The Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff
by Karl Hoffman
1 February 2005
[From Walter Mueller letter]
On January 30, 1945, the German liner "Wilhelm
Gustloff" sank in the Baltic Sea between the Bay of
Danzig and the Danish island of Bornholm. An estimated
7,000-8,000 people, civilian refugees from East Prussia
and wounded German soldiers, drowned in the icy
waters. Three torpedoes fired from a Russian submarine
had scored direct hits on the ship. The result was the
largest and most horrible naval disaster of all time.
The following is the story of Oberbootsmannsmaat Karl
Hoffmann a survivor of the sinking. Karl Hoffmann is
from the town of Frankenberg. The same town as our
Advisory Board chairman Hans Goebeler. I would like to
thank Hans and Erika Goebeler for providing this copy
of Herr Hoffmann's letter.
The Wilhelm Gustloff
Before the war, the Wilhelm Gustloff was the flagship
of the "Power Through Joy" workers recreational
program's fleet of passenger liners. Starting in 1939,
the ship was used as housing for U-Boat crewman
undergoing training. The ship lay docked for over four
years serving this purpose, until Admiral Dönitz,
commander of the U-Boat fleet, ordered the evacuation
of the U-Boat personnel away from the approaching Red
The Wilhelm Gustloff was skippered under a strange
double-command structure. As a civilian ship, she was
commanded by Merchant Marine Captain Friedrich
Petersen. At the same time, as residential ship of the
2nd U-Boat Training Division, her military captain was
a regular Navy officer, Commander Wilhelm Zahn.
The Injured and Exhausted
On the evening of January 22, 1945, the ship was
readied by her crew and other navy personnel for the
boarding of thousands of injured, exhausted and
frost-bitten passengers, The themometer showed 14
degrees below zero. In the midst of military collapse
and the impending arrival of the Russians, there
prevailed an atmosphere of indescribable chaos.
There were approximately 60,000 people crowed into the
harbor of Gotenhafen. As soon as the gangplanks
settled down into position, people stormed forward
onto the ship. In the confusion, many children were
separated from their parents.
400 Female Naval Auxiliaries
Although the ship was virtually filled, on board came
approximately 400 female Naval auxiliaries, all
between the ages of 17 and 25. They were accommodated
in the former swimming pool area on E-Deck. Naturally,
they were happy to get aboard and escape the advance
of the Russian Army into East Prussia.
In the morning hours of January 29 another hospital
train arrived in Gotenhafen. The injured soldiers also
embarked onto the ship, settling into the glazed area
of the Gustloff's so called sundeck.
Somewhere between seven to eight thousand people were
now on board, the exact number has never been
ascertained. Every last inch of the rooms and hallways
were used, and the ship could not take on any more
refugees. As a precaution against air attack, a couple
of anti-aircraft guns were hastily mounted on the
upper deck. Only about 60% of the passengers were
equipped with life preservers, there was insufficient
means of rescue for the remainder of them.
Ten Degrees Below Zero
Tuesday, January 30, 1945. 12:30 in the afternoon.
Four tugboats came along and pulled the ship out of
her berth and in the direction of the open sea. The
weather was bad: wind strength of 7, snow, ten degrees
below zero, ice flows on the water's surface. As the
tugboats retreated into the distance back toward the
Bay of Danzig, the Wilhelm Gustloff began pounding her
way under her own power westward into the blustery
It was freezing cold as layers of ice began to forming
on the deck. In order to be ready for any emergency we
crewmen had to constantly work to remove ice from the
guns. A small mine sweeper patrolled in front of the
Gustloff in search of mines. Night fell and it became
even colder. Below decks, the high spirits of the
refugees began to wane as many became seasick. But
most were lulled into a false sense of secruity,
believing that in a few days they would reach Stettin
or the coast of Denmark.
I had been designated crew chief of one of the
anti-aircraft guns. My second watch began at 9:00PM.
So far, all had been quiet on board. Suddenly, at
about 9:10PM, the torpedos struck. At first I thought
"We have run into mines!" But the Gustloff had been
hit by three deadly torpedos fired from the Russian
submarine S-13. I found out later that it was
commanded by Alexander Marinesko.
Thousands of people immediately broke into a terrible
panic. Many plunged overboard into the icy waves of
the Baltic Sea. At first the ship leaned to starboard
under the force of the explosion, but then righted
herself, only to suffer another hit by the forecastle.
We were off the coast of Stolpmunde, Pommerania. We
immediately began to broadcast an SOS and fire signal
The first torpedo had hit the Gustloff at the bow,
directly below the helm and deep below the waterline.
