The Wilhelm Gustloff

The Wilhelm Gustloff

If you asked someone what the worst disaster in maritime history was (in terms of loss of life), most people would, understandably, resort to the most well-known: the Titanic. At least 1500 people lost their lives in this terrible event in 1912, but it’s certainly not the worst. This dubious distinction goes to the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff by a soviet submarine in January 1945; according to one estimate, 9600 people died out of 10 600 on board; with around 5000 of these being children. It is difficult to know for sure because there were many more people allowed on board who were not on the passenger list.

I only came across this incident due to a personal connection. My German fiancée’s mother was born in a Königsberg air-raid shelter (during an air raid) in 1945; so I became interested in the history of East Prussia. At this time, the Red Army was approaching the city, and news of atrocities against civilians had become widespread. People were looking for a safe way to flee west to relative safety.

In mid-January 1945, a general evacuation of the region called Operation Hannibal began. It was like the Dunkirk mission in 1939, but on a much larger scale and longer timeline. 

Wilhelm Gustloff – TGOL

What You Need to Know about the Wilhelm Gustloff

The Wilhelm Gustloff had started life before the war as a Nazi Strength Through Joy (Kraft durch Freude) cruise ship. It was named after a Swiss Nazi party leader who had been assassinated by a Jewish student in 1936.

Naming of the Ship

The Blohm & Voss shipyards constructed the Wilhelm Gustloff, which had dimensions of 208.5 m (684 ft 1 in) in length and 23.59 m (77 ft 5 in) in width, boasting a capacity of 25,484 gross register tons (GRT). The vessel was launched on May 5, 1937. Originally intended to bear the name of Adolf Hitler, the ship was ultimately christened “Wilhelm Gustloff” in honor of the leader of the Nazi Party’s Swiss branch, who had been assassinated by a Jewish medical student in 1936.

The decision to change the name was made by Adolf Hitler himself, after sitting next to Gustloff’s widow during his memorial service. Following successful sea trials in the North Sea on March 15-16, 1938, the ship was officially handed over to its owners.

Adolf Hitler visits the Wilhelm Gustloff transport ship, captain Carl Lübbe presents him the crew on the lower promenade deck


The main purpose of the Wilhelm Gustloff ship was to offer recreational and cultural activities for German functionaries and workers, such as concerts, cruises, and holiday excursions. It also functioned as a public relations instrument, aiming to portray a more favorable image of the Third Reich. Serving as the flagship of the KdF cruise fleet, the vessel retained this civilian role until the spring of 1939.


The ship had no classes, all cabins were the same size (except for a special cabin reserved for Hitler himself), and passengers had free access to the ship’s many luxury facilities, including the cinema and the swimming pool. While other cruise ships from the same era, like the British Queen Mary and the French Normandie, boasted larger dimensions, and even the Titanic, constructed two decades earlier, stood as a more massive and powerful vessel, the Gustloff held its own as a technologically advanced ship for its time. Aligned with the propaganda objectives of the KdF, it presented an illusion of luxury accessible to the masses.

In an unofficial maiden voyage spanning from March 24 to 27, 1938, the ship transported Austrians, part of a persuasive initiative to garner support for the annexation of Austria by Germany. Subsequently, on March 29, Wilhelm Gustloff embarked on its second voyage, hosting workers and their families from the Blohm & Voss shipyard on a three-day cruise.

It was even used as a ‘polling station’ for Germans and Austrians living in England to vote on the Anschluss (the merging of Germany with Austria). They were ferried out from Tilbury to the ship, which remained in international waters, and were treated to a real festival of top-class food, beer, and live entertainment on a ship festooned with pro-Anschluss material. Of the 1968 votes cast on the ship, only ten were voted against.  However, since the start of the war, it had been used as a hospital ship and a military transport ship, uncomfortably alternating between being a legitimate target and not being one (for what that means in the age of Total War…)

The sinking of the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff, on the evening of January  30, 1945, was one of the worst maritime disaster of all… | Instagram

Military Service

Between September 1939 and November 1940, the Wilhelm Gustloff operated as a hospital ship for wounded German soldiers, officially designated “Lazarettschiff D.” Starting on November 20, 1940, the ship underwent a transformation, with medical equipment removed, and its appearance changed from the hospital ship’s white with a green stripe to the standard naval grey.

