Friday, September 19, 2008

Wilhelm Gustloff

Wilhelm Gustloff. Wilhelm Gustloff.

This ship of 25,484 tons had been launched and named after her late husband by the widow of Wilhelm Gustloff who was the leader of the Nazi party of Switzerland. In 1936, he had been assassinated by David Frankfier.

May of 19319 found Wilhelm Gustloff transporting back to germany part of the Legion Condor who had fought with Franco's forces in the Spanish Civil War.

In September of that year after war was declared by Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand against Germany for her invasion of Poland, this ship was commissioned into the Kriegsmarine as Hospital Ship D, then in November 1940, she was turned into an accommodation vessel anchored at Gotenhafen, the former port of Gdynia, and here it remained until January of 1945.

The port of Gotenhafen nestles an the western side of the Gulf of Danzig sheltered from the Baltic Sea by the probing arm of the Hela Peninsula.

Also in port were some remnants of the Kriegsmarine, Lutzow, a [pocket battleship, Admiral Hipper, a heavy cruiser, some light cruisers, plus a number of destroyers. All were ready to play their role in this mass evacuation from the fast approaching Russian horde.

Further east the port of Konigsberg was already under siege, here the cruiser Emden having undertaken an engine refit, was ready to make her escape, bu, was suddenly ordered to wait to take on board a special cargo.

This turned out to be the remains of Field Marshal von Hindenburg and his wife,

Their coffins had been snatched from the Memorial that had stood at Tannenberg, the scene of the Marshall's famous victory, and this city had now fallen to the fast advancing Russians.

Wilhelm Gustloff had an unusual command structure, her Captain as a civilian ship was a merchant marine officer, Friedrich Petersen, but as a residential vessel for the 2nd. U-Boat Training Division, she carried Commander Wilhelm Zalm, a naval officer in command.

Karl Hoffmann, a Kriegsmarine sailor and a survivor of the sinking leaves us with this account.

"By January 22nd, the ship had made ready to receive her passengers. It was extremely cold, about 14 degrees C below zero, and with the likely arrival of Russian forces, chaos was the order of the day.

60,000 refugees crowded into the harhour town of Gotenhafen and people stormed aboard the ship, in the mad rush to escape and gain a passage in this ship, children became separated from their parents. At the last moment, about 400 women aged from 17 to 25 who were Naval Auxiliary personnel were added to the overflowing throng on board. They were housed in the swimming pool area.

On the 29th. of January when it was doubtful that any further numbers could be squeezed on board, a hospital train arrived, and these injured soldiers were somehow crammed into the Wilhelm Gustloff."

Hoffmann estimated a company of 7- 8,000 people were loaded, but stated that the exact number were never calculated, in fact, this estimate may well be understating the actual number number of people aboard this ship.

Because of the vast excess of refugees above the normal number of passengers carried, 40% of all on board were left without any lifejackets.

At 1230 on the 30th. of January 1945, four tugs eased the Wilhelm Gustloff away from her berth, at last the shIp was moving, they would soon be on their way to safety. One can hear the collective sigh of relief that must have been uttered by her company.

The ship shaped a course westwards for the open sea and freedom!

The weather was bad, a wind strength of force 7 prevailed, snow was falling, and ice floes were evident in the surrounding waters, and layers of ice commenced to form on the decks of Wilhelm Gustloff.

Her only armament, two Anti Aircraft guns hastely mounted on the upper deck.

With the heavy weather, below decks became a shambles, as many of the refugees succumbed to sea sickness, the over crowding exacerbating this problem.

At 9:10 PM three torpedoes struck the Wilhelm Gustloff fired from the Russian submarine S13 under the command of Alexander Marinesko. Panic ensued as thousands tried to reach the deck space. The ship listed to starboard then righted herself briefly then to take on a heavy starboard list.

The first hit had been deep below the waterline and level with the bridge, the second torpedo exploded below the swimming pool area where the 400 Naval Auxiliary women had been housed and most of them died.

The third and last torpedo hit amidships in the fore part of the engine room opening up the hull and destroying machinery.

The ship was doomed, and the forecastle started to dip below the sea surface whilst the stern rose higher in the air, in only 50 minutes Wilhelm Gustloff had sunk, taking with her in the icy depths of the Baltic about 7000 children, women and men.

A flotilla of small German ships in the vicinity managed to pluck 1000 people to safety.

Hoffman was among those saved by German Torpedo Boat T-36, he reported that three rescued pregnant mothers gave birth that night aboard that Torpedo boat.

All that now remains of this proud ship is a wreck, designated as a mass grave site, making it off-limits to divers.

The mid section is badly damaged and crushed, the bow and stern appear relatively well preserved.

This wreck of Wilhelm Gustloff survives to remind us all of the single most tragic event in Maritime History, with the greatest loss of life.

It now appears that up to 10,000 could have died in that fateful night.

Thousands of unnamed people lie at rest to serve a warning to the world that War is Hell and profligate in its demands for human sacrifice.

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