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  • Shouts fill the frigid Baltic air as people  scramble over one another to try and reach the  

  • lifeboats. Explosions from within the ship erupt  through the deck. The passengers of the Wilhelm  

  • Gustloff jump overboard into the icy water. The  number of lives lost from the sinking of this  

  • German cruise liner will dwarf the losses of both  the Titanic and Lusitania combined. The worst part  

  • of it all: this was not a military vesseland most of the lives lost were civilians.

  • As Nazi defeat at the end of World War  II became more and more inevitable,  

  • supporters of the party began to panic. The  Soviet forces that were sweeping through the  

  • eastern front loomed in everyone's mind. Anyone  who allied themselves with the Axis powers were  

  • at the mercy of the incoming Soviets. This was  a frightening thought as propaganda spread by  

  • both sides painted the Soviets as vicious  soldiers. Tales of them raping and murdering  

  • Nazi supporters for revenge was the  stuff of nightmaresand oftentimes true.

  • This led to anyone in the path of the Soviet  forces to flee in fear. In order to reach  

  • safety Germans and other Axis supporters needed  to get back to the Motherland. With land routes  

  • cut off by Allied forces there was only one way  to get back to Germany, and that was by boat. In  

  • the province of East Prussiasqueezed between  the Soviet Union and PolandAxis supporters  

  • flooded the docks to try and get onto any ship  leaving for Germany before enemy forces arrived.

  • The Wilhelm Gustloffn was docked in the port  city of Gotenhafen. Originally the 25,000  

  • ton luxury liner was used as part of the  “Strength Through Joymovement of the Nazi  

  • Party. It was constructed as a way to reward  workers, soldiers, and officers by taking them  

  • on a relaxing cruise in the midst of World War IIAs the situation became more dire for the Nazis,  

  • the ship was repurposed into a floating  barracks, and eventually became an evacuation  

  • vessel. It would carry people away from the  incoming Soviet forces via the Baltic Sea.

  • The mass evacuation of Axis supporters  back to Germany was named Operation  

  • Hannibal. New arrivals from around the  surrounding areas overwhelmed the city  

  • of Gotenhafen. Refugees flooded the  docks and onto the Wilhelm Gustloff.  

  • At first the crew tried to maintain order and  only took passengers with tickets, however,  

  • as the situation quickly got out of control, they  stuck people in every available space on the ship.

  • Everyone in Gotenhafen was cold, exhausted, and  hungry. The Wilhelm Gustloff was crammed full  

  • of people and was well over its capacity. There  was no way to keep a reliable passenger manifest,  

  • so the exact number of people on the ship  when it launched is unknown. But it is  

  • estimated that around 10,000 passengers were  on board when the ship set sail. The Gustloff  

  • was originally built for less than 2,000  passengers, so it was well over capacity.

  • The ship left port on January 30, 1945 bound for  Kiel, Germany. The senior officers of the ship had  

  • to make a difficult choice. The Allied forces  had deployed mines in the shallower waters to  

  • stop military vessels from traveling along the  coast. However, the Wilhelm Gustloff was not a  

  • military vessel and did not have any weapons on  board. If the ship struck a mine it would cause  

  • irreparable damage, and everyone would have  to abandon ship. The chances of making it all  

  • the way along the coast from their current  location to Germany was next to impossible.

  • The other option for the Gustloff was to venture  out into the open waters of the Baltic Sea.  

  • If they were careful, they might have been  able to slip by the Soviet submarines that  

  • patrolled the deeper waters. The weather  in January was not ideal for sailing  

  • because of constant snow and wind. It made  navigation by sight extremely difficult,  

  • but it would also hide the ship from  enemy periscopes. The officers decided  

  • their best course of action was to  make a run for it in open waters.

  • Initially the Gustloff had two torpedo boats that  would accompany it for protection. Unfortunately,  

  • one broke down and the other left the  cruise liner to take a different route,  

  • leaving the Gustloff to fend for itself with  no guns and thousands of civilians on board.  

