotenhafen where they hoped to secure a voyage to safety. Lost on the majority of them, was the tragic irony that the ethnic cleansing they were now being subjected to, had been carried out by their own government at the same port a few years earlier. After the Germans had occupied the port in September of that year, they expelled some 50,000 Poles. This was done all in the name of a greater German Reich. Now a mere five years later the oppressors had become the oppressed.
Despite a leaden sky spitting sleet and snow, thousands of refugees could hardly wait to board the former passenger cruise liner Wilhelm Gustloff. It was slated for a journey to the northwestern German port of Kiel, a reputed safe haven. The ship, which could comfortably fit several thousand, was packed way beyond its maximum capacity. The Gustloff had sat in port for the duration of the war, but it was now going back out to sea as part of Operation Hannibal, the evacuation of East Prussia. This would become one of the largest evacuations by sea in human history. Between five hundred and a thousand ships transported 1.2 million soldiers and civilians to safety in Germany and Denmark. For all of its success, the evacuation was also marked by numerous tragedies, one of which was about to become the worst maritime disaster in human history.
Anti-Heroes – Prey & Predator on the Baltic
During the morning, thousands crowded onto the ship. The first allowed to board were naval auxiliary troops and officers, followed by a great mass of elderly men, women and children. More children than could possibly be imagined. The flower of Prussian youth was leaving their homeland for parts unknown. By the time the ship was loaded and ready to disembark, there were approximately 10,600 passengers, two-fifths of whom were children. These passengers were the supposed lucky ones. While they made their way onboard, hundreds of others at dockside begged to join them. Much of this fearful throng was left behind. Their only hope, find another evacuation ship or beg for mercy at the hands of the Red Army.
At 12:30 p.m. the Gustloff slowly made its way out of the harbor. The officers in charge made a calculated decision to risk the open sea, rather than hug the coastline. They hoped to avoid any minefields. This would be one of several decisions that would ultimately decide the Gustloff’s fate. As the ship swayed back and forth on the turbulent, icy sea, many passengers became sick. Sanitary conditions were less than ideal. Toilets clogged and stopped working. An overpowering stench pervaded the ship’s interior. Unbeknownst to the officers and passengers aboard the Gustloff they were headed for danger. A Soviet submarine, S-13 had improbably made its way out into the Gulf of Danzig, hoping to score a hit on a German ship. The captain of the S-13 was Alexander Marinesko, an anti-hero if there ever was one. Marinseko was known for both brilliance and a penchant for non-conformity, if not outright insubordinate behavior. A month earlier he had missed an assignment to patrol the Baltic because of binge drinking and an illicit, multi-day affair with a prostitute in Finland. He only avoided court martial or much worse because Soviet leader Josef Stalin had called for every naval resource possible to take part in the final destruction of German forces. Despite the troubles he had brought upon himself, Marinesko’s non-conformist behavior continued unabated. Around the time when the Gustloff set sail, Marinesko decided to leave his assigned patrol area around the port of Memel and take the S-13 into the waters of the Gulf of Danzig. He believed that there was a much greater chance of catching a German vessel off guard in this area. His instincts would turn out to be correct.
Infamous Last Words – The Voice of Hitler
A bitterly cold night had descended over the Baltic. Quietly making its way through zero degree weather, the Wilhelm Gustloff looked to be well on its way to safe passage. Then at 8:00 p.m. the ship received a mysterious message that it was being approached by German minesweepers. The possibility of a collision now presented itself. A fatal decision was made to turn on the navigation lights. This made the ship instantly recognizable to the enemy. It was not long before the S-13 had the Gustloff firmly in its sights. About that same time a bizarre paradox occurred. Wafting through the crammed interior of the ship was the voice of Adolf Hitler. This was a broadcast of the Fuehrer’s speech on the 12th anniversary of the Third Reich’s founding. Thousands of refugees listened whether they wanted to or not. It is doubtful that many still believed in the greatness of the Third Reich. After all, here were thousands of its citizens adrift and vulnerable, just hoping to find shelter hundreds of miles from their homes.
After Hitler’s speech ended it was not long before a series of loud explosions tore through the ship. At 9:16 p.m. the Gustloff was struck by three torpedoes. In a bit of horrific justice, each of the three torpedoes had been painted with a phrase. Torpedo 1: “For the Motherland” Torpedo 3: “For the Soviet People” Torpedo 4: “For Leningrad”. The 2nd torpedo with the phrase “For Stalin” got stuck in its launch tube. The S-13 was now in danger of being blown up by its own weapon. While the Gustloff was beginning to sink, the S-13 was on the verge of self-destruction. They seemed to be metaphors and microcosms of the totalitarian societies that had conceived them.