top of page

MV Wilhelm Gistloff: The shipwreck that swallowed over 9000 lives

In the past centuries, there have been hundreds of momentous events recorded that have gained even more momentum over time. The French revolution, WW I and II, the demolition of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the declaration of women’s right to vote, colour television, and the first heart transplant are simply to name a few. Some popular events are believed to be the most historic of all; however, that opinion is relevant only due to the fact that a lot of other historical events did not gain as much momentum as the rest, therefore they remained less popular.

Many believe the Titanic shipwreck of 1912 to be the most disastrous shipwreck to ever occur. This is not surprising because the story of the Titanic is quite popular and is probably the only shipwreck event well known to a few. However, the most disastrous shipwreck title goes to the MV Wilhelm Gustloff of January 30, 1945.

The MV Wilhelm Gustloff was a German military transport ship sunk by the Soviet submarine S-13 while evacuating civilians and German military personnel. The ship was constructed originally to serve as a cruise ship for the Nazi Strength Through Joy organisation in 1937, but in 1939 it was seized by the German navy and served as a hospital ship till 1940. It also later served as a floating barracks for the German Navy in Gotenhafen and as a transport ship for evacuees in 1945. It had a length of 208.5 meters, a height of 56 meters, a speed of 28.7 kilometres per hour, and five decks.

On the 30th of January, at exactly 12:30 pm, the ship left Gotenhafen overcrowded, with a total of about 10,582 passengers along with two torpedo boats, one of which developed a fault on the way and could not proceed. The action that led to the tragic event began with the Captain of the ship, Freidrich Petersen, going against the advice of the military commander, Lieutenant Commander Wilhelm Zahn, to go through shallow waters without lights. Instead, he decided to head for deep waters that were clear of mine. Both parties had good reasons for their opinions. The captain did so in order to avoid a coalition, and the lieutenant advised a shallow water route to prevent being noticed. As the ship sailed on, Captain Peterson decided to turn on the ship’s red and green navigation lights to prevent a coalition due to the darkness. Although there was nothing wrong with the Captain's actions because Wilhelm Gustloff was serving as an evacuation ship, except that it was fitted with anti-aircraft guns, it could only possibly be recognised as a military ship and not as an evacuation ship. To top it all off, there was no prior information from the Germans.

The ship was sighted by the Soviet submarine S-13 and was attacked as a naval ship. Unfortunately, the Wilhelm Gustloff was defenseless, as it was the only torpedo boat left and the anti-aircraft guns were frozen. Three torpedoes were reportedly fired at the ship, with each causing crucial damage and resulting in the loss of lives. Many of the deaths were caused by either a direct hit from the attack or drowning in the water. Some others died due to the stampede caused by the crowd seeking an escape means, and others froze out in the Baltic Sea because of its usually low temperature, especially with the air temperature that night, which was particularly chilly at about -18 to -10 degrees, leading to a lot of people freezing out.

Although all four captains survived, an estimated 9,600 people died, making it the highest recorded death toll in a single shipwreck and three times the total number of lives lost in all known Titanic shipwrecks, which totaled approximately 1,500. The terrible MV Wilhelm Gistloff event is a perfect example of an epic historical event that many are not quite informed about.

125 views0 comments
bottom of page