  • At this point in the war almost all Nazi  ships were being used to try and hold back  

  • Allied forces that were closing in on all  fronts. So, the officers of the Gustloff  

  • decided they were on their own. They launched at  night to try and keep the ship hidden. However,  

  • after traveling through rough weather, the  navigation lights were turned on to increase  

  • visibility, and make sure the Gustloff didn't  strike anything that would damage the hull.

  • Unfortunately, the lights did not just  increase the Gustloff's visibility,  

  • but also made it stand out on the surface  of the black waters. The ship began to sail  

  • westward in a mad dash to make it to Germany  before being spotted. As the Gustloff launched,  

  • Hitler delivered his final radio address  before taking his own life. Thehrer's  

  • voice echoed mechanically over the speakers on the  Wilhelm Gustloff. He urged the nation to resist,  

  • and to never surrender even though he was  planning on taking the easy way out. Hitler  

  • knew if captured he would be tried for his  heinous war crimes, so he committed suicide.

  • As Hitler spewed his fascist  doctrine across the airwaves,  

  • all the passengers aboard the Gustloff  were thinking about was reaching safety.  

  • Unfortunately for almost everyone on boardthey wouldn't make it back to the homeland.

  • As the Wilhelm Gustloff sloshed through the  choppy waters of the Baltic, a nearby Soviet  

  • submarine spotted the ship. The submarine was  designated S-13 and was under the command of  

  • Alexander Marinesko. Marinesko did not have the  most prestigious record, and was known for not  

  • always following the chain of command. He was  currently on a mission, but had been delayed  

  • because he got drunk while docked. Marinesko  was known to indulge in drinking a little too  

  • frequently, and a little too much, and the night  he spotted the Wilhelm Gustloff was no different.

  • The lights the ship was using to navigate alerted  Marinesko of the Gustloff's location. Since the  

  • Soviets were on a mission of revenge, Marinesko  thought he would be a hero for destroying a German  

  • ship. He had no idea that it was a cruise liner  filled with civilians. Around 9:00 p.m. the Soviet  

  • submarine released three torpedoes. Each one had  been inscribed with messages that embodied the  

  • Soviet's desire for revenge against the Nazis  for what they did to their country and people.

  • All three torpedoes struck the Wilhelm Gustloff  and exploded. One torpedo went off in the crew's  

  • living quarters, another in the swimming pool  area, and the final exploded in the part of  

  • the ship where the Women's Naval Auxiliary  unit was located. Hundreds of people died on  

  • impact. Others were trapped under rubble and  bulkheads; they would go down with the ship.

  • Moments after the impact it was clear what would  happen. The passengers and crew made a mad dash  

  • for the lifeboats. The ship itself barely had  enough lifeboats to hold the normal number of  

  • people the ship was capable of carrying; and on  this voyage, the maximum capacity was exceeded  

  • by around 8,000 people. There was no way  that everyone would fit in the lifeboats.

  • One survivor recounted seeing people trampled  to death as everyone ran for their lives.  

  • Unfortunately, many of these victims were  children who were caught under the feet of  

  • the mob as everyone fought for survival. As people  pushed their way up the stairs to the lifeboats,  

  • other passengers were forced over the  railing. Some fell to the deck below,  

  • while others descended into the depths of the  frigid sea. The ship tilted hard to the port side,  

  • this meant that now only the lifeboats on the  starboard side of the ship were accessible,  

  • cutting the amount of people  that could be saved even further.

  • Survivors of the sinking of the Gustloff remember  in vivid detail the horrors that unfolded in  

  • the minutes that followed the attack. As full  lifeboats dropped into the water, the passengers  

  • looked up at the stranded people on the deck of  the ship. Realizing that all of the lifeboats  

  • had either been launched or destroyed, people  started throwing themselves overboard into the  

  • icy water. Many died on impact; those who survived  would not last long in the nearly freezing water.

