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The biggest maritime disaster in History was not Titanic but a ship called “Wilhelm Gustloff ” that sank and killed 9,343 people

Wilhelm Gustloff

The sinking of  “Wilhelm Gustloff ” has been considered as the biggest maritime catastrophe of all time- even surpassing the combined calamities of Titanic (which sank taking more than 1,500 people with it after hitting an iceberg) and Lusitania (which sank with 1,119 people after getting hit by a German torpedo). We have often heard and even seen (through movies, of course) the magnitude of “Titanic” and the greatest tragedy (as it has frequently been put) associated with it. However, if one digs into the metaphorical “graves” of history, one would realize the sheer magnitude of the devastation that was represented by the German ship.

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“Wilhelm Gustloff ” was named after the assasinated leader of the Swiss Nazi Party. The colossal ship measured 25,000 tons  in weight and almost 700 feet in length with a carrying capacity of 2,000 people. In its initial days, the ship was used as a luxury cruise liner for the German workers of Hitler’s Third Reich, and, until the outbreak of the Second World War, had sailed over fifty cruises.

Wilhelm Gustloff

Wilhelm Gustloff- the ship that sunk with 9,343 people
Image source: media.npr.org

In 1941, when Hitler launched “Operation Barbarossa” against the Soviet Union, the German army had reached deep into the Soviet Union’s territory until Stalin turned the tables and by October 1944, the Soviet Union’s Red Army had fought the Germans out of the Soviet Union and entered East Prussia. Fearing the approaching Red Army, the German civilians in East Prussia fled to Baltic ports and “Wilhelm Gustloff “, besides other ships, was pressed into action to evacuate the millions of Germans-civilians and military personnel alike.

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The Red Army approaching the German factions

Red Army entering the German factions
Image source: www.dw.com

Against a specified load of 2,000 passengers, 10,582 people (Germans, Prussians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Poles, Estonians and Croatians) had been crammed onto the ship by draining out the swimming pools and throwing off all the available furniture on the ship. To make matters worse, only one torpedo boat accompanied the ship because of the three designated military escorts, two broke down. Little did the people know that a Soviet submarine was tracking the ship’s movement and within an hour of its journey, the ship was bombarded by three Russian torpedos, each hitting its target. Scenes of pandemonium erupted as people jumped outside in water. The temperature outside was minus 18 degrees celsius (-0.4 °F) and also because of this severely cold weather, several life-boats were frozen to the deck. Children drowned in life-jackets that were too big for them while some people were trapped below decks whereas the others were crushed in the stairways.

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Wilhelm Gustloff- at the dock

Wilhelm Gustloff on its voyage
Image source: timedotcom.files.wordpress.com

Only very few, 1,252 to be precise, made it off the steamer alive out of the 10,582 people aboard. An estimated 9,343 people died, half of them children – six times the 1,517 that died on the Titanic in 1912. Co-incidentally, almost like a cruel irony, it was the birthday of Wilhelm Gustloff, born 30 January 1895 while the ship sank on 30 January 1945. The following reasons have been put forward on why this disaster has not gathered much attention from the world:

  1. The incident involved German people and post world war 2, not a lot of people were sympathizing with Germany.
  2. There was a subdued reaction to a disaster of this magnitude since people realized the establishment of Nazi death camps and the naming of the ship after a Nazi leader did not help the matter.
  3. In another comparison to Titanic, historians argue that since there weren’t a lot of rich people on the ship, this tragedy failed to grab enough headlines.

In the late 60’s under Soviet supervision, two divers had been sent into the sea to find out if the Germans had tried to use the refugee ship to evacuate the treasure. Although some things were retrieved but they were never disclosed to the public or to the media. (Source)

Also see: 15 Less known Facts Related To RMS Titanic
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