Saturday, 20 June 2015

Even their tears froze

This year saw the 70th anniversary of the worst maritime disaster in history. We know oddly little about it. But the books are there, and they tell a tale of epic horror

What was the worst-ever maritime disaster, in terms of lives lost? Some would say the Titanic, but they’d be quite wrong. Not even close. In fact, with just over 1,500 dead, it lies in fifth or sixth place even in the list of peacetime disasters (the worst was the ferry Doña Paz, which collided with a tanker when on passage from Leyte to Manila in 1987; the death toll was not much less than 5,000). If you count wartime disasters, the Titanic is a footnote; it is not even the worst loss of life on a British ship (that was the Lancastria off St Nazaire in 1940). But the worst of all was the Wilhelm Gustloff in January 1945. The death toll was twice that of the Doña Paz, and six times that of the Titanic; and many, possibly half, of the dead were children.

The Wilhelm Gustloff at Danzig in late September 1939 (Bundesarchiv)
There is plenty of material available on the disaster in German. In English there is much less. However, a brief book by a British journalist, A.V. Sellwood, appeared in 1974. The “standard” work, The Cruellest Night (Cruelest in the US), by Christopher Dobson, John Miller and Ronald Payne, was published in 1979. Now there is a third account, Cathryn J. Prince’s Death in the Baltic (2013). Finally, there is an English edition of a novel – Crabwalk, the last novel by Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass. All, in their different ways, shed light on a story that is barely known in the English-speaking world. And they invest it with an epic horror that makes the Titanic banal.

The Wilhelm Gustloff was large – over 25,000 tons (just over half as big as the Titanic). She had been built in the 1930s as a cruise liner for the Nazi Strength through Joy movement. Launched in 1937, she wass named after a Nazi official in Switzerland who had been assassinated by a Jewish student the previous year. On January 30 1945 she lay in what is now the Polish port of Gdynia, where she was being used as a submarine depot ship.  The city had historically belonged to Germany, but had been ceded to Poland as part of the Treaty of Versailles; between the wars, it was in the Polish Corridor that reached the sea between Pomerania and East Prussia. The Germans had reoccupied it in 1939, but by the end of January the Soviet armies had effectively cut East Prussia off from the rest of Germany.

The commander-in-chief of the German navy, Großadmiral Dönitz, had foreseen this; unlike most of the German leadership, he had had the courage to plan for defeat.  On January 23 he had signalled Gdynia with the single word: HANNIBAL. According to The Cruellest Night, this was the command for the submarine arm to evacuate Gdynia. In fact, it set in train the far larger Operation Hannibal, by which not only large numbers of troops but also hundreds of thousands of civilians would be lifted from what was then eastern Germany and out of the path of the Russian advance.  A number of large liners besides the Wilhelm Gustloff were pressed into service, including the pride the Hamburg South America line, the Cap Arcona, said to be one of the most beautiful ships afloat; and a trio of large liners built in the 1920s for the North Atlantic run. These were the Deutschland and two slightly smaller liners: the General Steuben, and the Berlin III, remembered for its role in rescuing some of the passengers of the British liner Vestris in 1928. All of these ships would have a bad end, but in one case it would be long deferred.

The Wilhelm Gustloff was hurriedly readied for sea, despite having lain at Gdynia for the best part of four years.  The city was thronged with fleeing Germans, who fought for permits to board.  Submariners took priority, but over 4,000 civilian refugees were allowed on board, along with several hundred woman naval auxiliaries. There were also 162 wounded. According to Dobson, Miller and Payne, the final official list recorded 6,050 passengers and crew.  However, as the ship drew away from the quayside, it was forced to stop:

...a number of small boats drew alongside, each one filled with refugees, mostly women and children. They blocked the ship and from their crowded decks came pathetic shouts and appeals. “Take us with you. Save the children!” Nobody could resist such cries. The liner drifted while the crew put out gangways and scrambling nets and the last-minute refugees... struggled on to the Gustloff. No-one bothered to count them...

