Wednesday, 23 July 2008

The Cruelest Night: Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff





What do we think of when we think of ships that sink at sea? Titanic, of course. Lusitania, perhaps. Certainly to my mind the USS Indianapolis has a special place in the history of awfulness at sea, where one by one, six hundred sailors where eaten by ravenous Pacific sharks, but all these three mighty disasters combined fail to match the death toll achieved by the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in the closing days of World War Two.

When this ship sank in the Baltic after being torpedoed by Soviet Submarine S-13, commanded by the drunkard, coward, liar and infamous scumbag Captain Alexander Marinesko, about whom more later, she was carrying 10,582 passengers and crew, including 8,956 refugees. Of these, 9,343 men women and childred died. Nine thousand three hundred and forty three dead in the sinking of a single ship.


It has been refered to as 'Germany's Dunkirk'. The Soviet army was advancing relentlessly on Berlin and with their push westward there were a collossal number of wounded German soldiers and refugees. It was these casualties of war that ships like the Wilhelm Gustloff were to evacuate from eastern Baltic ports to the relative safety of the western Baltic.

Many of these German refugees lived in East Prussia, a part of Germany that the Communist and democratic Allies had agreed would be taken from Germany and given to the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War. Others lived in Danzig and the surrounding area, which the democrats and Communists had decided would be taken from Germany and given to Poland. All of these refugees were fleeing in terror from the Reds, who already had demonstrated in East Prussia what was in store for any German unfortunate enough to fall into their hands.

As Soviet military units overtook columns of German civilian refugees fleeing to the west, they behaved in a way which has not been seen in Europe since the Mongol invasions of the Middle Ages. Often the men, most of them farmers or Germans who had been engaged in other essential occupations and thus exempted from military service, were simply murdered on the spot. The women were, almost without exception, gang-raped. This was the fate of girls as young as eight years old and old women in their eighties, as well as women in the advanced stages of pregnancy. Women who resisted rape had their throats cut or were shot. Very often women were murdered after being gang-raped. Many women and girls were raped so often and so brutally that they died from this abuse alone.

Sometimes Soviet tank columns simply rolled right over the fleeing refugees, grinding them into the mud with their tank treads. When Soviet Army units occupied East Prussian villages, they engaged in orgies of torture, rape, and murder so bestial that they cannot be described with meaningful clarity. The words may exist but the imagining of their meaning cannot. Sometimes they castrated the men and boys before killing them. Sometimes they gouged their eyes out. Sometimes they burned them alive. Some women after being gang-raped were crucified by being nailed to barn doors while still alive and then used for target practice.

This atrocious behavior on the part of the Communist troops was due in part to the nature of the Communist system, which had succeeded in overthrowing Russian society and the Russian government in the first place by organizing the scum of Russian society -- the losers and ne'er-do-wells, the criminals, the resentful and the envious -- under the Jews and setting them against the successful, the accomplished, the refined, and the prosperous, promising the rabble that if they pulled down their betters then they could take the place of the latter: the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

It was the members of this rabble, this scum of Russian society, who became the bosses of local soviets and collectives and workers' councils -- when the positions had not already been taken by Jews. The Soviet soldiers of 1945 had grown up under this system of rule by the worst; for 25 years they had lived under commissars chosen from the dregs of Russian society. Any tendency toward nobility or gentility had been weeded out ruthlessly. Stalin had ordered the butchering of 35,000 Red Army officers, half of the old Russian officers' corps, in 1937, just two years before the war, because he did not trust gentlemen. The officers who replaced those shot in the 1937 purge were not much more civilized in their behavior than the commissars.

An even more specific and immediate cause of the atrocities committed against the German population of East Prussia was the Soviet hate propaganda which deliberately incited the Soviet troops to rape and murder -- even to murder German infants. The chief of the Soviet propaganda commissars was a hate-filled Jew named Ilya Ehrenburg. One of his directives to the Soviet troops read:

Kill! Kill! In the German race there is nothing but evil; not one among the living, not one among the yet unborn but is evil! Follow the precepts of Comrade Stalin. Stamp out the fascist beast once and for all in its lair! Use force and break the racial pride of these Germanic women. Take them as your lawful booty. Kill! As you storm onward, kill, you gallant soldiers of the Red Army.

Not every Russian soldier was a butcher or a rapist, of course: just most of them. A few of them still had a sense of morality and decency which even Jewish Communism had not destroyed. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was one of these. He was a young captain in the Red Army when it entered East Prussia in January 1945. He wrote later in his Gulag Archipelago: "All of us knew very well that if the girls were German they could be raped and then shot. This was almost a combat distinction."
In one of his poems, Prussian Nights, he describes a scene he witnessed in a house in the East Prussian town of Neidenburg:

Twenty-two Hoeringstrasse.
It's not been burned, just looted, rifled.
A moaning by the walls, half muffled:
The mother's wounded, half alive.
The little daughter's on the mattress,
Dead. How many have been on it?
A platoon? A company perhaps?
A girl's been turned into a woman,
A woman turned into a corpse ...
The mother begs, 'Soldier, kill me!'

And so, German civilians were fleeing in terror from East Prussia, and for many of them the only route of escape was across the icy Baltic Sea. They packed the port of Gotenhafen, near Danzig, hoping to find passage to the west. Hitler ordered all available civilian ships into the rescue effort. The Wilhelm Gustloff was one of these. A 25,000-ton passenger liner, it had been used before the war by the "Strength through Joy" organization to take German workers on low-cost vacation excursions.


No mention of the fate of the Wilhelm Gustloff would be complete without a brief examination of the commanding officer of the submarine who sank her. As previously described, the 1937 Stalinist purges of the Russian officer corps resulted in particularly unsavoury characters having positions of leadership and responsibility that, ordinarily, such individuals could never aspire to. So it was with Alexander Marinesko.


