As soon as the Wilhelm Gustloff was struck, total chaos broke out aboard the ship. Anarchy reigned as crowds of people tried to climb or run over one another in a largely vain attempt to make their way to safety. From the time when the ship was first struck until it disappeared beneath the roiling, frozen waters of the Baltic took only seventy minutes. Passengers from eight to eighty were at the mercy of the elements. The water temperature that night was a chilling 39 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius). Even the healthiest could not survive in such an environment for more than a few minutes. While drowning or hypothermia killed the majority of passengers on the Gustloff, hundreds of others had been blown or torn apart by the torpedo explosions. Projectiles of glass and tile had been sent flying into those unlucky enough to be near a point of detonation.
The Lonely Hope Of Survival – Women & Children Last
While the Gustloff was rapidly sinking the Soviet S-13 sub which had launched the deadly torpedo shots was also consumed by panic. Torpedo # 2 named “For Stalin” had been armed and ready to detonate, but jammed in its launch tube. One jolt and the S-13 would be joining the Gustloff in a watery grave. The crew worked frantically to safe the device. They were able to disarm the torpedo before it was too late. The S-13 would survive, but the same could not be said for 90% of those trapped on the Gustloff. Many never even made it onto the deck. The majority of these were women and children. They were trapped inside the creaking, wailing wreck of a ship fast disappearing under the waves. The only hope for survival was due to the efforts of what had been the Gustloff’s lone torpedo escort boat, the Lowe. As the lone watercraft able to receive the Gustloff’s distress signal, it was then able to re-transmit an SOS which brought two other relief vessels into the area.
In all, some 1,200 passengers were saved from an almost certain death. Conversely, over 9,600 perished, sinking one-hundred and forty seven meters to the bottom of the Baltic along with the remnants of the Gustloff. The sheer enormity of the disaster in maritime terms can be discerned from the figure of 4,000 children dead. That is two and a half times the entire death toll of the Titanic. Despite the number of deaths, hardly anyone noticed when it happened. This was a sad and tragic commentary on the state of Europe and the world at the end of the war. What were 9,600 more deaths in a worldwide conflagration that ended up taking the lives of an estimated 60 million people?
What Was Never Reported, Was Soon Forgotten
Since the Nazi state had been an aggressor nation and brought about the war, there was a lack of pity for anyone associated with Germany, no matter how innocent. As for the Third Reich, which had lost millions of soldiers and civilians, it was just another calamity on the path to total destruction. The German media, totally propagandized, failed to report the Gustloff’s fate. The nation was already reeling, no use adding to their growing concern. In the coming months, Germany would undergo invasion, conquest and occupation. The population would be more worried about survival than mourning the worst maritime disaster in human history.
The Soviets did not show much interest in publicizing the Gustloff’s fate. It was just one more incident on the long and bloody road to Berlin. In usual wartime conditions the submarine’s commander Alexander Marinesko would have been made a Hero of the Soviet Union for his role in destroying such a symbol of Nazi power. This was not to be. Even though he went on to sink yet another refugee ship, the Steuben, taking 3,000 more lives, his feats would go unnoticed. The opposite was true when it came to his behavior. After the war ended he was dishonorably discharged from the Soviet Navy. He was given a bureaucratic desk job that did not last for long. Marinesko, like so many Soviet officers in the post-war period, was arrested on trumped up charges and sent to Siberia. Years later, with the Soviet Union in terminal decline and Marinesko long since dead, the rebellious naval commander was finally given the coveted “Hero of the Soviet Union” award. His actions were a reflection of the complex and conflicted final phase of the war, best described as less than heroic.
Sinking Into History – The Reemergence of Wilhelm Gustloff
After descending to its final resting place on the Baltic seabed, the Gustloff would not be left in peace. Rumors abounded that the Soviets, in their seemingly endless search for loot, sent divers down to the wreck in search of submerged treasures. What they found, if anything, is still a mystery today. That is, if they even undertook such an expedition at all. Such details may be hidden in sealed archives or lost to history. They may even have been forgotten. One thing is for sure, the Wilhelm Gusloff re-emerged into the historical conscious during the last twenty-five years. The incident is now openly discussed and debated by German society. The last survivors or those who lost loved ones are allowed to publicly mourn. Finally they are able to plumb the depths of shock and sorrow associated with the memory of that bitterly cold Baltic night when the Wilhelm Gustloff sank into history.