‘Strength through joy’ was the slogan of the state-controlled leisure organization in Nazi Germany. The Kraft durch Freude (KdF) was set up to persuade Germans of the benefits of National Socialism, becoming the world’s largest tour operator in the 1930s. When taking cruises on the KdF’s purpose-built flagship MV Wilhelm Gustloff, working-class Germans enjoyed the sort of holidays previously reserved for affluent vacationers.
Cruises abruptly ended as World War II loomed. In 1939 the ship brought the German Condor Legion back from Spain after the Spanish Civil War, before serving as a hospital ship. Thereafter, Wilhelm Gustloff became a floating barracks for naval personnel at Gdynia, a Baltic coast port. There the ship stayed until 1945, when it became part of Operation Hannibal, the German evacuation of over a million civilians and military personnel as the Red Army advanced on Prussia. In late January, the liner meant to transport fewer than 1,500 passengers was packed with over 10,000 people Consisting of crew, various military personnel and nearly 9,000 civilians – all desperate to escape the rampaging Russians.
Ignoring the advice of an experienced submariner who suggested sailing close to shore, the senior captain headed for deep water. After nightfall, when informed of an approaching convoy of minesweepers, he obligingly put on Wilhelm Gustloffs navigation lights. The Soviet submarine S-13 needed no second invitation to join the turkey shoot, firing three torpedoes that all struck the nicely illuminated target. The carnage aboard the stricken ship was terrible. Torpedoes killed hundreds, many more died in the mad scramble to escape lower decks, and those who ended up in the water faced icy conditions. Rescue ships were quickly on the scene, saving around 1,200, but thousands died in the greatest loss of life ever recorded in a single maritime disaster.
When was the MV Wilhelm Gustloff Disaster: January 30 1945
Where was the MV Wilhelm Gustloff Disaster: Baltic Sea
What was the MV Wilhelm Gustloff Disaster death toll: Unknown, as no civilian manifest existed. However, the latest research suggests that around 9,400 people perished in the disaster.
You should know: Not everyone knows this, but Switzerland had an active Nazi party and its leader was… Wilhelm Gustloff. Like the ship named in his honor, he came to a violent end – shot and killed in 1936 by a Jewish student incensed by Gustloff’s rabid anti-Semitic activities.