Alexander Ivanovich Marinesko was a Soviet sailor and, during World War II, the captain of the S-13 submarine, which sank the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff.
Born in Odessa, Marinesko was the son of a Romanian sailor and a Ukrainian woman. His father has fled to Russia after beating an officer and has settled in Odessa, changing the last letter "u" of his name to "o". Alexander trained in the Soviet Merchant Navy and the Black Sea Fleet, and was later moved to a command position in the Baltic Fleet. In the summer of 1939 he was appointed commander of the new submarine M-96. When she entered service in mid-1940, she was declared to be the best submarine of the Baltic Fleet, and Marinesko was awarded a golden watch.

After the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941, the high command of the Baltic Fleet decided that the M-96 should be sent to the Caspian Sea to serve there as a training boat. But this could not be realized because of the German blockade of Leningrad. On 12 February 1942 a German artillery shell hit the M-96 causing considerable damage. The repair required more than four months. Because of the long inactivity, the level of battle training of the crew was low. Marinesko began to find consolation in alcohol, and he was expelled as candidate member of the Communist Party.

During a patrol near the Finnish coast, on August 14, 1942 Marinesko spotted the German heavy artillery barge. He launched a torpedo and later reported that he has observed the sinking of the barge. But this was lie. In 1946 the "sunken" barge was turned over to the Soviet Baltic Fleet as war prize and it was found that her displacement was not 7,000 BRT as claimed by Marinesko, but only 400 BRT. Then Marinesko exposed his submarine to real risk by prematurely returning without any warning to his base. Soviet patrol boats attacked M-96, and a tragedy was avoided by sheer luck.

In October 1942 M-96 had to disembark a commando detachment on the coast of the Narva Bay. Its task was to attack a German staff and capture an "Enigma" coding machine. However, only half of the group returned, without the machine. But because Marinesko has performed his task successfully, he was decorated with the Lenin order and he was promoted to "Kapitan treti rang" (Major). He was again admitted as candidate-member of the Communist Party.

In the beginning of 1943 Marinesko was appointed commander of the modernized submarine S-13. Of the 13 units of the type S, only this boat survived the war. Leaving her base in the Finnish town of Hanko in October 1944, S-13 took position near the Hela peninsula, where the main German communication lines passed. Marinesko soon spotted the small transport ship "Siegfried" (563 BRT) and launched four torpedoes, that all failed. Then he surfaced and opened fire at the ship with his cannons. He reported 15 hits and that, as a result, the ship has sunk. He stated that the displacement of this ship was 6,000 BRT. In fact, the "Siegfried" was hit severely, but she managed to reach the harbour of Danzig.

After spending the new Year's night 1945 in Hanko with a Swedish woman, owner of a restaurant, Marinesko disappeared for several days. It was proposed that he be court-martialed as a deserter, and this could be fatal for him. Moreover, during Communist times the friendship between Soviet citizens and foreigners was not allowed. But the commander of the Baltic Fleet Admiral V.F. Tributz realized that in such case the S-13 would not be operational for a long time. Therefore, Marinesko was sent on a new mission to prove his abilities.

Marinesko left Hanko on January 11, 1945 and took position near Kolberg on January 13. In the next days his submarine was attacked several times by German torpedo-boats. Then on January 30 followed the "torpedo attack of the century", the sinking of the liner Wilhelm Gustloff.


It is now assumed that the Wilhelm Gustloff was evacuating mostly civilians, and there are different opinions about this hit, ranging from praise to accusations of a war crime. Defenders of Marinesko maintain that the ship was armed, was not marked adequately as a hospital ship and was carrying more than 1,000 military forces, including submarine trainees, female naval auxiliary aides, crews serving several anti-aircraft guns on the ship, Croat volunteers: therefore strictly within in the law it passes as a legal military target. However, of the more than 10,000 people on board, most were civilians and refugees fleeing the advancing Russian on the Eastern Front - of these around half were woman and children. With 9,343 fatalities the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff was the single worst shipping disaster in history.

Only days later, on February 10, Alexander Marinesko sank with two torpedoes a second big German ship, Steuben, this time carrying mostly wounded military personnel, with an estimated total number of 3,000 casualties. Marinesko has maneuvred submerged for four hours, following the enemy by sonar. He was convinced that the target was the light cruiser Emden (This showed again his poor spotting ability). This way, Marinesko became the most successful Soviet submarine commander in terms of Brutto Register Tonnage (BRT) sunk with 42,000 BRT to his name.

However, Marinesko was not awarded for this the Hero of the Soviet Union title: his commanders refused to trust reports regarding the scale of the hit; in addition, he was deemed a controversial person, "not suitable to be a hero". Instead, after the hits were confirmed, he was awarded the Order of the Red Banner. Marinesko felt personally insulted, and when staff officers came to present him the order on his submarine, he gave the order to submerge her.
During his next mission from April 20 to May 13 Marinesko did not conduct a single attack, although he was sent to an area with intensive traffic of enemy ships. This mission was evaluated as unsatisfactory.


Due to problems with discipline and his alcoholism, in September 1945 Marinesko was removed from submarine command and transferred to shore duty, with a lowered rank, and in November he was discharged from the Navy. In the next years Marinesko ruined himself totally. In 1949 he managed to distinguish himself further, if that were possible, with a two year stretch for theft in a Kolyma prison camp. He died in 1963 in Leningrad of an ulcer.


Dedicated to the memory of the 9,343 who died in the infamous sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. She sank in freezing Baltic winter waters on the night of January 30th, 1945. It remains the greatest maritime disaster in recorded human history.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

How awful for those poor terrified people.Bless their souls.