  • Survivors of the plunge into the Baltic sea would  swim frantically, trying to reach the lifeboats  

  • that were moving away from the sinking ship. The  lifeboats that were already at capacity needed  

  • to defend themselves from being tipped overThey could not fit any more people on board,  

  • so the passengers would shove those  trying to climb into their boats away  

  • and back into the sea. In dire situations  the lifeboats would use their ores to hit  

  • peoples' hands and heads trying to stop them from  capsizing their lifeboat and killing all on board.

  • The survivors in the lifeboats remember  the gruesomeness of pushing people away  

  • to freeze in the Baltic waters. But it  was life or death circumstances. Either  

  • they defended themselves from being tipped  over, or they would have been lost as well.  

  • The survivors of the Wilhelm Gustloff would be  haunted by that night for the rest of their lives.

  • For the passengers who remained on the ship it  soon became clear that death was imminent. The  

  • freezing water would be a slow, cold, way to goso some passengers decided on a quicker way out  

  • of the situation. One survivor remembers seeingNazi soldiers with his family hanging on for dear  

  • life as the Gustloff began to list and descend  into the depths of the sea. The soldier pulled  

  • out his pistol and shot his wife and children  to save them from dying in a slow, painful, way.

  • Unfortunately for the soldier, he had used  all of the bullets by the time he turned  

  • the gun on himself. The man closed  his eyes and let go of the railing  

  • he was holding onto. The survivor said he  remembers seeing the man slide down the  

  • icy deck after the bodies of his familyand then he disappeared into darkness.

  • Eventually German rescue boats came to the aid of  the survivors of the Wilhelm Gustloff. The ships  

  • scooped up lifeboats containing passengers that  were nearly frozen from the frigid environment of  

  • the Baltic Sea in January. The rescuers did  not only have the survivors on their mind,  

  • but the submarine that had sunk the Wilhelm  Gustloff as well. The ships had to make  

  • constant evasive maneuvers to ensure they didn't  meet the same fate as the Wilhelm Gustloff.

  • In order to keep from being in one spot for too  long, the rescue ships oftentimes had to pass by  

  • lifeboats that did not show immediate signs  of survivors. When their boats were filled  

  • to capacity the rescue ships turned around and  returned to Germany. Many lifeboats and survivors  

  • of the initial wreck were left behind to die  with the rest of the victims of the Gustloff.

  • It was just an hour after the S-13's torpedoes  struck the Gustloff that the ship sank to the  

  • bottom of the sea. The following morning, the  surrounding area was filled with floating,  

  • frozen, bodies. The rescue ships recorded that  many of the bodies belonged to children whose  

  • life jackets had rolled them face down  in the water and caused them to drown.  

  • The morning after the attack only one survivor  was found; the survivor was a baby swaddled in  

  • blankets aboard a lifeboat surrounded by  the bodies of frozen passengers. One of  

  • the officers of the rescue ship that found the  infant adopted him and raised him as his own.

  • Of the 10,000 souls on the Wilhelm  Gustloff only around 1,000 survived.  

  • It was due to the countless tragediesand the war finally coming to an end,  

  • that the tragedy of the Wilhelm Gustloff did  not get much attention. It was the largest loss  

  • of life on any ocean liner in history. Alsoneither the Germans or the Soviets wanted to  

  • broadcast that so many civilian lives had been  senselessly lost in such a brutal way. Weeks  

  • after the disaster the news finally started to  reach people around Europe and the United States.

  • The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff was the  worst maritime tragedy in history. The lives  

  • lost did not only include German civiliansbut Prussians, Lithuanians, Poles, Estonians,  

  • and Crotatians as well. The death toll  was likely close to 9,000 people. In war  

  • people die, but the sheer numbers of  civilian lives lost during the attack  

  • is unforgivable. Regardless of which  side of the war the passengers were on,  

  • they did not deserve to freeze to death  in the icy waters of the Baltic Sea.

  • Now watchWhy Did Nine Ships Disappear In Perfect  

  • Weather?” Or check outWhy This  Sinking Was Worse Than Titanic.”

Shouts fill the frigid Baltic air as people  scramble over one another to try and reach the  

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Ship Disaster 6 Times Deadlier Than the Titanic You Didn't Know About

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    Summer posted on 2021/07/31
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