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Worst maritime disaster in history, and you’ve never heard of it


wf-Prince_Book4.18If asked to name the worst maritime disaster of all time, most people think of The Titanic.

That famous 1912 shipwreck is immortalized in history books and celebrated on the big screen. We all know what happened. A luxury cruise liner hailed as “unsinkable” struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage, and sank, claiming 1,523 lives. An amazing story for sure, but it’s not even close to being the worst maritime disaster in terms of lives lost.

Another well-publicized shipwreck was the horrific 1987 sinking of the Philippine-registered passenger ferry Dona Paz, which claimed 4,341 lives after colliding with an oil tanker.  But although the Dona Paz was the worst peacetime maritime disaster, it pales in comparison to the worst maritime disaster of all time —  the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff.

Never heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff? You aren’t alone.

The sinking of this German ship, with an estimated 9,400 casualties, is the worst maritime disaster in history. But its story is seldom told. Until now.

The Wilhem Gustloff was attacked on Jan. 30, 1945, at the tail end of World War II as it was leaving East Prussia.

More than 10,000 German civilians — many of whom were women, children, the sick, and the elderly, were packed aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, which was once the crown jewel of German cruise ships until it was commissioned for wartime use. Their intent was to flee East Prussia, which was under the Nazi regime, as the Russian Army approached.

By this time, the outcome of World War II had been pretty much determined and the Third Reich was ready to fall. The mass exodus was a desperate move to save German lives.

The Wilhem Gustloff had just set sail in the icy waters of the Baltic when three Soviet torpedoes struck it, inflicting catastrophic damage and throwing passengers into the frozen waters. The death toll topped 9,400.

One would think such a catastrophic attack would have been big news; instead it was covered up.

The Germans did not want to scare people by letting them know a large number of their people had been killed. The ship was the symbol of Nazi power, it had brought leisure to the masses. The Germans were embarrassed and didn’t want the world to know what happened.

The Russians were in no position to boast about an attack that primarily took the lives of women and children. In addition, Russian submarine commander Alexander Marinesko, who launched the attack, had a reputation for excessive drinking and womanizing. Before this mission, he was facing a possible court martial for a desertion charge. He was only on duty at the time because submarine commanders were in short supply.

It’s a fascinating story, and it’s about time it came to light. Kudos to author Cathryn Prince who captured this historic event in her new book, Death in the Baltic, The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff.

Told primarily through the eyes of survivors, we learn the attack was the product of politics and power struggles. Unlike The Titanic or Dona Paz, this maritime disaster was not an accident. It was deliberate. Women, children, and civilians were killed on purpose. The truth of war. 

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8 thoughts on “Worst maritime disaster in history, and you’ve never heard of it

  1. Dave Hall on said:

    Terrible event. “Crabwalk” by Gunther Grass is a novel that also looks at the disaster. So many innocents died on all sides of the war. Like today.

    • Hi Dave and welcome. Thanks for the tip about Gunther Grass’ novel. I’ve read the Tin Drum, but not Crabwalk. After learning about the Wilhelm Gustloff from Cathryn Prince’s book, I’m intrigued to see how others viewed the event, even in fiction. So, thanks for that recommendation.

  2. Its sad how this is a largely forgotten disaster from World War II. “The Cruelest Night” by Christopher Dobson is also a great account of the disaster. Did they know a few movies have come out about the disaster?

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