Due to the Allied blockade along the German coastline, the vessel was repurposed as a barracks ship for around 1,000 U-boat trainees of the 2nd Submarine Training Division (2. Unterseeboot-Lehrdivision) in the port of Gdynia. This port, previously Gdynia and now renamed Gotenhafen after being occupied by Germany, was situated near Danzig (Gdańsk). MV Wilhelm Gustloff remained docked there for over four years.

In 1942, SS Cap Arcona was utilized as a substitute for RMS Titanic in a German film depicting the disaster, filmed in Gotenhafen. The 2nd Submarine Training Division played the role of extras in the movie. Subsequently, Wilhelm Gustloff was recommissioned for the transportation of civilians and military personnel as part of Operation Hannibal.

Rescue of Pegaway

On her third journey, Wilhelm Gustloff departed Hamburg on April 1, 1938, under the command of Captain Carl Lübbe. The ship was part of a group cruise in the North Sea alongside KdF vessels Der Deutsche, Oceania, and Sierra Cordoba.

However, a storm erupted on April 3, with winds reaching up to 100 kilometers per hour (62 mph), causing the ships to scatter. Simultaneously, the coal freighter Pegaway, weighing 1,836 gross tons, encountered the storm. Departing the Tyne for Hamburg on April 2, Pegaway suffered severe damage, losing cargo and machinery, and began slowly sinking by April 4.

At 4 am on April 4, Captain G. W. Ward of Pegaway issued an SOS when the ship was 20 nautical miles (37 km) northwest of the island of Terschelling, off the coast of the Netherlands. Responding to the distress call, Wilhelm Gustloff, the closest ship, arrived at 6 am.

Despite challenging conditions, Lifeboat No. 1, with a crew of twelve under Second Officer Meyer, was launched but struggled to approach Pegaway in the rough seas. Subsequently, Lifeboat No. 6, equipped with a motor and under the command of Second Officer Schürmann, was lowered and successfully reached Pegaway.

Assisting their shipmates from Lifeboat No. 1 to return to Wilhelm Gustloff, Schürmann and his crew rescued the 19 men from Pegaway, with everyone back on Wilhelm Gustloff by 7:45 am. Despite the arrival of a Dutch tugboat, Pegaway could not be saved and eventually sank. Lifeboat No. 1, severely damaged by the waves, was set adrift after its crew climbed to safety via ladders, later washing up on the shores of Terschelling.

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The Gustloff in Operation Hannibal

The German Navy launched Operation Hannibal as a means of evacuation of German troops and civilians from East Prussia and the German-occupied Baltic states amid the advancing Soviet armies. Beginning on January 21, 1945, an estimated two million Germans were brought to the west in an operation on this refugee ship that exceeded the famous British evacuation at Dunkirk. The final voyage of Wilhelm Gustloff aimed to evacuate civilians, German military personnel, and technicians from Courland, East Prussia, and Danzig-West Prussia, many of whom had worked at advanced weapon bases in the Baltic from Gotenhafen to Kiel.

Passengers on Board

Although the official complement and passenger lists indicated 6,050 people on board, this figure did not encompass those who boarded the The Wilhelm Gustloff before its first departure in 1938 and after its test in the Hamburg harbor without official registration, since escape to the West was their only hope of avoiding suffering and certain death.

Tickets and Ship Capacity

According to Heinz Schön, a survivor and German archivist, research conducted in the 1980s and 1990s revealed that the ship carried a total of 10,582 passengers and crew. This included a crew of 173, 918 officers, NCOs, and men of the 2 Unterseeboot-Lehrdivision, 373 female naval auxiliary helpers, 162 wounded soldiers, and 8,956 civilians. “They said to have a ticket to the Gustloff is half of your salvation,” Heinz Schön recalled in an episode of the early 2000s Discovery Channel series “Unsolved History.” “It was Noah’s Ark.”

Initially, German officials distributed and verified tickets, but amid the tumult, cold, fatigue, hunger, and mounting desperation, individuals pushed onto the ship, occupying any accessible space. Due to the chaotic circumstances and the lack of a dependable passenger manifest, the precise number of individuals aboard during the sinking remains unknown. What is undeniable, however, is that when this vessel, designed for fewer than 2,000 people, set sail at noon on January 30th, it was significantly exceeding its intended capacity.

