Thursday is the anniversary of the world’s greatest nautical disaster. It occurred in 1945. The below is an excerpt from my book, Hellstorm--The Death of Nazi Germany, 1944-1947. The passage is from a chapter entitled, appropriately, "Between Fire and Ice.”
For millions of Germans cut off on the Baltic coast by the rapid Russian advance, only one avenue of escape remained open—the sea. Even here, however, Soviet aircraft controlled the skies above and submarines prowled unseen below. In the various ports along the coast, thousands upon thousands of ragged, frozen refugees pressed to the water’s edge in hopes of landing a spot on one of the few vessels available. The numbers were so great and the fear so consuming that efforts to board when ships did dock often resembled riots.
“The crush to get on board was just terrible,” a witness wrote from Pillau. “I saw a pram being squeezed out of all recognition by the pushing masses. One old man fell into the water and there was nothing one could do in the crush—also it was so cold he would have died on hitting the water.”
Because armed guards had orders to evacuate as many women and children as possible, babies were used like tickets, with half-crazed mothers tossing infants down to relatives on the pier. Some children landed safely; some did not.
If anything, the situation at Gotenhafen was even more horrific. As the Wilhelm Gustloff made ready to take on passengers in late January 1945, the ship’s crew was stunned by what they saw. “There must have been 60,000 people on the docks . . . ,” remembered second engineer, Walter Knust. “[A]s soon as we let down the gangways people raced forward and pushed their way in. In the confusion a lot of children got separated from their parents. Either the kids got on board leaving their parents on the harbor or the children were left behind as their parents got pushed forward by the throng.”
A former cruise liner designed to accommodate two thousand passengers and crew, by the time the Gustloff cast ropes on January 30, the beautiful white ship had taken on as many as six thousand refugees. Even so, as she backed away from port, her path was blocked by smaller craft jammed with people.
“Take us with you,” the refugees cried. “Save the children!”
“We put down nets and everybody on the small ships scrambled up as best they could,” said the Gustloff ’s radio operator, Rudi Lange. “As we got under way I think I remember being told by one of the ship’s officers to send a signal that another 2,000 people had come aboard.”
That black, stormy night, as she struggled through high winds and heavy, ice-filled waves, the Gustloff ’s ventilation and plumbing systems failed utterly. Strained far beyond its limits, the tightly-sealed ship filled with a hot, nauseating stench of urine, excrement, and vomit. The groans and screams of severely wounded soldiers and the wails of separated families added to the ghastly horror. But the worst was yet to come. At approximately 9 p.m., three heavy jolts rocked the passengers on the Gustloff.
“Vroom—Vroom—Vroom! That’s what it sounded like,” recalled a young boy upon hearing the torpedoes.
“I heard [the] explosions,” wrote engineer Knust, “and I knew what had happened at once, because the engines stopped and then I saw a rush of water through the engine room. First the ship lurched to starboard under the force of the blast. Then she rose and began listing to port. I put on my shoes and jacket and hurried out into the corridor.”
Panic-stricken, thousands below deck stampeded through the narrow passageways crushing and clawing others in an attempt to reach the life boats. “People were rushing about and screaming. Alarm bells shrilled,” remembered one terrorized passenger.
“We struggled through the crowd to one of the boats,” said Paula Knust, wife of the ship’s officer. “It was so cold as the wind hit us. I was wearing only slacks and a blouse and blazer. Already the ship had a heavy list. The waves seemed very high, and you cannot imagine how terrible it looked.”
Most lifeboats were frozen solid and even those that could be freed were mishandled in the panic and spilled their screaming occupants into the black sea. Walter and Paula Knust grappled with one boat that did manage to get away. “As we hit the water,” the husband recalled, “I could see people leaping from the side of the ship into the sea. I thought those who escaped drowning would freeze to death. It was so cold.” Indeed, the water was so frigid that those who leaped over- board might just as well have jumped into boiling oil or acid for their chances of survival were almost as slim. In seconds, minutes at most, the struggling swimmers were dead.
While loud speakers blared words of comfort—“The ship will not sink. Rescue ships are on the way”—thousands of freezing people pressed along the decks. Convinced that the sealed bulkheads had held and that indeed, the ship would not sink, many passengers fled indoors once more to escape the razor sharp winds and –20 degree temperature. The respite proved brief, however.
At ten o’clock a heavy tremor ripped the Gustloff as the bulkheads broke and the sea rushed in. Within seconds, the big ship began to roll on its side. Sixteen-year-old Eva Luck was in the ballroom with her mother and little sister:
[S]uddenly the whole music room tilted and a great cry went up from all the people there. They literally slid in a heap along the angled deck. A grand piano at one end went berserk and rolled across the crowded room crushing women and children in its path and scattering others before it. Finally it smashed into the port bulkhead with a discordant roar as though a giant fist had hit all the keys at once.
Elsewhere, other victims went flying through glass enclosed decks into the sea. Amid the screams, sirens and roar of rushing water, gunshots sounded throughout the doomed ship as those trapped below committed suicide.
Miraculously escaping the ball room with the help of a sailor, Eva Luck’s family frantically tried to escape:
My mother had forgotten to put her shoes on, and I moved clumsily on high heels towards the iron rungs of the ladder going up the ship’s inside. People around us were falling about as the ship moved but I was able to grasp the rungs and haul up my little sister. . . . My mother followed us to the upper deck. When we got there it was terrible. I saw with horror that the funnel was lying almost parallel with the sea. People were jumping in. I could hear the ship’s siren and felt the ice-cold water round my legs. I reached out to try and grab my sister. I felt nothing but the water as it swept me out and over the side.
Fortunately for Eva and a few others, the force of the flooding water freed a number of life rafts. As survivors scrambled aboard, the Gustloff began her swift descent. “Suddenly,” remembered a woman in a lifeboat, “it seemed that every light in the ship had come on. The whole ship was blazing with lights, and her sirens sounded out over the sea.”
Paula Knust also watched the drama:
I cannot forget the loud clear sound of the siren as the Gustloff with all her lights on made the final plunge. I could clearly see the people still on board the Gustloff clinging to the rails. Even as she went under they were still hanging on and screaming. All around us were people swimming, or just floating in the sea. I can still see their hands grasping at the sides of our boat. It was too full to take on any more.
When rescue ships later reached the scene, they pulled from the icy waters a mere nine hundred survivors. All else—roughly 7,000 men, women and children—were lost. Even then, however, the nightmare did not end. When rescue vessels touched land, scores of victims were disembarked at Gotenhafen. Thus, in less than twenty-four hours, after a harrowing night of incredible terror, some refugees found themselves on the very docks they had hoped to leave, once again searching desperately for a way to escape.