A Brief History
On January 30, 1945, Soviet submarine S-13 fired 3 torpedoes into the side of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, a German cruise liner named after an assassinated Swiss Nazi that had been converted for military use.
The Wilhelm Gustloff had been engaged in evacuating German troops and civilians from the Courland area of the Baltic coast, transporting them back to Germany to escape the Red Army. The ship was carrying over 6,000 troops, and with crew and civilians, total passengers probably numbered over 10,000.
Massive damage was caused to the front, middle and rear of the ship, and the giant vessel sank in only 40 minutes. Crew had only managed to lower 1 lifeboat as damage to the engine room had cut all power. A few other lifeboats were able to be broken free, but not enough for all passengers…
Thus, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff became the worst maritime disaster in history in regard to greatest loss of life.
Not only did people die in the explosions, get trapped in the ship or drown, but the cold weather (0°F air temperature and 39°F water temperature) caused many to perish from hypothermia. Frantic rescue efforts by other German vessels resulted in not more than 1,000 survivors being pulled from the icy waters.
There was outrage over the massive loss of civilian life which included about 5,000 children. Objectively speaking though, the Wilhelm Gustloff was painted in normal military grey and was armed, making her fair game for the submarine.
Only 11 days after the sinking of the Wihelm Gustloff, the same Soviet submarine, the S-13, torpedoed and sank another German luxury liner that had been converted, the SS General von Steuben, renamed the Steuben, resulting in another 3,000 deaths. Hitler declared the sub’s skipper, Alexander Marinesko, a “personal enemy.” Due to problems with alcohol abuse, Marinesko was awaiting court martial at the end of his combat patrol and was thus denied being declared a hero by the Soviet Union. He was posthumously recognized for his accomplishments though.
Question for students (and subscribers): How have submarines changed naval warfare? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Dobson, Christopher. The Cruelest Night. Little Brown & Company, 1980.
Prince, Cathryn. Death in the Baltic. Griffin, 2014.