Among the passengers were Gestapo personnel, members of the Organisation Todt, and Nazi officials with their families. The ship, overcrowded and facing high temperature and humidity, saw many passengers defy orders not to remove their life jackets. The diverse group on board included ethnic Germans, as well as Lithuanians, Latvians, Poles, Estonians, and Croatians, some of whom had been victims of Nazi aggression.

Departing Gotenhafen on January 30, 1945, at 12:30 pm, Wilhelm Gustloff was accompanied by two torpedo boats and the passenger liner Hansa, which carried civilians and military personnel. Mechanical problems affected Hansa and one torpedo boat, leaving Wilhelm Gustloff with a single torpedo boat escort, Löwe (ex-Gyller).


The ship had four captains on board, leading to disagreements on the best course of action against submarine attacks. Despite the advice of the military commander for a course in shallow waters close to shore without lights, Captain Friedrich Petersen decided to head for deep water. Petersen’s decision to activate the navigation lights to avoid a potential collision made Wilhelm Gustloff conspicuous in the dark.

Not marked as a hospital or refugee ship and transporting military personnel, the ship lacked protection under international accords governing hospital ships. So, the ship was a legitimate target for Soviet submarines. Also, the Wilhelm Gustloff had an unusual arrangement with two lead captains—one civilian and one military.

Around 6:00 PM, a message reached the captain, cautioning about an approaching minesweeper convoy. In response, he activated the ship’s navigation lights to avert a collision. The source of this message remains elusive; none of the radio operators on the Gustloff or the Löwe reported receiving it. Whether it was a miscommunication or potential sabotage remains unclear.

Despite not encountering any minesweepers, the Gustloff came to the attention of the Soviet submarine S-13 around 7:00 PM. In a strategic move, the Soviet commander, Capt. Aleksandr Marinesko, skillfully positioned his submarine between the Gustloff and the coastline, opting for an attack from an unexpected direction.

Sinking in the Baltic Sea

Wilhelm Gustloff was soon spotted by the Soviet submarine S-13, led by Captain Alexander Marinesko. The escorting torpedo boat Löwe faced technical issues, leaving it defenseless, as the submarine’s sensor and anti-aircraft guns had frozen.

The Soviet Advance

Following the vessels for two hours, Marinesko, seeking surprise, surfaced his submarine and maneuvered it around Wilhelm Gustloff’s stern to launch an attack from the less anticipated port side closer to the shore, roughly 30 km offshore between Großendorf and Leba. At approximately 9 pm (CET), Marinesko ordered the launch of four torpedoes at Wilhelm Gustloff.

The three torpedoes that successfully hit the ship caused severe damage. The first struck the bow, sealing off the area where off-duty crew members were sleeping. The second hit the women’s naval auxiliary accommodations, causing high casualties. The third torpedo scored a direct hit on the amidships engine room, cutting power and communication.

Evacuation Efforts

Help was unavailable, and notably, the majority of the ship’s regular crew found themselves trapped in the forecastle, behind watertight doors that had automatically locked upon the impact. Only nine lifeboats could be lowered; the others had frozen in their davits and had to be broken free.

Approximately twenty minutes after the torpedoes’ impact, Wilhelm Gustloff listed dramatically, causing lifeboats lowered on the high starboard side to crash into the tilting ship, destroying many and spilling occupants. Numerous deaths resulted directly from torpedoes, slipping and sliding on the icy deck, and drowning in the sea.

Many panicked passengers, including Gestapo personnel, members of the Organisation Todt, and Nazi officials with families, jumped into the icy Baltic. The majority succumbed to exposure in the frigid water, given the exceptionally low temperatures that night.

Less than 40 minutes after the impact, Wilhelm Gustloff sank bow-first in 44 m (144 ft) of water. German forces and other ships in the area rescued 1,252 people, with various vessels participating in the rescue. Thirteen survivors died later. All four captains on Wilhelm Gustloff survived, and an official naval inquiry was initiated only against Lieutenant Commander Zahn, whose responsibility was never fully resolved due to Nazi Germany’s collapse in 1945.


Heinz Schön’s research suggests a loss of “9,343 men, women, and children” in the Wilhelm Gustloff sinking. A computer analysis from an Unsolved History episode in March 2003 estimated that over 9,600 people died out of the more than 10,600 on board. The analysis considered passenger density, escape routes, and survivability in the sinking timeline.

