A World War II Tragedy That History Seems to Forget: Soviet submarine S-13 may have been pelted by snow and hail in the chilly Baltic Sea on January 30, 1945, but her commander Alexander Marinesko was in decidedly hot water. The Ukrainian-Romanian officer was due to be court-martialed after vanishing from his post for a three-day New Year’s celebration involving copious alcohol and women. But he was allowed to depart on one more patrol on January 11 to redeem his reputation.
That was a tall order. Marinesko had commanded 1,100-ton S-13 since 1943 and the smaller Caspian-based M-96 submarine before, but had so far only damaged, not destroyed, enemy ships.
But as S-13 recharged her batteries on the surface near the Stolpe (or Słupsk) Bank on January 30, Marinesko’s luck changed around 8 PM. From the conning tower he spotted bright lights in the distance—so bright he suspected at first to be a lighthouse. He later wrote:
“I saw a silhouette of an ocean liner. It was enormous. It even had some lights showing. There and then I decided it was about 20,000 tons, certainly not less. And I was quite sure it was packed with men who had trampled on Mother Russia and were now fleeing for their lives. It had to be sunk, I decided, and the S-13 would do the job.”
The liner was cruising at only 12 knots in a straight line, just one torpedo boat was in escort with a frozen-over sonar.
S-13 stalked her quarry, risking collision in the shallow coastal waters to assume a portside attack position. At 9:16 Marinesko issued the command to launch all four of the 533-millimeter torpedoes in S-13’s forward-facing tubes. Each Type 53-38 torpedoes had been hand-painted with its own name: For the Motherland!, For Leningrad!, For the Soviet People!, and finally For Stalin!
For Stalin!, however, remained stuck in her tube, forcing S-13’s crew to hastily disarm the weapon’s live 661-pound warhead. But the three others torpedoes streaked away in a straight line at around 40 miles towards the unsuspecting target.
Marintesko was about to bag an impressive kill. He could not have known that he had just brought about the deadliest ship sinking in history.
Nazi Cruise Ship Turned Evacuation Transport
Measuring longer than two football fields together, the 25,000-ton cruise ship Wilhelm Gustloff had initially been named Adolf Hitler, before receiving the appellation of a Swiss Nazi martyr. In 1938 she was dispatched to the UK to serve as a floating voting station for Austrian expats in favor of unifying with Hitler’s Germany. The following year she helped transport back the German expeditionary force which had assisted the Fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War.
With the outbreak of World War II, Wilhelm entered military service and was fitted with anti-aircraft guns. After a year-long stint as a hospital ship, she served most of the war as floating barracks for the 2nd Submarine Training Division at Gotenhafen (today, Gdynia, Poland), churning out fresh U-Boat crews to fight the Battle of the Atlantic.
But in mid-January 1945, the Soviet 2nd and 3rd Belarussian fronts broke through German lines to encircle East Prussia (northeastern Poland today). Thus the Kriesgmarine undertook Operation Hannibal, a Baltic Dunkirk extracting Germans from East Prussia as the Red Army tightened the noose. The Wilhelm’s mission was to evacuate the U-Boat training division. But she also took on thousands of civilian refugees fearing Red Army soldiers would seek vengeance for the millions of Russians and Poles murdered by the Nazis.
A vessel designed to carry 1,465 passengers in luxurious conditions (plus 400 crew) was instead crammed full of an estimated 10,600 persons when she left port on at half past noon on January 30 bound for Kiel, Germany. Passengers included 918 U-Boat trainees, 162 wounded soldiers, 373 female naval auxiliaries, and 173 ship’s crew. The remaining 9,000 or so were civilians, including at least 3,000 children and 2,000 women.
Wilhlem was supposed to transit with another liner and escort, but both experienced breakdowns, leaving Wilhem just with the 1,000-ton torpedo boat Lowe for protection.
Wilhelm Zahn, commander of the U-Boat training division, preferred that Wilhelm remain in coastal waters too shallow for submarines with her running lights off. But Wilhlem’s longtime skipper, Friedrich Petersen, wanted to stick to a deeper-water lane deemed of clear mines—and got his way. Informed that his ship would cross paths with the cruiser Admiral Hipper and her escorts, he turned on Wilhelm’s running lights to mitigate the risk of a collision.
The three torpedoes that slammed into Wilhelm Gustloff portside hull at 9:16 PM wreaked massive carnage. For the Motherland! Punched a hole through crew sleeping quarters in the bow. That sector was swiftly sealed to prevent flooding, but consigned to death survivors trapped within, who were the only ones trained in using the lifeboats.
The second torpedo blasted into the vessel’s drained swimming pool, shattering its glass ceiling, and sending painted ceramic tiles slicing through the naval auxiliaries packed inside.
But most fatally of all, the third torpedo destroyed the engine room, leaving the vessel without propulsion and only emergency electrical power.
As Wilhelm began listing hard to port, panicked refugees stampeded up to the deck, trampling many to death. A chaotic effort to deploy the lifeboats, many of which are frozen to their mounts, began but several crashed into the water spilling the escapees into winter waters that killed within minutes.
Over seventy minutes, Wilhelm gradually folded over onto her port side, sending people skidding off deck and objects careening around inside. Some officers killed their families and finally themselves rather than submit to Baltic’s icy grasp.
Only six lifeboats successfully escaped from the huge liner. The Admiral Hipper and her escort ships finally arrived, averted by an SOS relayed by Lowe. Lowe and torpedo boat T-36 rescued nearly one thousand survivors between them, while minesweepers managed to pluck dozens more each. But Hipper’s captain fears another submarine attack, so the German ships leave with only 1,252 survivors between them.
The World’s Greatest Maritime Disaster
It’s estimated a staggering 9,400 persons died from the sinking of Wilhelm Gustloff, making it the deadliest maritime disaster in history. That’s six times more people than died in the sinking of the Titanic.
Wilhelm Gustloff did not lack for company that year. Ten days later S-13 also sank the smaller liner General von Steuben resulting in over 4,000 deaths. In April two other evacuation ships, the freighter Goya and prison ship Cap Arcano were sunk in the Baltic with 6,700 and 5,000 deaths respectively.
Between the Gustloff sinking and General von Steuben, Marinesko became the top-scoring Soviet submariner of World War II. Awarded the Order of the Red Banner, his recurring alcoholism led to his demotion and dishonorable discharge later that year. He did not receive wider recognition until shortly before his death in 1963.
Marinesko’s attack resulted in the horrible deaths of thousands of civilians. But while many deliberate attacks on civilians occurred during World War II, S-13’s was not one of them. Wilhelm was armed and was not marked as a hospital ship. Furthermore, the liner genuinely was carrying submarine trainees that conceivably might have helped prolong Nazi Germany’s resistance.
That doesn’t change the horror and tragedy that resulted in Wilhelm’s sinking. In hindsight, sounder protocols might have avoided or mitigated the loss of life. But the ultimate responsibility for the tragedy lies with Nazi Germany for starting the bloodiest war in human history which killed two times more civilians than combatants.
Interested readers can learn more at the website of the Wilhelm Gustloff Museum.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States.