The ship did now leave Gdynia, in the company of another liner, the Hansa. It was early afternoon on January 30, and bitterly cold; there was hail, and one passenger noticed ice floating in the harbour. Their escort consisted only of two torpedo boats and a torpedo recovery vessel.  Shortly after leaving Gdynia, the Hansa and one of the torpedo boats developed engine trouble. The Gustloff  initially hove to but was ordered to proceed alone, escorted only by the torpedo recovery vessel and the torpedo boat. The authors describe the latter as “an ancient torpedo boat called the Löwe (Lion), which had been captured by the Germans during the Norwegian campaign in 1940.” In fact, the Löwe was technically not a torpedo boat but a destroyer, and was not ancient; built by the Norwegians for their own navy in 1938, she was moderately well-armed and, when new, would have made over 30 knots. It was still not a large escort for a large target.

The Soviet submarine force had failed so far. According to Dobson, Miller and Payne, its 218 submarines in 1941 had made it the largest undersea fleet of the day, but it had sunk just 108 merchant ships and 28 small warships by war’s end.  Until 1945 it had been bottled up in the eastern Baltic. But by January 30 the Soviet submarines had re-emerged into the Baltic, using their new access to Finnish ports. From one of these came the S13, commanded by an able but unstable maverick called Sasha Marinesko.  Just after 9 pm, he found the Gustloff off the coast of what was then Pomerania. Marinesko fired a fan of four torpedoes. One misfired. The remaining three struck home. The Gustloff sank in about 40 minutes.

Most of the passengers did not know how to get out; the embarkation had been chaotic and although there had been an attempt at a safety drill, not everyone heard it. The lifeboats were insufficient and in any case there were problems launching them, for the release and lowering mechanisms were iced over. There are several reports of passengers shooting their families before shooting themselves. The Löwe, another torpedo boat, the T36, and the torpedo recovery vessel recovered more; several other ships also participated, including the cruiser Admiral Hipper, which was in poor condition and being withdrawn to Kiel.

How many people actually died in the sinking is not known. As The Cruellest Night points out, to know that, one would have to know exactly how many people were on board when she left Gdynia, and no-one really does. Writing in 1979, the authors gave an estimate of 8,000. “It is known that 964 people were picked out of the sea, some of whom died later,” they say. “It is likely, therefore, that at least 7,000 people perished.” Actually it was more. After the war, Heinz Schön, an 18-year-old assistant purser who survived the sinking, went on to research and write extensively about the disaster, and became the foremost authority on it. Schön, who was interviewed by the authors in the 1970s, later concluded that there were not 8,000 but nearly 10,600 on board, of which he thought about 1,230 had survived. He put the eventual death toll at 9,343. An unknown but very large number (Schön thought nearly half) were children.

The Cruellest Night was not, in fact, the first book about the Gustloff in English. British journalist A. V. Sellwood heard of the sinking from survivors when he was covering the Berlin Airlift in 1948. In later years, as he researched several books about the war at sea, he heard more stories, and began to get an inkling of what an enormous disaster it had been. His book The Damned Don’t Drown was published in 1974. 

Sellwood was a journalist, not an historian. He wrote a number of popular non-fiction books, sometimes co-written with his wife, Mary, or others. Most were on the war at sea but they included one on Victorian railway murderers, and a 1964 “startling exposé” called Devil Worship in Britain. This journalistic approach is very evident in The Damned Don’t Drown. It sometimes grates. Sometimes he adopts the viewpoint of an eyewitness, which of course he was not, or writes as if he knew someone’s thoughts: “In one of the few intervals he could spare... [Captain] Petersen found time to wonder briefly how the passengers were finding it. ...he felt a twinge of sympathy for their plight.” Petersen did survive, but died a year or so later and won’t have spoken to the author. There is also very little explanation of how the ship was caught by the submarine; Sellwood simply says that it was “waiting in their path” and saw them by accident. In fact Petersen was so worried about collision with other German vessels that he was not taking evasive action, and had the navigation lights on.

