When the Titanic sank, its sinking was reported all over the world, and to this day it remains in the memory of many people. But, when a ship with Germans was attacked during the Second World War, ending the lives of many civilians, the fact was completely put aside.
The year was 1945 and Germany was already falling behind in the war with the Soviet Union advancing on the eastern front. By this time, the German population was terrorized with stories of rape and murder provoked by the more vengeful Soviet forces. This made the population decide more and more to abandon the Red Army.
Against this backdrop, East Prussia witnessed what the Germans would later call Operation Hannibal, a massive effort to evacuate civilians, soldiers and equipment from the site to a safer environment across the Baltic Sea. To accomplish this crossing, they relied on an old luxury liner named Wilhelm Gustloff.
However, the Soviet navy was waiting for any transport that crossed its path. When the ship with Germans was sighted, the fate of approximately 9,000 of the vessel's 10,000 passengers would be death, a number that surpasses the Titanic disaster. However, the memory of the dead and the accounts of the survivors were long forgotten.
The ship with Germans was not built for war
The 25,000-ton liner Wilhelm Gustloff had been created to be a vacation ship, a place "to provide ocean luxury for the Nazis," as the Associated Press noted in 1937.
The ship was named after a Swiss Nazi leader who had been murdered by a Jewish medical student the previous year. At Gustloff's funeral, Adolf Hitler was present and said he would be "in the ranks of the immortal martyrs of our nation."
However, when war broke out, the holiday ship was soon used as a barracks. Before it was used to evacuate the Germans, it had not been used on the ocean for years.
The disaster on the high seas
During the embarkation of the population, the authorities checked their tickets. But as chaos ensued and the Germans panicked, people began desperately boarding the ship.
This meant that the exact number of passengers on board was not fully known. What was known was that the ship had been built with a capacity for 2,000 people, but when it left port it carried far more.
After boarding, the senior officers of the ship with Germans were in many doubts about how to continue this voyage. They had the option of sailing through shallow, mine-filled waters, or else through deep, submarine-infested waters.
In addition to the sea, the weather at the time did not help. It was winter, and snow and hail conspired to sicken the crew and passengers. Captain Paul Vollrath, who served as a second senior officer, later reported that at the time there were no adequate escort ships to take the Germans.
After dark, the navigation lights were turned on, which increased the visibility of the ship with Germans. This caused a Soviet submarine S-13 that was nearby to spot the Wilhelm Gustloff. The submarine was under the command of Alexander Marinesko, who at the time needed a boost to his reputation. He saw the ship as an opportunity to accomplish such a feat.
Since the ship was an easy target, Alexander sent torpedoes that hit the liner for an hour until the ship sank into the sea. The S-13 launched three torpedoes that affected the crew quarters, the pool area, and the engine rooms and lower decks.
The ship with Germans had too many people for the few lifeboats, and more help had to be called in. But to make matters worse, when the German rescue boats arrived on the scene, they had to leave many people behind while still at full capacity to avoid being attacked by the Soviets.
The next morning, the waters around the ship were filled with bodies, many of them with children wearing life jackets that made them float. Within this graveyard in the ocean, only one child, a baby wrapped in blankets aboard a lifeboat surrounded by deceased passengers, managed to survive and was adopted by the officer who found him.
Of all the passengers who had boarded the ship in hopes of finding a safer place, only 1,000 managed to survive.
The reason the disaster hasn't been widely reported
As great as the tragedy was, it received little attention at the time. During the final months of the war, none of the parties involved received incentives to report the deaths of so many civilians.
At the time, there was a lot of killing going on all over the European continent, and there was a big stigma about talking about any kind of suffering that the Germans might be going through after all they did on the continent.
Besides the Gustloff, other ships with Germans also sank at sea and killed hundreds of people. But considering the public sentiment of the time in the Allied countries, German suffering did not arouse their sympathy.
According to Vollrath, surviving captain of the ship with Germans, the Wilhelm Gustloff "dragged love, hope and wishes to the bottom of the sea".