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 Army.

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 Baltic Sea.

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.

Deadly Torpedos

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 flares.

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 machinery.

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.

A Miracle

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.

996 Survivors

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.


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