What was the biggest maritime tragedy in history? The sinking of the Titanic?
The Titanic was certainly a disaster, with 1,517 people killed. However this was nothing compared to the Wilhelm Gustloff, which was torpedoed 75 years ago today, on January 30 1945
The Wilhelm Gustloff was a German passenger ship, that was built by the Nazis for holiday cruises. It became a hospital ship, and then in 1945, as the Soviet army was crashing into the Eastern parts of the Germany, it became an escape vessel. At the time there was terror amongst German citizens, and they were desperate to flee the advancing Russians. The land routes were blocked, and the only option was to go by sea.
It was under these circumstances that the Wilhelm Gustloff set sail from Gdynia, en route to Kiel, across the Baltic Sea. It was January 30 and it was very cold.
The rest of the story is tragically inevitable, though surprisingly few people have heard of the disaster. This is in spite of the efforts of German novelist Gunter Grass, who wove the Wilhelm Gustloff’s sinking into a haunting work of fiction, titled Crabwalk.
Such was the panic to board the Wilhelm Gustloff that no-one is quite sure how many people were on board. However it was probably around ten thousand. As the ship crossed the Baltic, it was spotted by a Soviet submarine, which fired four torpedoes at it, and three of them hit. The ship went down quickly, but not so quickly that the officers in command weren’t able to save themselves. Yet the vast majority of passengers died – that’s right, about 9,400 people were killed. That’s over six times as many people who died on the Titanic. Over three times as many people who died in the World Trade Center.
As Gunter Grass pointed out, there are two weird coincidences relating to the sinking.
Firstly, January 30 1945, the day of the sinking, was the twelfth anniversary of Hitler coming to power – he became German Chancellor on January 30 1933.
Secondly, there’s a link with the person whom the Wilhelm Gustloss was named after.
The man Wilhelm Gustloff was a Swiss Nazi, who was actively anti-semitic. In 1936 he was assassinated by a Jewish student, and the Nazi establishment in Germany gave him an elaborate funeral, attended by Adolf Hitler himself.
And when was Wilhelm Gustloff born? January 30 1895, so the ship named after him was torpedoed on what would have been his fiftieth birthday.