Wilhelm Gustloff: The Greatest Maritime Disaster

Alexander Marinesko was born in the port city of Odessa on 15 January, 1913. His actual name was Alexandru Marinescu but his Rumanian parents altered it to make it appear more Russian.

As was fitting for a man from Odessa he sought a career at sea but not in the Merchant Marine instead choosing the Soviet Navy and little could he have imagined as a young sailor seduced by a life on the waves that he would find fame for his exploits beneath them as the deadliest submariner in history.

A temperamental and emotional young man who suffered from nightmares, was easily bored, and would too often seek solace from his demons at the bottom of a bottle a problem that would only increase with the passage of the years he made steady progress through the ranks of the Soviet Navy and was recognised as a talented Officer but his ambitions were often thwarted by a deep seated streak of irresponsibility no doubt fuelled by his increasing addiction to alcohol.

In 1939, he was assigned to the Baltic Fleet and given command of the submarine M.96 considered one of the most modern in the world. Despite the honour involved in being given such a command he wasn't entirely trusted. The Navy were aware of his Rumanian background so upon the outbreak of war with Germany in July 1941 he was transferred to the Caspian Sea to serve as a Training Officer.

Training Cadets bored him terribly and he did little to disguise his disinterest turning up late often out of uniform and frequently drunk. Indeed, his lack of sobriety was to lead to his expulsion from the Communist Party which given the Russian attachment to vodka was quite an achievement.

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The course of the war ensured that he would not remain sidelined for long and by early in 1942 he had been assigned a combat role and his talent very soon became apparent. He well understood submarine warfare, manouevred his vessel well, and was brave and audacious but he was also a braggart who often exaggerated his exploits and had more than once been found lying which only brought him the enmity of his fellow Officers. Yet despite this and his past record he retained his command.

The streak of irresponsibility that had so blighted his career remained however, and at one point he effectively deserted the service to go and live with a Swedish woman he had met at a drunken New Years Eve party he attended in the port of Hanko. Such an act might not only have cost him his command but this life.

As it transpired no action was taken but his lack of discipline had made him, and by extrapolation his crew, expendable. So on 11 January 1945 in command of the submarine S.13, he was sent to patrol the dangerous sea lanes that separated East from West Prussia and here he was to remain patiently at his station for days on end but with little success.

Frequently attacked by German patrol boats and spotter planes he could see little point in remaining where he was and aware that the city of Memel had recently fallen to the Red Army and that the Germans would be looking to evacuate their remaining troops he manoeuvred S.13 into a position he thought most likely to intercept the transports.

On the 12 January 1945 the Russians broke through the German lines and the German Army on the Eastern Front was soon in full retreat. By 26 January, Prussia had been cut off from the rest of Germany and the only escape was by sea. In the port of Gotenhafen (Gdynia) more than 35,000 civilian refugees and military personnel crammed the docks.

In port were the Liners Hansa and Wilhelm Gustloff with their escorts preparing to evacuate people as part of Operation Hannibal and so desperate were people to get aboard, that fist-fights broke out on the quayside and order had to be restored by force.

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The Wilhelm Gustloff was a luxury cruise ship constructed in 1937 as part of the Strength Through Joy Programme to provide luxury holidays for workers, though it was mostly used by Nazi Party dignitaries and their families. It was a sleek beautiful vessel but by now it had been stripped of all its trappings of grandeur to make as much space as possible available.

With a displacement of 25,000 tons and designed to carry just 1,800 passengers and crew when she steamed out of Gotenhafen Harbour at 12.30 pm on 30 January, 1945 she had more than 10,500 passengers aboard, 4,000 of whom were children.

It was a foul day, snow and rain was being whipped up by strong winds, the sea was rough, and the air cold. Not long after setting sail the Hansa and one of the escorts were forced to return to port with mechanical problems and the Wilhelm Gustloff was now on her own except for a single torpedo boat assigned for her protection.

On board were four experienced Sea Captains and a row soon broke out as to the best way to proceed. Captain Wilhelm Zahn, Head of the U Boat Division, suggested that they should douse the ships lights and hug the coastline.

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Friedrich Petersen, the Gustloff's Captain, preferred to head for deep water where he believed a more powerful escort of Minesweepers awaited them. He would also keep the ship's lights on to avoid the likelihood of collision, something he feared more in the poor visibility than he did the possibility of encountering a submarine.

Aboard the ship conditions were uncomfortable. The passageways were jammed, the cabins full, every nook and cranny crammed with people and in many parts of the ship it was standing room only.

The order had earlier been given for people to keep their lifejackets on at all times but so uncomfortable were they to wear that this was largely ignored. In the meantime, the crew were mostly preoccupied with keeping the ship free of ice.

So as to maintain a level of calm on board Captain Petersen ordered that cheerful music be piped throughout the ship though the music ceased and everyone stopped what they were doing to listen to a speech given by the Fuhrer on the anniversary of his coming to power and the ship was for a time plunged into a somewhat eerie silence.

