With the advance of the Soviet army, the Wilhelm Gustloff was used in evacuating German personnel from the Baltic. On the night of 30 January 1945, it was sunk in the Baltic Sea by the Soviet submarine S-13 (commanded by Captain Third Class Alexander Marinseko). When she went down, the ship was carrying nearly 1,000 submariners and other military personnel, but just before she sailed, she had taken on a large number of refugees, so there were probably more than 8,000 people on board. The ship sank quickly, and only 964 survivors were picked from the sea. Some of these died of their wounds or exposure, so the total number of people who perished in the tragedy probably exceeds 7,000.
The Wilhelm Gustloff was the largest German vessel ever sunk by a Soviet submarine. More people were lost when she went down than in the sinking of either the Titanic or the Lusitania. The next month, S-13 sank another German liner—the General Steuben—with 3,000 people on board, including 2,000 wounded German troops. Only 300 survived. A third German liner, the Goya with 7,000 people on board, went down to another Soviet submarine in April, and only 183 survived.
Many Germans erroneously believed that the Wilhelm Gustloff was marked with red crosses and was a noncombatant. In reality, the ship mounted antiaircraft guns and was transporting naval personnel as well as refugees. The submarine command should never have allowed her to sail virtually unescorted. A footnote to her sinking is the speculation that the ship may have been carrying a priceless art treasure—the carved amber panels commissioned by King Frederick I of Prussia in the early eighteenth century.
The Wilhelm Gustloff, General Steuben, and Goya had been taking part in what was the largest seaborne evacuation in history. The sinking of the three liners, with the loss of more than 15,000 people, obscured the fact that only 1 percent of the refugees the Germans evacuated from the Baltic by sea perished. This operation, carried out from January to May 1945, was the greatest German navy success of the war and also a personal triumph for Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, who directed the operation. Despite shortages of fuel and shipping and threats from mines, air attacks, and submarines, the German navy transported more than 2 million Germans by sea to the west ahead of the advancing Red Army. Spencer C. Tucker
Dobson, Christopher, John Miller, and Ronald Payne. The Cruelest Night. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980.; Koburger, Charles W. Steel Ships, Iron Crosses, and Refugees: The German Navy in the Baltic, 1939–1945. New York: Praeger, 1989.; Sellwood, Arthur V. The Damned Don't Drown: The Sinking of the "Wilhelm Gustloff." Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996.
Spencer C. Tucker