But it doesn’t really matter, because that’s not what you read this book for. The strength of The Damned Don’t Drown is its survivors’ stories. As the ship started to sink, literally thousands of people were trapped below deck, and the stories of those who did get out are gripping. So are the accounts of the fights to get into the lifeboats, the struggles to launch them from frozen davits, the attempts by the crew to keep order at gunpoint, and the bitter cold as the temperature dropped to (Sellwood says) -20 deg C.

There is cowardice; a Party official shoots his wife as part of a suicide pact, then lacks the courage to kill himself (a passing soldier, disgusted, does the job for him). There is brutish behaviour; people on an already overloaded raft “used feet and fists to batter swimmers struggling to join them ...until finally the float itself was overturned. Dozens drowned in the ensuing panic.” But there is also great courage and selflessness. A teenager who Sellwood names as Ilse Bauer is being evacuated after being raped by Soviet troops in East Prussia. She is slipping down the icy, sloping deck into the sea when a sailor rescues her and wedges her behind a deck fitting, where an older woman hugs her to keep her warm; later, the woman gives Bauer her fur coat, then jumps into the sea, presumably to her own death. The coat protects Ilse and she survives, just. A newly-married naval auxiliary, Ruth Fleischer, is literally flung onto a lifeboat by a burly seaman who thrusts aside others who are fighting for a place. Fleischer too survives, although her new husband – the communications officer on a nearby cruiser – is convinced for some days that she is dead.

The Damned Don’t Drown isn’t a history book and doesn’t pretend to be. There’s no index, and nothing is referenced; presumably it’s all from survivor interviews and some of it will have been secondhand. It’s also quite brief (the US edition is 160 pages). A better-referenced, and very recent, book is Cathryn J. Prince’s Death in the Baltic (2013). It contains some excellent research; the author has consulted a wide range of sources, some quite obscure. She has also interviewed survivors and obtained some outstanding eyewitness accounts – no mean feat given that Prince is writing nearly 70 years after the event. The book lacks the rigour of The Cruellest Night; there are signs of careless editing, and also an odd omission that gave me some reservations about the book (of which more below). But Prince conveys a sense of who the victims really were, their diversity, and the shades of grey that surround the sinking.

Death in the Baltic’s main strength is the testimony of the survivors. Their accounts are very alive, even after 70 years. Horst Woit, then 10 years old, today living in Canada, tells Prince how he and his mother had fled their home in Elbling, East Prussia, a few days earlier; on impulse, as they leave, the boy grabs his uncle’s eight-inch jackknife. Later, he and his mother will be among the few who get into a lifeboat, but the crew will be unable to sever the icy rope holding it to the ship; then he produces the knife. “The knife,” he tells Prince, “saved 70 lives.” Eva Dorn, later Eva Dorn Rothschild, is a naval auxiliary, and should have been billeted with the rest of them in the drained swimming-pool below decks, but realises it’s an overcrowded death-trap. She goes up to help the doctors, who are delivering children and treating the wounded. When the torpedo strikes, a skeleton in a glass case falls over in front of her. She steps over it, and tells herself: “You have stepped over death. Nothing will happen to you.” She has stepped over death; the second torpedo strikes the swimming-pool where she is supposed to be, and some 300 young women are blown to pieces. 

Besides capturing testimony of the actual sinking, Prince has done very well to tell us who the civilians aboard really were. Eva Dorn, the naval auxiliary, was not some stereotyped Nazi but the daughter of an improvident unemployed opera singer and a viola player. A rebellious young woman, she was delighted to be thrown out of what Prince calls the Hitler Youth (actually it will have been the female equivalent, the Bund Deutscher Mädel, or BDM). Even more interesting are the Tschinkur family, who don’t seem really to have been German at all. They were from Riga, but when the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed, the Baltic States (soon to be swallowed up by Stalin) were pressurized into repatriating anyone who was vaguely German. Their mother was Russian but their father had been German some generations back, so they were classified as Volkdeutsch and forcibly “repatriated” to the Reich. Resettled in Gotenhafen, one of the children is caned at school because, asked to recite a poem, she does so in Russian. It is a strength of Prince’s book that she helps us see the passengers on the Gustloff not as a bunch of Germans who had started a war and whose lives were thus forfeit, but as thousands of individuals, each with their own story, and some surely deserving of something better.

