The Deadliest Shipwreck in History

The ship MV Wilhelm Gustloff was built as a cruise liner in 1937, then repurposed as a hospital ship for the German navy in 1939. In 1945 it was pressed into service for Operation Hannibal, transporting both German military and civilian evacuees from areas where the Red Army was advancing. When the Wilhelm Gustloff left Danzig on January 30, 1945, it was carrying more than 10,000 people. Half of those were children. A Soviet submarine found the ship and launched torpedoes.

The first torpedo which struck Wilhelm Gustloff's bow caused the watertight doors to seal off the bow which contained the crews' quarters where off-duty crew members were sleeping. The second torpedo hit the accommodations for the women’s naval auxiliary located in the ship's drained swimming pool, dislodging the pool tiles at high speed, which caused heavy casualties; only three of the 373 quartered there survived. The third torpedo was a direct hit on the engine room located amidships, disabling all power and communications. Reportedly, only nine lifeboats were able to be lowered; the rest had frozen in their davits and had to be broken free. About 20 minutes after the impact of the torpedoes, Wilhelm Gustloff listed dramatically to port so that the lifeboats lowered on the high Starboard side crashed into the ship's tilting side, destroying many lifeboats and spilling their occupants across the ship's side.[11] The water temperature in the Baltic Sea at that time of year is usually around 4 °C (39 °F); however, this was a particularly cold night, with an air temperature of −18 to −10 °C (0 to 14 °F) and ice floes covering the surface. Many deaths were caused either directly by the torpedoes or by drowning in the onrushing water. Others were crushed in the initial stampede caused by panicked passengers on the stairs and decks. Many others jumped into the icy Baltic. The majority of those who perished succumbed to exposure in the freezing water.[14]   

German forces rescued 996 people, but that left 9,343 dead, including thousands of children. Read about the sinking of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff at Wikipedia, and see plenty of pictures at The Daily Mail. -Thanks, Walter!

(Image credit: German Federal Archives)


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