Forgotten Naval Disasters at Sea

An article kindly supplied by Nigel Parker - Author & Luftwaffe Historian

The greatest loss of life at sea

Speak to anyone about the greatest loss of life at sea and the loss of RMS Titanic on 15th April 1912 (1490 – 1635 people) as a peacetime sinking or the RMS Lusitania on 7th May 1915 (1198 people) having been torpedoed by the U-Boat  U-20 would probably be the first answer. For the wider read historian they may mention the RMS Lancastria where the official loss of life was 1,738 (other figures mention between 3,000 and 7,000 lives lost). Mention the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, the MV Goya or the SMS General Von Steuben and you will probably be met with a blank stare. Even the mention of Konigsberg, the one-time capital of East Prussia is unlikely to conjure up much of a response.

Forgotten Naval Disasters at Sea
MV Wilhelm Gustloff was envisioned as the ultimate cruise vessel and later turned into a hospital ship before finally being transformed into a navy personnel carrier.
MV Wilhelm Gustloff
The swimming bath on the Wilhelm Gustloff before the war.
Forgotten Naval Disasters at Sea
The MV Wilhelm Gustloff was the first ship built specifically for the German Labour Front’s Kraft lurch Freude (Strength Through Joy”) programme, which subsidised leisure activities for german workers.
MV Wilhelm Gustloff
Wilhelm Gustloff as a hospital ship. Danzig, 23 September 1939.
MV Wilhelm Gustloff
“Wilhelm Gustloff” brings wounded Narvik fighters to their homeland.

RAF attacks on Konigsberg

East Prussia was a province at the north-east corner of Germany but following the Armistice and Peace terms after the First World War the territory was cut off from the rest of Germany by the Polish Corridor, which gave Poland access to the Baltic Sea via the Free-Port of Danzig. It was partially due to this division of territory that World War 2 started on 1st September 1939 with the bombardment of Westerplatte in the Danzig Bay by the German battleship SMS Schleswig-Holstein. After the invasion of Poland by German Forces and the division of the country between the Soviets and Germany before it was fully occupied following Operation Barbarossa, East Prussia became a quiet and largely overlooked area of Germany, relatively unaffected by the war. It was not until 26/27 August and 29/30 August 1944 that the medieval capital of East Prussia, Konigsberg attacked by RAF Bomber Command when 174 Lancasters bombed the city, followed by 189 Lancasters the following two days. This was the furthest operational attack carried out by Bomber Command during the Second World War with 19 Lancasters lost. A large proportion of the city, made famous by the puzzle of its seven bridges and how to cross each bridge only once during a walk round the city was reduced to ruins.

Avro Lancaster III 619 Squadron
Avro Lancaster III of 619 Squadron © Rickard, J (2 September 2008), Avro Lancaster III of No.619 Squadron , http://www.historyofwar.org/Pictures/pictures_lancaster_III_619_sqn.html
619 Squadron
An extract from 619 Squadron Operational Record Book (ORB) 29th August 1944 © Rob Mather

The sinking of MV Wilhelm Gustloff

The bombing of Konigsberg was not followed up and the province drifted back into its sedate existence of subsistence farming and minor industry until the Soviet invasion of East Prussia at the end of 1944, along with rumours of massacres of civilians by the encroaching revengeful armies that the population of East Prussia, which in 1939 had numbered about 2 ½ million began to flee their homes. It was a very hard winter with heavy snowfalls, many loading up carts and sleighs and making their way to the south-west and to Northern Germany or to the various ports along the Baltic Coast in the hope of finding a ship that would take them all the way down the coast to Kiel. It was in January 1945 that Grand-Admiral Karl Dönitz mobilized the ships of the Kriegsmarine with Operation Hannibal, the evacuation by sea of troops and civilians from East Prussia. It was during this operation that the cruise ship MV Wilhelm Gustloff set sail from the port of Danzig on 30th January, heading for Kiel; she was overloaded with wounded German military personnel and civilians, some estimates being over 10,500 people on board. As she plied her way through the darkness sailing close to the coast the ship was sighted by Captain Alexander Marineskoof the Soviet submarine S-13 and fired four torpedoes, three of which hit the Wilhelm Gustloff. She sank within forty minutes into the freezing waters of the Baltic, although about 1,000 people were rescued from the sea, an estimate of 9,000 people died that night.