Two things do let Death in the Baltic down. One is a certain carelessness in the editing. Friedrich Petersen, the captain of the Gustloff, is 63 in both 1938 and 1945 (both wrong; he was 67 in 1945). The Polish name for the old German city of Thorn is Toruń, not Turin. There are a few other relatively minor things. All authors make mistakes, but Prince had a major publisher behind her and they should have picked these up. A more serious problem, however, is the book’s claim to break new ground. In her introduction, Prince says that “few American historians have written about it. The most information I found consisted of footnotes in World War Two histories... I had no explanation for the lack of news articles.” But both the two earlier books had had American editions, and Prince must have known about them. As she doesn’t quote from or rely on them, she is not obliged to cite them; she has done nothing improper. But it is odd that she does not at least reference them as general sources. As Prince’s book is otherwise very well-referenced, it may be that her publisher discouraged her from mentioning them. If so, they did her a disservice.

In any case, while Prince’s book and Sellwood’s are well worth reading, anyone who wants to read only one book should stick with The Cruellest Night. It is a book that combines journalism and historiography, both to a high standard. Besides, the Gustloff sank on the night of January 30 1945, but the evacuation continued and so did the deaths; and whereas Prince and Sellwood end their accounts with the Gustloff, Dobson, Miller and Payne do not. Farther east from Gdynia, many refugees had made their way to the port of Pillau in East Prussia, not far from the major city of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad); the area was now surrounded by the Red Army. The authors recount that:

...In the early stages of the evacuation the order had been made that men and women with children should be given priority for places on the refugee ships ...People were so desperate that mothers already on board [threw] their babies to relations on the quayside, who used them as boarding vouchers Sometimes the infants fell into the water between ship and quay; more often they were trampled in the rush to catch them, as strangers grabbed for them, fragile passports to safety.

General Steuben (then München) in 1925 (Bundesarchiv)
On February 8 one of the former North Atlantic liners, the 23-year-old General Steuben, arrived in Pillau. The authors state that the defensive perimeter around Königsberg was thought to have given way, and there was widespread panic in the port.  (In fact, Königsberg would hold out for another two months.) In the chaos, it was not possible to record exactly how many people boarded the Steuben for her westward voyage, but the authors quote contemporary estimates that there were about two thousand wounded, a thousand refugees, about 350 medical staff and a hundred crew – so, about 3,450 all told. Once again, the ship was escorted only by an old torpedo boat (this time the authors are right – the T196 was from the first war), and an equally ancient torpedo recovery vessel.

It was the latter that would be the Steuben’s undoing. Marinesko was still at sea in the S13. Around midnight, one of his lookouts spotted a curious pattern of lights low on the horizon. They were sparks from the ancient coal-burning vessel, which was struggling to keep up. They led Marinesko to the Steuben, which he later said he mistook for a cruiser (the authors say this could have been true). Marinesko’s torpedoes hit the ship just before 1 am. The authors say she sank in just seven minutes. Other sources say about 20, but it doesn’t matter:

Only a handful of those in the forward part of the liner could reach the upper decks. Many of the solders realised this and, tired of struggling for life, shot themselves on their stretchers. ...Many of those who jumped from the stern... were torn to pieces by the turning propellers. ...As the General Steuben went under, a great scream issued from the people trapped aboard. It was something the men on the escorting warships never forgot.

