The greatest maritime disaster in history happened during World War II when the Wilhelm Gustloff got hit by 3 torpedoes in the Baltic Sea by a submarine of the Soviet Union. This ship filled with refugees, which is often referred to as the German Titanic, sank in less than 45 minutes and had over 9400 fatalities, making it the worst sinking tragedy ever!
In January of 1945, this German ship known as the Nazi Titanic was hit by three torpedoes in the Baltic Sea while participating in the evacuation of civilians, military personnel, and Nazi officials who were surrounded by the Red Army in East Prussia.
The Wilhelm Gustloff was launched in May, 1937 and was supposed to be named after Adolf Hitler but was instead named after Wilhelm Gustloff, a leader of the National Socialist Party in Switzerland who was assassinated in 1936.
The ship was built to be a cruise liner and host concerts, cruises, and other trips for German soldiers, politicians, and their families, and to present “a more acceptable image of the Third Reich.”
In 1939 she started her military career and was in charge of bringing the Condor Legion back from Spain after the victory of the Nationalist Party forces under General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War. The Condor Legion were German Airforce and Army volunteers that developed methods of terror bombing which were used widely in the Second World War shortly afterwards. They were responsible for the bombing of Guernica, made famous by Picasso’s painting- however I digress…
She served as a hospital ship for about a year until she was turned into barracks for U-boat trainees in the port of Gdynia,(right here). The trainees actually acted as extras in the German remake of the movie Titanic in 1942.
The Wilhelm Gustloff sat on the docks for over 4 years until someone thought of using her as part of Operation Hannibal.
Operation Hannibal was the naval evacuation of German military personnel and refugees from Courland, East Prussia, and Danzig-West Prussia as the Red Army advanced. Here is a map so you have some context.
10,582 people were on a cruise ship that was meant to accommodate only about 1,900. Most of them were refugees and an estimated 5000 of them were children. As it the ship was leaving it was spotted by a Soviet submarine that launched 3 torpedoes hitting it on its side. The ship sunk in less than 45 minutes and the majority of the passengers drowned in the freezing water.
So why do so few people know about the Wilhelm Gustloff? It is possible the Nazi regime actively tried to hide the facts and Germans were hesitant to claim that they had been victims.
The Soviets were also not very keen on bragging about sinking the ship since the captain of the submarine was facing a court martial due to his problems with alcohol and they did not want to consider him a hero.
An estimated 9,400 people were killed in the disaster, making it the largest known loss of life occurring during a single ship sinking in recorded maritime history.