January 30, 2007

A Day to Remember

Because all attempts to picture the disaster are inadvertently aestheticising it, I show here the last known photo of the Gustloff, taken as she left the port of Gdingen around 12:30 PM on January 30, 1945. It is from the website I credited in the footnote.

On a bitter cold night exactly 61 years ago in the Baltic Sea, the deadliest maritime disaster in history by means of a single sinking occurred. Yet many have never heard about the Wilhelm Gustloff. The loss of life was equal to more than six sinkings of the Titanic.

The Wilhelm Gustloff was a passenger ship built by the Blohm and Voss shipyards in Hamburg, and was named after a leading Nazi. She and her sister ship Robert Ley (named after another odious Nazi), were the world's first purpose-built cruise ships, that is to say for the KdF (Kraft durch Freude -- Power through Joy) Nazi holiday scheme. In fact, she should become its flagship. The Wilhelm Gustloff was launched on May 5, 1937.

The ship's final voyage was to evacuate civilians, wounded soldiers and sailors from Gdingen (now Gdynia) near Danzig (now Gdańsk) to Kiel. The ship's passenger lists totaled 6,050 people on board but this did not include many refugees who boarded the ship without being recorded. The real number may have been closer to 10,000. Although the Gustloff was built for fewer than 2,000 passengers, it had the capacity to board many more for a short trip by using its public recreational spaces, but it was carrying much too few rescue gear necessary for the extra passengers.

The ship left Gdingen early on 30 January 1945, accompanied by the passenger liner Hansa, also filled with refugees, and two torpedo boats. The Hansa and one torpedo boat developed problems and could not continue, leaving the Wilhelm Gustloff with only one torpedo boat escort. The ship had four captains on board, three civilian and one military, and they could not agree on the best course of action to guard against submarine attacks. Against the advice of the military commander, a submariner who had argued for a course in shallow waters close to shore and without lights, the senior civilian captain decided to head for deep water. When he was informed by radio of an oncoming German minesweeper convoy, he decided to switch on his ship's navigation lights so as to avoid a collision, thus making his ship an easily visible target.

The ship was soon sighted by the Soviet submarine S-13 (ironically, a German-designed boat) which hit her with three torpedoes, about 30 km offshore between Großendorf and Leba soon after 21:00 (CET). In under 50 minutes after being struck, the Wilhelm Gustloff sank in a depth of 45 meters (roughly 150 feet). German forces were able to rescue some of the survivors. The water temperature in the Baltic Sea at this time of year is usually around 4°C. However, this was a specifically cold day, with an air temperature of -10° to -18° C and ice floes covering the surface. Most of the deaths that were not directly caused by the torpedoes, were caused by drowning in the incoming water. Others were crushed in the ensuing panic on the stairs and decks, and many jumped into the icy, dark Baltic Sea. Many reports tell children were clinging on to adults and women tried to save babies, though constant waves dragged them away from them, many not to be seen ever again. Small children fitted with lifejackets for adults drowned because their heads were under water while their legs were in the air.

The final death count amounted to more than 9,000 people.

News of the Gustloff’s sinking were not reported within what had remained of the "Third Reich". With the exception of minor mentionings in a couple of newspapers, it also remains largely unreported in western Allied countries -- until today.

Why? There are several reasons for that. The most important is certainly that it occurred during wartime and that it happened to people of the losing side and that WWII, specifically on the Eastern front, had not been led as an "ordinary" war by Germany from the start.

Then, of course, only too many Germans hesitate to mourn, lest they be accused of setting off German suffering against Nazi atrocities (which of course, breeds resentment to the opposite effect).

Important is, too, that there is no "Hollywood profile" or glamour effect. In a probably inevitable comparison to the Titanic: The rich, famous or glamorous were notably absent.

The Wilhelm Gustloff was evacuating mostly civilians. Opinions about the sinking vary from praise to accusations of war crime. Defenders argue that the ship was armed, was not marked adequately as a hospital ship and was carrying more than 1,000 military forces, including submarine trainees, female naval auxiliary aides, anti-aircraft forces and Croat volunteers. Strictly within the boundaries of international law, it may have passed as a legal military target.

But it was not my point to discuss that. My point was to remember those who do not deserve to be forgotten, those who perished that night in the Baltic Sea 61 years ago.

For additional information go to the Wilhelm Gustloff website.