The Worst Maritime Disaster in History

Today is the 68th anniversary of the worst maritime disaster in history. Whilst 1,500 perished on the Titanic, in the region of 10,000 people died when the Wilhelm Gustloff sank in freezing darkness off Poland’s Baltic coast. The name and date probably hint at why hardly anyone knows about the disaster: the Wilhelm Gustloff was a German ship, and she sank in the final months of the Second World War. The story of the Wilhelm Gustloff is featured prominently in our new book, Final Voyage: The World’s Worst Maritime Disasters.

The Wilhelm Gustloff was meant to be the pride of the German merchant navy. In the late 1930s this glorious white liner took poor German workers on bargain-priced cruises around Europe. Many of these people had never left their villages before, and now they were seeing the world from one of the most luxurious ships ever built. But the true purpose of the Wilhelm Gustloff was more sinister. She was a vehicle for Nazi propaganda, her passengers a captive audience for constant Nazi indoctrination.

The Wilhelm Gustloff

When war broke out, the Wilhelm Gustloff was conscripted into the Kriegsmarine and spent most of the war as a floating barracks. In January 1945, when Germany was in full retreat from the Soviets in Eastern Europe, the Wilhelm Gustloff took part in Operation Hannibal, the evacuation of Germans from the East, across the Baltic and into Germany. It was a relatively short journey that should have taken only a few hours. All safety protocols were ignored and the soldiers supervising loading allowed over 10,000 to squeeze aboard, until there was standing room only. Some even had to spend the journey standing in a drained swimming pool.

Most of those on board the Wilhelm Gustloff never made it back to Germany. In the middle of a blizzard, the Wilhelm Gustloff sailed into the sights of a Soviet submarine. Three torpedoes hit her port side and near-freezing water poured in. When the power went out, plunging the listing ship into darkness, the fate of the thousands trapped in her lower decks was sealed. Less than 45 minutes later, the once-mighty cruise ship rolled onto her side. The thousands still waiting on the glass-enclosed promenade deck watched the water block out the sky.

As with the Titanic, many of those who died when the Wilhelm Gustloff sank did not drown but froze to death in the water. The air temperature could have been as low as minus 17 degrees Celsius. Even those few who made it to the lifeboats that hadn’t been frozen to the deck of the ship were not guaranteed survival, with rescuers finding boats full of dead people covered in snow.

The world was not very interested in the fate of the Wilhelm Gustloff at the time. A newly-liberated Europe did not want to hear about the suffering of Germans after years of suffering from Nazi invasion and occupation. Soviet propaganda told the Russian people the ship was full of staff who manned the concentration camps. The ship sank only a few days after the liberation of Auschwitz, after all. Meanwhile in Germany the news was largely suppressed; Hitler’s crumbling regime didn’t want the people to deal with such a considerable blow to morale.

It has only been in the decades since that the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff has come to be seen as a tragedy rather than just desserts for the enemy. The Wilhelm Gustloff was not carrying troops, but German civilians who had been ushered into conquered territory a few years before. Indeed, some 4,000 of those who died aboard the ship were children who were too young to remember a time before Hitler, and who died not knowing the promise that their otherwise imminent freedom would offer.

Read more about the Wilhelm Gustloff and other terrible maritime disasters in Final Voyage: The World’s Worst Maritime Disasters:

Final Voyage: The World's Worst Maritime Disasters