Once again, no-one really knows how many people died. The authors say about 3,000, but in fact 659 people are now known to have been rescued, which would make their estimate a little high. On the other hand, the authors probably underestimated the number aboard.  They may have done so by quite some number. The wreck of the Steuben was found about 10 years ago, and the National Geographic published a feature on it. In an accompanying piece, a researcher for the magazine, David W. Wooddell, reported that a surviving German officer claimed to have counted 5,200 people on board. He said they had deliberately underreported the numbers because they were not meant to have carried so many. If this is correct, the death toll was about 4,500. However, Heinz Schön eventually put the number at 4,267, of which 3,608 died. It seems hard to be that accurate, given the circumstances. But Schön’s research is respected, and it is the best estimate anyone is likely to get.

There was worse to come. On April 16 a smaller ship, the 5,000-ton troopship Goya, left the Hela Peninsula off Gdynia after taking on members of the 35th Tank Regiment. The number of refugees is again uncertain, but the total number of people on board is thought to have been about 7,000. The ship stood off Hela and loaded by lighter, but there was still a fight to board.  Dobson, Miller and Payne recount the testimony of a German officer who heard:

...a young man with his wife confronting [an] older man and woman who seemed to be his parents. The young man, who had only one arm, screamed at them that they must stay behind because they were old and useless, whereas he and the girl had a lifetime before them. Under the dazed eyes of the old people, he and his wife climbed the scrambling nets up the side of the Goya, and never looked back at those they left behind.

The Goya left, again with an inadequate escort; she was a modern ship and could outrun a submarine, but was slowed by a breakdown of one of the ships accompanying her. Just before midnight, she was hit by two torpedoes from a Soviet submarine (not the S13 this time). She split in two and sank, according to the authors, in just four minutes. Of the estimated 7,000 people aboard, just 183 survived.

There are some inconsistencies in The Cruellest Night. The authors devote a lengthy postscript to the fate of the Amber Room, looted from the Winter Palace in Leningrad – but no-one really knows if it was on board, and it is surely tangential to the story. More seriously, the book describes the loss of the Steuben and Goya as well as the Gustloff; yet there is only a page or so on the sinking of the Hamburg-Amerika liner Cap Arcona, which was set on fire off Lübeck on May 3 by rockets from Typhoons of the Royal Air Force.  The RAF apparently thought the vessel contained members of the SS who were escaping to Norway. There were SS on board, but they were guarding thousands of concentration-camp inmates brought from the East who they may have planned to kill by scuttling the ship at sea. The British had occupied Lübeck the previous day and seem to have known that the ships lying off the port contained prisoners, but this information was not passed to the RAF. Thousands of prisoners died. The authors could also have mentioned, at least in passing, that the Hannibal sinkings were matched by the death of several thousand (possibly 7,000) refugees and wounded on the Soviet hospital ship Armenia, sunk by the Luftwaffe off the Crimea in 1941. But again, they may just not have known of it. In any case, The Cruellest Night generally avoids moral judgments of the “well, they started it” variety. It is surely right to do so. This is not a book about who started the war.

The Cap Arcona burning off Kiel on May 3 1945 (RAF photo)
Although The Cruellest Night has the odd quirk, it is extremely well researched. The S13’s captain, the flamboyant and headstrong Sasha Marinesko, had died in 1963; he had been disgraced and was a partial “unperson”, and questions about him were discouraged in the Soviet Union. Yet the authors managed to find out a great deal about him, and appear to have interviewed friends and comrades, although they did not feel able to name their sources. Better still, in a considerable coup, one of the authors, Ronald Payne, secured an interview with Dönitz himself. The former commander-in-chief of the German navy, and briefly Hitler’s successor, was 87 and rather deaf (he died two years later). But he seems to have received Payne kindly, if formally, and was ready and able to talk. He clearly believed that his evacuation of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and refugees from the east was one of his greatest achievements. He had even managed to negotiate a surrender with the British two days before the other Allies. This must have irked Eisenhower but allowed Dönitz to bring hundreds of thousands more evacuees west into the British zone. Dönitz was also the architect of the U-boat offensive, and was convicted at Nuremberg of waging aggressive war. There is no free pass for him. One doubts he would seek one. But from December 1944, knowing the war was lost, he turned to the future of Germany and the survival of its people. Few of Hitler’s other commanders really did this, though some claimed later that they tried.

