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Death in the Baltic

Blog | By Ronald Payne | Apr 30, 2019

The final moments of the Wilhelm Gustloff, an artist’s interpretation by Irwin J Kappes

Half-forgotten nightmares of wartime death and destruction on the high seas stirred again in Germany with the publication of Günter Grass’s documentary novel, Crabwalk. The plot centres on the sinking of the liner Wilhelm Gustloff, torpedoed in the Baltic by a Russian submarine in January 1945. The loss of the flagship of Hitler’s ‘Strength Through Joy’ cruise fleet cost many more lives than the Titanic disaster. Less than a thousand of the nine thousand refugees who had struggled, fought or bribed their way aboard at Danzig were rescued from the ice-cold waters of the Baltic.

Many German refugees fleeing from the east as the vengeful Russian armies advanced into East Prussia saw the Gustloff as their final hope of escape. Most of them perished. So did the families of Nazi party grandees installed in their privileged cabins. Few of the four hundred women naval auxiliaries bedded down in what had been the liner’s swimming pool got out alive. Places aboard had also been kept for a thousand freshly trained U-boat sailors, and with their destruction Admiral Doenitz’s last hope of reviving his submarine offensive also perished.

All the luck seemed to be with the Russians. Captain Alexander Marinesko, the buccaneering commander of the S-13 that fired the three killer torpedoes, was an ace submarine warfare specialist. Yet he was already in trouble for disobeying orders from Red Banner Fleet command. Suspected by the commissars of lack of revolutionary enthusiasm, he lost his command. In mysterious circumstances, they stripped Marinesko of his rank and packed him off to a Soviet labour camp.

At any other time a Gustloff-size catastrophe would have provoked worldwide outrage and national sorrow, but in early 1945 this maritime massacre attracted small attention. It was under-reported, kept secret or ignored. Most Germans were overwhelmed by other momentous events as Hitler’s Third Reich crumbled around them.

In Crabwalk Günter Grass focuses on the emotional dramas caused by the sinking: his fictional hero was born as his mother was being rescued from the liner. The fact that Grass concentrated on the suffering of Germans rather than on the sufferings that the Nazis inflicted upon others caused a stir in Germany. He broke a national literary taboo by reminding people of the horrors and misery created by the mass expulsion of Germans from the eastern territories.

This may well be a significant departure, but it is not the first book written about the fate of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Little was known in Germany about the sea disaster when, in the 1970s, I began seeking out survivors for a book on the subject. The extent of the disaster and the importance of the flight from the east became abundantly clear when, rather to my surprise, I found myself interviewing Admiral Doenitz, former commander of the U-boat fleets. In the final days he briefly became the successor to Hitler.

By this time a stiff and frail old man of 87, he lived in retirement in Aumühle, close to Hamburg. He proved to be a stickler for protocol and spent several minutes organising the seating arrangements for me and for his aide, Captain Reitsch. Only then did the old officer, straight-backed and formal in grey suit and white shirt, sit down himself. After offering us a sherry, he declared in a heavily accented voice, ‘I vish to speak with Herr Payne in English – for twenty years I have not spoken English, but I vish to help him.’

And so he did, detailing how he had set in motion the great evacuation by sea westwards from Danzig and other Baltic ports. By January 1945 land routes westwards were closed by the all-conquering Russian Army. This was Hitler’s Dunkirk. And Doenitz expressed pride at his success in rescuing almost two million Germans from falling into Russian hands. ‘This made possible the postwar German miracle,’ he claimed.

Doenitz’s first objective in launching Operation Hannibal was to get back to west German ports the thousand U-boat sailors training at the naval base of Danzig. They were badly needed to crew the new Type 21 German submarines being readied for service. ‘In December 1944 it was quite clear to me,’ said the Admiral, ‘that the main task for the German navy was no longer the U-boat war. All the naval force we had was to be assembled to save the people from the east and bring them back west. I asked Hitler to give me every merchant ship that floated.’

Among them was the Wilhelm Gustloff. This was a Nazi ship through and through, named in honour of a German Nazi living in Switzerland who was murdered by a Jewish student for distributing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the infamous anti-Semitic forgery. His widow launched the splendid new ship, built by Blohm & Voss in Hamburg.

The luxury Führer suite on B deck was set aside for the family of the Kreisleiter of Danzig. The final irony was that the Nazi ship lay in the port of the famous Danzig Corridor, one of the excuses for the 1939 German invasion of Poland. Now it was almost in range of Russian guns.

As the Gustloff was readied for sea on the evening of 22nd January 1945, its officers were unable to control the thousands of refugees who stormed the gangways. In the general confusion families were separated, mothers lost their children; babies were literally thrown to strangers on board by anxious parents. Just after midday on 30th January four tugs began pulling the Gustloff away from the berth and out towards the stormy open sea. As they cast off, the overcrowded liner heaved through the stiff chop of the freezing Baltic, bound for the western port of Stettin.

Shortly after 2300 hours Captain Alexander Marinesko locked his periscope onto the Gustloff and fired three torpedoes. The S-13’s log recorded: ‘23.08: Three bow torpedoes fired at target’s port side. All hit. 23.09: Target began to sink.’ Aboard the stricken liner, panic erupted as refugees fought their way up from the lower decks. Anyone who fell was trampled to death. On the listing deck a surging mass of terrified passengers fought to get at the lifeboats. Others hurled themselves over the side and into the icy ocean below. As those fortunate enough to be in rafts and lifeboats looked on, the Wilhelm Gustloff, once the pride and joy of cruising Nazi tourists, began to plunge, boiling and gurgling, beneath the Baltic waters.

In the final moments the doom of the great liner seemed to anticipate, in a gaudy Götterdämmerung of the ocean, the end of the Hitlerian regime itself. As she went under, with boilers exploding, her emergency generators and lighting system were mysteriously and briefly reactivated. From her lifeboat, Ebbi von Maydell witnessed the extraordinary sight. ‘Suddenly it seemed that every light in the ship had come on. People were still clinging to the rails. The whole vessel was blazing with light and her sirens sounded over the sea.’