The second torpedo exploded under the swimming pool on
E-Deck where the 400 Naval auxiliaries were being
quartered, almost all lost their lives. The third
torpedo hit amidships in the forward part of the
engine room, ripping the ship hull and shattering the
Panic on all Decks
I attempted to retrieve a few personal items from my
room on C-Deck, but it was impossible. The desperate
crowd of thousands had only one thought: to reach the
upper decks, away from the massive flood of water.
They clawed their way upward, pushing and shoving
mercilessly. Those who fell were lost. Children that
slipped from their mothers arms were trampled to
death. No one was able to assist the most helpless of
the passengers: pregnant wives and severely wounded
soldiers. The surging mass of people attempted to
storm the lifeboats, hardly anyone hearing the
command: "women and children first" No one obeyed: he
that was stronger took advantage. Many of the
ice-covered lifeboats could not be lowered into the
water. I saw boats full of people snag and hang by the
bowline, spilling the screaming people into the waves.
The Gustloff continued listing, the forecastle
railings already underwater. The launching of the
lifeboats became increasingly more difficult.
Many Chose Suicide
Up until this time I had stood alone on the sundeck,
unable to escape, witnessing the horible chaos. I saw
families shoot themselves rather than suffer slow and
terrifing death through drowning that awaited them.
Those with a pistol chose suicide. Thousands clung to
the ship, hoping to be saved, while the Gustloff sank
ever more quickly.
I thought that my life, too, was soon to end. I jumped
into the water, swimming quickly away from the ship so
that the suction would not carry me into the depths.
At first I did not feel the icy cold of the water at
all. I grabbed the side of a fully loaded lifeboat and
held on for dear life. What I saw was then was
terrible. Children hung in lifejackets, their stiff
legs sticking straight up. Elderly people bobbed dead
in the water. Death screams and cries for help filled
the air. Two children who were still alive clung
solidly onto me and screamed for their mother. I
lifted them the best I could into the crowded
lifeboat. If they were later rescued, I can not say.
Suddenly, Deathly Silence
I then noticed that I was weakening because of
hypothermia. I grabbed a little sheet-metal raft and
tried to keep swimming away from the suction. I was
about 50 yards away from the Gustloff and saw the
forecastle was already halfway underwater. The stern
began to show itself. Hundreds of people were still
there, desperately screaming in mortal fear. The ship
sank faster and faster. Then suddenly, a deadly
silence. The Wilhelm Gustloff had slipped beneath the
waves, carrying most of the passengers with her. The
greatest and most terrifing naval catastrophe had
lasted about 50 minutes.
For about 20 minutes, the most dreadful moments of my
life, I swam through the water. Time and again, I was
covered by sheets of ice. Occasional cries for help
became fewer and fewer. What happened then bordered on
the miraculous. I saw a dark shadow coming directly
toward me and I recognized the outlines of a ship. I
screamed with the last of my strength. I was noticed
and pulled into a boat.
I was taken into the engine area of the German torpedo
boat T-36. Sailors took care of us rescued castaways,
giving us hot tea and massages. Many died during the
night of exposure and exhaustion. Among the rescued
were some pregnant wifes. During the night, three
children were born on board the torpedo boat, with
sailors acting as midwifes.
Torpedo boat T-36 was part of the squadron commanded
by Lieutenant Herring and had been assigned as escort
to the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper. Both ships had
also sailed from East Prussia, loaded with refugees.
With a sudden roar of the engines, the ship took a new
course. As I later found out, two torpedos were
sighted. One passed to starboard, and the T-36 escaped
from the other by means of a violent change of
direction. The ship sped so quickly that some of the
personnel in lifeboats were thrown off and drowned. To
the joy of the commanders, 550 people were saved.
Because of the great danger of submarine attack, the
T-36 turned away and at 2:00PM, January 31, 1945,
arrived at Sassnitz.
The survivors of the Gustloff were taken on board the
Danish military hospital ship Prinz Olaf, which was
anchored there. Many had to be carried ashore on
stretchers. We in the Navy were accommodated in
barracks. The many dead people on board were also
carried off. Lieutenant Herring viewed the proceedings
from the command bridge, and as the last passenger
left the ship, he saluted. I found out later that only
996 of the approximately 8,000 Gustloff passengers
survived this dreadful tragedy.
We, the almost 1,000 survivors, had escaped death one
more time. We members of the German Navy were
comrades, loved our homeland, and believed we were
doing the right thing through our service. None of us
wanted to be heroes, and we do not honor our
casualties as such, only as human beings who had done
their duty according to the oath they had taken.
The Wilhelm Gustloff, a mass grave bearing the names
of thousands of young people, has to warn us, the
living and influence the leaders of nations in such a
way that wars, which bring unspeakable suffering to
mankind, will never be allowed to start again.