The Aftermath

Admiral Karl Dönitz saw Operation Hannibal, the last major operation undertaken by the German Navy in the Second World War, as a considerable success despite setbacks such as the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, General Steuben, and Goya. In fact, the operation successfully evacuated over two million individuals. Despite the high number of civilian deaths, claims suggesting that the sinking of the Gustloff amounted to a war crime are largely unsubstantiated, given the presence of weapons and nearly 1,000 military personnel on board.

Media Coverage

In the tumultuous final months of the war, the enormity of the tragedy suffered by the Wilhelm Gustloff received minimal attention. This can be partly ascribed to the rapid pace of events and the staggering loss of life.

Neither the near-defeated Nazi Germany nor the Soviet Union, advancing towards a harsh victory, had a motivation to extensively publicize the deaths of numerous citizens. It took weeks before news of the Gustloff reached the United States, and even then, only brief wire stories emerged, drawing upon fragments from Finnish radio broadcasts.

Several weeks later, Marinesko also sank the General von Steuben (although the recognition he sought was slow to materialize—his reputation didn’t fully recover during his lifetime, but he would be posthumously honored for his wartime actions). Subsequently, in the spring, the sinking of the Goya would contribute an additional 7,000 to the toll in the Baltic, while the Cap Arcona, carrying 4,500 concentration camp prisoners, was sunk by British forces.

In its broader context, the Gustloff represented yet another tragedy in a war replete with losses. At that point, “there was a stigma about discussing any form of German suffering during the war after everything the Nazis did to the rest of Europe,” notes Edward Petruskevich, curator of the online Wilhelm Gustloff Museum. “The Gustloff was just another casualty of war, alongside the countless other large ships sunk on the German side.”

Captain Alexander Marinesko

Before sinking Wilhelm Gustloff, submarine captain Marinesko was under scrutiny for a court martial due to issues related to alcoholism and being found in a brothel during his off-duty time, along with his crew. The Soviet Union ultimately considered Marinesko “not suitable to be a hero.”

The Wreckage

Identified as “Obstacle No. 73” on Polish navigation charts and designated as a war grave, Wilhelm Gustloff now lies at approximately 55°04′22″N 17°25′17″E, situated about 19 nautical miles (35 km; 22 mi) offshore. It rests to the east of Łeba and west of Władysławowo (formerly Leba and Großendorf, respectively). As one of the largest shipwrecks on the Baltic Sea floor, the site has garnered significant attention from treasure hunters seeking the lost Amber Room.

To safeguard the contents within the war grave, the wreckage itself, and the surrounding environment, the Polish Maritime Office in Gdynia has prohibited diving within a 500 m (1,600 ft) radius of the site. In 2006, a bell salvaged from the wreckage, later repurposed as an ornament in a Polish seafood restaurant, was temporarily loaned to the privately funded “Forced Paths” exhibition in Berlin.

The Wilhelm Gustloff in Popular Culture

Beyond historical accounts and documentaries, the narrative of Die Gustloff has inspired various feature films and fictional works. In Günter Grass’s “Im Krebsgang” (Crabwalk), the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff is woven into a narrative that blends historical accuracy with fictional characters and events. Ruta Sepetys’s young adult historical fiction “Salt to the Sea” provides a gripping account of the lives of four fictional characters during the evacuation of East Prussia and the Gustloff’s sinking, earning the Carnegie Medal in 2017.

In the realm of film, “Darkness Fell on Gotenhafen” (Nacht fiel über Gotenhafen) by Frank Wisbar (1960) and “Die Gustloff” (2008) by Joseph Vilsmaier explore the tragedy on the big screen. A variety of documentaries, including “Killer Submarine,” “Die große Flucht. Der Untergang der Gustloff,” “The Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff,” and “Wilhelm Gustloff: World’s Deadliest Sea Disaster,” contribute to the broader cultural understanding of this historical event.

Interesting Facts

The family story goes that my fiancée’s grandmother wanted to leave on the ship Wilhelm Gustloff during the big naval evacuation and had arranged passage, but (fortunately for them) her daughter took so long packing her things that they were too late. They ended up staying in the city after the end of the war until they were forced to leave by the Soviet ethnic cleansing policy. They ended up in Kiel, the very port that the Wilhelm Gustloff had been bound for.

