A start was made to the evacuation on 25 January when three passenger ships sailed from Pillau with the first batch of 7,100 refugees. Within three days some 62,000 people had been moved westwards away from the Red Army, but merely boarding the boats that ranged alongside the dockyards was no guarantee that safety was assured. Apart from the Soviet submarines that initially concentrated on the sea route from Courland, and their larger boats which congregated in the area of the Stolpe Bank and off the Danish island of Bornholm, the greatest threat to these evacuees came from the RAF dropping a total of 3,220 air mines in the western Baltic and as far east as the Pomeranian coast in the first three months of 1945. These mines were to reap a rich harvest of shipping victims. 35 In all some 137,764 tons of German shipping was sunk and 71,224 tons was damaged in this mining blitz. Although the mines were completely undiscriminating – taking out hospital ships as well as transports, destroyers and minesweepers – it could have been much worse had the Soviet Air Force been actively involved. Instead they were largely deployed on land operations and so Kummetz and Engelhardt were given an extended opportunity to continue evacuating large numbers of Germans from the dwindling Eastern Front. Each of the large passenger ships involved in these operations could take 5-9,000 passengers on board and the freighters could hold up to 5,000 at a time. It was crucial, therefore, that these ships should be pressed into making as many return journeys as possible to extricate the largest number of evacuees from the Baltic States. Unfortunately, not all of these ships could be escorted to and fro and occasionally a passenger vessel or a freighter sailing independently was discovered by a submarine and sunk with impunity. In this way the third largest passenger ship used in the evacuation operation, Wilhelm Gustloff, a liner of 25,484 tons with 10,582 people on board, was sunk off the Polish coast on 30 January by S-13 with the loss of over 9,330 victims making it the largest maritime disaster of all time. S-13, loitering with intent off the Stolpe Bank, also managed to evade two escorts in order to sink the tenth largest passenger ship General Steuben on 10 February with the loss of another 3,608 lives.
Wilhelm Gustloff’s widow christened the ship herself. Laid down in August 1936, the ship was ready for launch in May 1937. Displacing 25,484 tons, she was 684ft (208.5m) long and 77.5ft (23.6m) across the beam. Across eight decks she had 489 cabins, designed to carry 1,465 passengers, attended to by a crew of 417. There was no class distinction on board the Wilhelm Gustloff. The Nazi ideology disdained the class warfare between rich and poor that defined (and inspired) socialism, as they perceived it. Under the auspices of the DAF’s subsidiary KdF (Kraft durch Freude – Strength through Joy), the Wilhelm Gustloff offered loyal German workers trips to Norway, Portugal and Italy for less than a third of the price of a comparable cruise.
When war ultimately did break out less than 18 months later the Wilhelm Gustloff was immediately requisitioned into the Kriegsmarine to serve as a 500-bed hospital ship. In July 1940 she anchored in the English Channel with other support vessels in anticipation of Operation Sea Lion, the planned invasion of Britain. Following the Luftwaffe’s failure to knock out the RAF in the Battle of Britain, and Hitler’s cancellation of the invasion, she spent four years docked at Gotenhafen (now Gdynia) in occupied Poland, serving as a floating barracks for German naval personnel. In January 1945, only 12 years into the 1,000-year Reich that Hitler had predicted in 1934, the Wilhelm Gustloff was conscripted into Operation Hannibal. Her final voyage symbolises the final chapter in the history of the Third Reich. With the Soviet Union consuming Germany from the east and the British and Americans consuming Germany from the west, the final victims of Hitler’s war would be his own people.
The Soviet submarine S-13 had been stalking the Wilhelm Gustloff for over an hour. Her petty officer had been on watch duty when he spotted the liner’s navigation lights. The blizzard and the big seas could have hidden the ship from the S-13′s periscope view, but her lights shone like a beacon in the darkness. Indeed, the Russians initially mistook the Wilhelm Gustloff for a lighthouse, and only on consulting their charts did they realise it was a ship. Just after 9pm, her lights now off, the Wilhelm Gustloff was about 19 miles (30km) off the Polish coast, near the Stolpe Bank. The S-13′s Captain Marinesko ordered his crew to surface on the ship’s port side, on the assumption that the liner’s lookouts would be paying more attention to dangers from seaward. Slowly, unnoticed, the Soviet submarine closed to 3,000ft (less than 1km).
Four torpedoes were primed and ready to fire. Marinesko gave the order. Three launched successfully. The fourth jammed in its tube. Most of the S-13′s crew were too busy trying to disarm it to take any notice of their target’s fate.
The first torpedo struck the Wilhelm Gustloff near the bow, level with the bridge. Everybody on the ship would have heard the thunderous roar. In the panicked silence of the following moments, passengers throughout the ship’s crowded cabins and corridors wondered what they had hit. Many assumed it was a mine. The emergency fire bells started ringing immediately, but for most there was nowhere to go, not until everyone between them and the stairs moved first.
Then the second torpedo struck, and after that there was no mistaking the fact that the ship was under attack. The torpedo hit near midship, blasting a hole in the hull just above the drained swimming pools. The explosion killed many of the women housed there instantly. The torrent of freezing seawater that followed killed the rest.
The third torpedo hit the Wilhelm Gustloff just as the senior officer on the bridge was ordering an emergency stop. It struck the hull below the ship’s single funnel. From the Russians’ perspective, this was their most successful torpedo. It scored a direct hit on the engine room. In an instant, the Wilhelm Gustloff lost all power. Her internal lights blinked off, plunging thousands of terrified passengers into darkness. The ringing of the fire bells and the constant hum of the ship’s systems was replaced by deathly silence, broken only by the screams and shouts of those trapped inside the bowels of the ship. The emergency generators quickly activated, but the dim red emergency lights would only have been bright enough to show most people just how difficult it would be to escape such an overcrowded ship.
By the time the four captains made it onto the bridge, the Wilhelm Gustloff was already settling by the head and listing slightly to port. Both Petersen and Zahn knew immediately that the ship was doomed. ‘Das ist es,’ Petersen muttered. This is it. He knew as well as Zahn how many people they had aboard, and he knew that with the ship foundering so fast, most of them would die. He took the decision to close all the bow bulkheads. Doing so slowed the water’s progress and gave people more time to try and escape. Despite this, it was not an easy or obvious decision to make. After all, sleeping in their bow quarters at the time of the attack were most of the crewmembers who were trained in how to launch the lifeboats. Closing the bulkheads not only condemned them to death, but ensured everyone else aboard would have to fend for themselves too.