by RICHARD MADDOX
THE OUTSIDE air temperature is -18°Celsius on January 30, 1945 and a former German cruise liner slips her moorings from Gotenhafen (now Gdynia) with around 11,000 people aboard.
Ice floes knock against the hull as she makes her way out of port
Some sources say as many as 9,000 are refugees – women, children and old men – fleeing the advancing Red Army, with the rest made up of wounded servicemen, female navy personel.
Others claim that there were also a number of personnel working on the V2 rocket programme and similar projects as well as senior NSDAP officials and their families.
The Wilhelm Gustloff is part of a large armada that will eventually evacuate around 2,000,000 German civilians and military personnel from East Prussia.
The evacuation – which Hitler refused to sanction – is called ‘Operation HANNIBAL’ and is under the command of Admiral Dönitz.
Over the past week the former liner has been working through the challenges of taking as many refugees as possible.
Launched in 1937 and designed to carry some 1,400 passengers and almost 500 crew, the ship was used by the Deutsche Arbeitsfront – the German Workers organisation – as part of the ‘Strength through Joy’ programme. She made around 50 voyages before being requisitioned.
Since the declaration of war she has served as a hospital ship and a harbour accommodation barracks for U-boat crews where she was gradually ‘robbed’ of equipment for her sea-going sisters.
Now as she is to join HANNIBAL, missing lifeboats are replaced, anti-aircraft guns fitted for self-protection and the engines run up properly for the first time in four years.
As she and another German transport ship leave Gydnia, a submarine is patrolling off the coast.
Soviet submarine S-13 sees the ship and her escort (a German torpedo boat) and starts to follow her.
On board the Gustloff the anti-aircraft guns are frozen solid as is the sonar equipment on the escort.
The ships are all but blind and defenceless.
S-13 tracks the ships for some two hours and at a position about 30 km off the coast fires four torpedoes at an ‘enormous’ target.
One fails to exit the torpedo tube endangering the submarine but is later made safe.
All the others find their mark. One causes the watertight doors in the bow section (where off-duty crew are sleeping) to seal shut trapping the men there.
A second hits the former swimming pool area that has been turned into accommodation for some 373 women naval auxiliaries. Just three are rescued.
The third torpedo hits the engine room crippling the ship.
Over the next forty minutes the ship lists over and settles on her port side before sinking by the bow. Some 1,250 were rescued by German vessels.
Ten days later S-13 finds another German transport involved with Operation HANNIBAL and attacks with two torpedoes; this time 300 are rescued.
But ten times that number die.
In less than two weeks five torpedoes from S-13 have accounted for around 12,000 lives.
Today the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff remains the great loss of life at sea in known history.
By comparison RMS Titantic was carrying approximately 2,250 people when she struck the iceberg in April 1912 and around 1,600 loss their lives.