Naturally, how this event in maritime history is talked about remains controversial. It certainly was a civilian ship in most ways; although an anti-aircraft gun had been placed on her. The ship was carrying mostly civilian refugees; although it was also carrying German military personnel, not all of whom were injured, so it was, in some way, ‘contributing to the war effort’. The strange combination of civilian and military duties also led to a series of conflicts of interest and tactical arguments among the leadership group of the ship during its final ill-fated voyage, causing it to become far more vulnerable to attack than it perhaps should have been.

Language is the Key

While some of these kinds of stories are available in English, learning German is really opening up a fascinating window onto a whole new area of history; not to mention being able to talk to German speakers about their own personal stories, something smarterGerman has really helped me with. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing Kiel now, and then hopefully taking a ship up the Ostsee to what-is-now-Kaliningrad (Königsberg was renamed by the Soviets). There’s always another fascinating story around the corner. Oh … and do you want to know more about learning German using a story? Check out our Everyday German B1 course!

The Wilhelm Gustloff Museum

The Wilhelm Gustloff Museum, a nonprofit online institution, is dedicated to showcasing historically significant memorabilia for the benefit of public viewing and research. Its mission is to prevent these artifacts from being lost to private collections, ensuring that their historical value is preserved and accessible to the world.

With a comprehensive collection that spans 36 pages, 40 photo albums, over 3,400 photographs, 320 speisekarten, and more than 250 artifacts, Edward Petruskevich has established the Wilhelm Gustloff Museum as the world’s largest public repository of artifacts related to the Wilhelm Gustloff and Robert Ley. In a significant development in 2017, he successfully integrated into the Wilhelm Gustloff museum, augmenting the resource with an additional 200 pages of information on the liner and the tragic events surrounding it.


Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about the German ship The Wilhelm Gustloff.

Why did Russia sink the Wilhelm Gustloff?

The sinking of the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff was not orchestrated by Russia but occurred during World War II on January 30, 1945, when a Soviet navy submarine torpedoed the ship. The motive was likely strategic, considering the context of the war.

How many children were on the Wilhelm Gustloff?

The exact number of children aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff during its tragic sinking is not definitively documented. However, along with German military personnel the ship was carrying a significant number of civilians, including children, as it was evacuating German refugees from East Prussia.

Was the Wilhelm Gustloff bigger than the Titanic?

No, the Wilhelm Gustloff was not bigger than the Titanic. The Titanic was significantly larger in terms of size and tonnage. The Wilhelm Gustloff, with a capacity of 25,484 gross register tons (GRT), was smaller compared to the Titanic, which had a gross tonnage of around 46,328 tons.

What was the count of survivors from the Wilhelm Gustloff?

When the Wilhelm Gustloff embarked on its last journey, carrying over 10,000 refugees and military personnel—far exceeding its intended capacity for less than 2,000 passengers—only around 1,250 survivors were rescued by German forces after the tragic sinking.

Why does no one know about the Wilhelm Gustloff?

The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff by a Russian submarine is less widely known than the Titanic disaster due to several factors. The incident occurred during the chaotic final stages of World War II, and wartime censorship, coupled with the tragedy’s association with Nazi Germany, may have contributed to limited public awareness. Also, the Wilhelm Gustloff disaster did not receive as much media coverage as the Titanic sinking.

Has the Wilhelm Gustloff been found?

The Wilhelm Gustloff was discovered on the Baltic Sea floor. The wreck was found by a team of explorers led by the late Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, in September 2017. The discovery was made at a depth of about 120 meters (nearly 400 feet) off the coast of Poland. Today, the Wilhelm Gustloff is located at a depth of nearly 50 meters and the spot is classified as a war grave.

Summing Up: The Wilhelm Gustloff

In conclusion, MV Wilhelm Gustloff stands as a poignant chapter in maritime history, dwarfing even the infamous Titanic disaster, being at least four times more devastating in terms of human life. Serving as a symbol of the German Dunkirk during Operation Hannibal, this ill-fated vessel aimed to evacuate wounded German soldiers and civilian refugees from the eastern provinces of Germany as the Soviet armies advanced.

Amid the chaos of war, the German Navy’s ambitious operation faced attacks by three torpedoes launched by the Soviet navy, leading to unforeseen tragedies. So, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff has become a somber reminder of the immense challenges faced by German refugees and the navy during this critical chapter of World War II. If you’d like to know more about German culture and history, come check out our blog!