Take the number of casualties of the RMS Titanic, RMS Lusitania, and USS Arizona, add them up and then multiply by three. This is the estimated number of casualties who perished in this horrific disaster at the end of the Second World War.
The German cruise liner Wilhelm Gustloff was launched May 5, 1937 at the Blohm and Voss shipyards in Hamburg, Germany. She was named after the leader of the Nazi Party's Swiss branch, who had been recently assassinated.
The Gustloff was 684 ft. long and 77 ft. wide, with a gross tonnage of 25,484 tons.
Her purposes were to provide Germans with cruises, concerts, holiday trips and other uses.
when war broke out in 1939, the Gustloff was brought into military service and from September 1939, to November 1940, served as a hospital ship. On November 20, she was repainted grey and used as an accommodations ship for approximately 1,000 u-boat trainees of the Second Submarine Training Division in the port of Gotenhaften (now Gdynia) near Danzig. There she sat in dock for over four years until she was put back into service to transport civilians and military personnel during Operation Hannibal.
On January 30, 1945, the Wilhelm Gustloff departed Gotenhaften at 12:30 pm, accompanied by the liner Hansa.
There were four captains commanding her this voyage. There were also 373 female auxiliary helpers, 162 wounded soldiers, and 8,956 civilians.
With an estimated total of 10,582 aboard, the Wilhelm Gustloff was carrying four times her capacity. Passengers crammed together in staterooms, lounges, and holds. The swimming pool had been drained to make room for cots to be set up.
The Gustloff arrived on the open seas of the Baltic at around 3:00 pm. She will arrive in Kielv the following day. Lieutenant Commander Wilhelm Zahn and the other captains argue with one another over which course to take. They can take the route that is closer to shore, but would involve risking mines. They agree on taking the fastest route, which is Emergency Route 58.
That evening, the Soviet submarine S-13 spots the Gustloff in the distance and pursues her. Two hours later, the sub catches up tot he Gustloff and loops around her stern. She than fires four torpedoes. The fourth gets jammed in the tube while the other three strike the Gustloff on her port side. The first struck the bow, near the crews quarters. The second below were the swimming pool was located. The third struck the engine room, disabling all power and communications. Panicked passengers tried to make there way up to the boat deck, but the ships overcrowded corridors and stairways prevented them from accessing. The air temperature was only twenty degrees and the lifeboats were stuck frozen to their davits and had to be broken free. Twenty minutes after the torpedoes struck, the Gustloff listed severely to port. Lifeboats on the starboard side slammed inward, destroying several of them.
Just 62 minutes after being struck, the Wilhelm Gustloff sank to the bottom of the Baltic in just 144 ft. of water.
A total of just 966 survivors were rescued from the water by a fleet of torpedo boats and mine sweepers, including all four captains. But an estimated total of 9,343 other people perished in the sinking. More than 5,000 of these were children.
Just four months after the sinking, the war in Europe had ended. But despite the loss of life being on such an enormous scale, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff barely left a foot note in history.
The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff became the worst maritime disaster involving a single vessel, and yet the story of her tragic end was nearly completely forgotten.