In 2012, editors and television writers around the world will be noting in films and articles writ large the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the luxury liner Titanic which took just over 1500 passengers to a cold watery grave after striking an ice berg in the North Atlantic. It is unarguably the world’s most well-known and revisited modern maritime disaster and, among Americans at least, is approached in fame only by the loss of the RMS Lusitania in 1915 with 1200 dead, and the SS General Slocum which burned in New York Harbor in 1904 with a loss of 1000. (An event which touched my own family.)
It is the sound of a mental bell, known only to devoted history buffs, which rings in my mind at times like this, and, in this case, draws attention to a notation on Polish ocean charts of the Baltic Sea nineteen miles offshore from the port of Leba bearing the cognomen “Obstacle No. 73”. At that exact location, on the ocean floor approximately 150 feet below the surface, lies the mostly-intact carcass of a once-proud ocean liner with the name Wilhelm Gustloff - and the protected burial site of most of its 10,582 passengers. The sinking of the Gustloff on the bitterly cold night of January 30th, 1945 represents the greatest loss of life in a single maritime disaster in history, yet remains the least known and most seldom spoken of. And it is only one part of a much larger, and mostly neglected story.
In the closing months of 1944, the surging Soviet Army was closing in on what was left of the once-mighty German occupying forces and civilian population now being crowded into the rapidly-collapsing defenses of East Prussia. Masterminded by Gross Admiral Karl Dӧnitz in what would become the greatest mass evacuation effort in human history, more than one million refugees and 350 thousand soldiers would board more than one thousand merchant vessels – large and small – to cross the Baltic Sea to friendly ports in Germany and Denmark over a period of fifteen weeks. This accomplishment would dwarf by three times the much-celebrated British evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940.
Part of this evacuation fleet, the Wilhelm Gustloff, was struck by a spread of three torpedoes fired by Captain Alexander Marinesko in the Russian submarine S-13. Of the 9,600 passengers who perished in that sinking, most were civilian refugees, with 4,000 of those being children. (While the exact number will never be known, German researcher Heinz Schӧen has arrived at these figures after 30 years of studying diaries, logs and official records.) But Capt. Marinesko was not finished yet. Ten days later, he hit the SS Gen.Von Steuben which sank in less than 20 minutes, taking more than 4000 passengers with it. Not to be outdone, another Russian sub skipper Captain Vladimir Konovalov in the L-3 sank the MV Goya on April 16, 1945 leaving another 6,100 dead in the Baltic’s dark waters.
A little arithmetic tells us that in this short span of time, these three wartime sinkings left a total death toll of at least 20,000; equal to the entire population of a small city! (In addition, another 158 evacuation vessels went to the bottom during that brief “moment” in time taking an unknown number of escapees with them.)
Today, 66 years later, the descendants and surviving loved ones of those lost voyagers drop wreaths over a watery mass grave known only as “Obstacle No. 73).
Originally built for the Hamburg-South America Line, the 25,000 ton Wilhelm Gustloff is seen in its wartime hospital ship colors docked at Gdansk, Poland in September, 1939.