Forgotten Naval Disasters at Sea
Captain Alexander Marinesko of Soviet submarine S-13.
Forgotten Naval Disasters at Sea
The sinking of MV Wilhelm Gustloff

The sinking of SMS General von Steuben & MV Goya

Then eleven days later, on the night of 10/11 January following a similar course along the Baltic Coast the SMS General Von Steuben was also torpedoed by the S-13 with two torpedoes hitting the starboard bow. The ship sank within 20 minutes taking with her over 4,500 military and civilian personnel, although 650 people were rescued, over half managing to jump ship directly onto the deck of Torpedo Boat T-196 that swiftly came along side.
Also during the latter stages of Operation Hannibal the MV Goya, a cargo ship that had been converted into a troop transporter for 850 personnel, was carrying 7,000 refugees (although no full muster was recorded with people crammed into every available space) some of the final desperate evacuees to escape from East Prussia when on 16 April 1945 she was sighted by Captain Vladimir Konovalov of the Soviet submarine L-3 and two torpedoes were fired. The MV Goya sank within four minutes taking with her over 7,000 people, with a remarkable estimate of 180 being rescued.
Forgotten Naval Disasters at Sea
SS General von Steuben
Forgotten Naval Disasters at Sea
MV Goya

The greatest loss of life at sea in history

Given the scale of the loss of life from the sinking of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, the MV Goya and the SS General Von Steuben, it has been largely forgotten due to the fact that it was not appropriate to consider German losses however they were caused, civilian or military but these three sinking’s are each by far the greatest loss of life at sea in history.
Operation Hannibal
Operation Hannibal Map

Operation Hannibal

Operation Hannibal, even though it incurred the greatest loss of lives lost at sea was a notable success for the German Kriegsmarine in that between mid January to May 1945 over 1,500,000 refugees were evacuated from the ports of East Prussia and brought to the relative safety further south in Germany. As for East Prussia post 1945 it was divided up between Poland and Soviet Russia, Konigsberg being renamed Kaliningrad and a enclave of Russia; along with being home of the Russian Baltic Fleet. Of the 2,500,000 Germans living there in 1939, at present there are none, having fled, deported or died.

Bomber Command losses

Of the crews of the 19 Lancasters lost during the raids of August 1944, 85 crew members are posted as missing, although it is believed that 79 of them may have come down in East Prussia and subsequently buried by the Germans in local cemeteries. When the Soviets took over East Prussia most of the Germanic buildings, churches and cemeteries were destroyed, along with the grave markers of the RAF crews. In the 1990’s an offer was received from the Russian Government that if the last resting places of the crews could be established grave markers could be erected and a memorial to the men of Bomber Command raised in the centre of Kaliningrad; the MoD declined to release the relevant documentation that would have helped in identifying the grave sites.

Images Courtesy of Photos © Bundesarchiv Bild CCBYSA 3.0

About The Author

Nigel Parker has followed a career in Engineering and for 23 years ran the Cryogenics Department at Oxford University. Having a lifelong interest in military aviation and being involved in the research and recovery of many crashed military aircraft he chose to take early retirement and follow his passion; writing a twelve volume series on the German Air Force losses over Great Britain in World War 2; “Luftwaffe Crash Archive”, followed by a three volume series entitled “Gott Strafe England”; the German air assault against Great Britain 1914 – 1918. He is now writing a book on the V1 and V2 campaign and also a revised history of the Battle of Britain.

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