Just after 8 pm on 30 January, a crew member aboard Submarine S.13 spotted a light far in the distance. He at first thought it was probably the light from a familiar local Lighthouse but decided that he should report the sighting to the Captain anyway and Marinesko, who was in his cabin completing the usual paperwork, was summoned to the conning tower.

As the light got closer and the sighting became more distinct he could see that it was a huge ship, possibly an Ocean Liner - an Ocean Liner with its lights on! He could barely believe his good fortune.

Presented with such an opportunity Marinesko was determined to get it right. He stalked the ship for hours, approaching it from the shore side to get a better shot. This was a dangerous manoeuvre for he knew the area was heavily mined and criss-crossed with sandbanks, but he skilfully steered the submarine through depths sometimes as little as 30 metres. It was a brave thing to do, but then no one had ever doubted his courage.

Approaching to within a thousand yards of the ship, and in the early hours of a bitterly cold morning, he ordered the launching of three torpedoes, with the words: "For the Motherland and the Soviet people".

On board the Gustloff, Captain Petersen was relaxing in his cabin confident that the most perilous part of the journey was over when a huge explosion sent him scurrying up to the bridge where he was heard to shout "This is it! This is it!"

Survivors described how the first torpedo hitting made the whole ship shake as if it had been struck by a meteor.

Petersen immediately ordered the watertight doors closed, trapping thousands of people below decks and quite literally sealing their doom. Another torpedo then struck the quarters of the Women's Naval Reserve incinerating those inside with only 3 out of 374 of the women surviving.

The lights aboard the Gustloff now went out plunging the ship into darkness. Shortly afterwards the third torpedo struck the engine room and the Gustloff began to list heavily to port.

It was now apparent to everyone that the ship was doomed and panic began to break out. Gunshots were heard as the crew tried to maintain some semblance of order among the screaming and terrified passengers but it was to no avail as people were trampled to death in the rush for the boats and only a cordon of armed men prevented them from being swamped.

Some military personnel, particularly those incapacitated that could not be evacuated, now committed suicide.

A problem with the boats only added to the climate of fear as people were forced to wait anxiously as the crew struggled to free them frozen as they were to their davits.

It was normal procedure for these to be swung out in preparation for hasty release before sailing but Petersen had not done this because he did not want to induce a sense of fear amongst the passengers. Now they could not be released in time and the ship was sinking fast.

Lifejackets that had earlier been discarded were now being fought over and they were also found to be too big for the children and simply tipped them over in the water and survivors later testified to the number of little legs they saw sticking out of the water.

The temperature of the water was also such that it made having a lifejacket or not almost irrelevant. Survival time in the ice cold waters of the Baltic Sea was minimal. For those struggling in the darkness below decks it was already too late and they were drowned in the frozen water now flooding the ship.

An hour after being hit by the first torpedo the Wilhelm Gustloff sank to the bottom taking thousands of lives with her.

The message had gone out for all German shipping in the area to rush to the scene and a frantic rescue operation was now underway. The Cruiser Admiral Hipper was the first to arrive but following reports that submarines might still be in the area left without taking on board any survivors condemning even more to die.

Many of those dragged from the water were already dead. Indeed, there were so many of them that nets were used to trawl the sea. Most of the survivors were military personnel so the notion of women and children first did not seem to apply on the burning and sinking Wilhelm Gustloff.

The most recent research suggests that 9,400 people drowned, froze, or were burned to death but the likelihood remains that it was many more.

Some 1,250 were plucked from the water, including the 67 year old Captain Petersen, who had abandoned ship early as also had the other three Captains who had been aboard.

It was the greatest maritime disaster in history.

Captain Marinesko was unaware of the scale of his achievement but just over a week later he confirmed his reputation as the world’s deadliest submariner when he torpedoed and sank the hospital ship Steuben with 5,000 injured German soldiers and crew on board drowning more than 3,000 of them.

On returning to port Marinesko expected to be awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union but his reputation as a liar and a braggart went before him. So instead he was awarded the Order of the Red Banner. So outraged was he that when his superiors turned up to present him with his award he submerged his submarine and wouldn't return to the surface until they had departed.

Following the end of the war Marinesko's life quickly unravelled. His drinking escalated until it was out of control and in September 1945 he was demoted. Two months later he was discharged from the Navy.

Diagnosed as suffering from severe mental illness, an alcoholic, and unemployable he descended into poverty and in 1949 was jailed for two years for theft.

He died on 25 November 1963, aged 50, a broken and forgotten man.

In May 1990 he finally got the recognition that he certainly thought his exploits deserved when he was posthumously awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union and statues now stand in his honour in his home town of Odessa and the port city of Kaliningrad.

Many consider what Alexander Marinesko did to have been a war crime. Had he have known that the Gustloff was primarily a refugee ship would it have made any difference to his decision to sink it? Probably not, and it can be argued that the high number of specialised military personnel on board made it a legitimate target.

But then such things are lost in the fog of war. Instead he was a man who did his duty bravely and with considerable daring but it remained a moment of acute horror in an often desperate life, and one which it was said was a torment to him in both the light of day and on the darkest of nights.

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