Moreover, while the sinkings of the Gustloff, Steuben, and Goya were appalling human tragedies, Hannibal as a whole was a success. Between January 23 1945 and the end of the war, the German navy lifted a staggering 1.2 million people out of the path of the Red Army, 900,000 of them civilians. Just 1% of the evacuees were lost. In fact, Dobson, Miller and Payne credit Dönitz’s operations of May 1945 with nothing less than the rebuilding of Germany:

Without it the post-war German miracle might never have been achieved, for the revival of West Germany needed manpower as well as Marshall Aid and Allied encouragement. It is ironic to reflect that Admiral Dönitz’s initial worry was whether Western Germany could house and feed the refugees. In fact, the country had been drained of millions of men, and... absorbed the newcomers with ease.

Is this true? Many of the soldiers arriving in the British zone went straight into prisoner-of-war camps and stayed for several years in Britain, due to a debatable decision by the Attlee government to make them help in British reconstruction – a story well told in Matthew Barry Sullivan’s excellent Thresholds of Peace. They would indeed help rebuild Germany, but not until later. As to Western Germany feeding and housing the refugees “with ease”, it didn’t. It struggled terribly. Yet it is true that many hundreds of thousands of Germans escaped the Iron Curtain because of Hannibal. By 1948, when the Deutschmark and Marshall Aid began the economic miracle, most of those held in Western countries had been released. The authors are probably not right to credit Operation Hannibal with West Germany’s postwar prosperity. But it will have played a part.

There are some strange codas to Hannibal. One is that the Cap Arcona had been used, earlier in the war, as a stand-in for the Titanic in a Nazi propaganda film about that ship. Another is the fate of Marinesko; always suspect politically, he was drummed out of the Navy after the war, found a job on a building site and was then deported to Siberia. He survived and was released, but died in 1963 at the age of just 46. As stated earlier, at the time The Cruellest Night was written, he was still in partial disgrace. In fact, Gorbachev was to make him a posthumous Hero of the Soviet Union in 1990.

There is a further, stranger coda. The authors do not mention the last of the big North Atlantic liners involved in Hannibal. This was the Berlin III, the ship that had rescued the passengers of the British liner Vestris in 1928. The day after the Gustloff sinking, the Berlin III left for a new trip eastwards but hit a mine and was beached near Kiel. In 1949 the Soviets salvaged her and converted her to a Black Sea cruise liner, and renamed her Admiral Nakhimov. Although used briefly as a troop transport to Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis, she remained in her Black Sea role for many years. Just after 11pm on August 31 1986, the 61-year-old ship was rammed by a bulk carrier while on passage to Sochi. She sank in just a few minutes, and over 400 of the 1,200-odd Soviet passengers and crew died. Was there an ancient curse?

Although few English speakers know of the Wilhelm Gustloff, Germans do remember. The late Günter Grass claimed that it had become a political football, with right-wing revisionists claiming the disaster as a war crime. That, he said, was why it became the subject of what turned out to be his last novel, Crabwalk – to wrest the Gustloff from the hands of the Right. In fact, the book appeared during a period of debate in Germany after W.G. Sebald’s 1997 warning that Germans’ silence about their own suffering had given the Right free rein to use it for its own purposes. Grass clearly agreed.

Crabwalk is the story of a fictional German teenager, Tulla, who gives birth to a boy on the ship that has rescued her from the sea. After the war she settles in East Germany, and becomes an enthusiastic Stalinist. But son Paul goes to the West and becomes a journalist. He is pressed by his mother to write the story of the sinking, although he does not wish to. In the meantime, he marries and has a son of his own; the marriage fails, and the son, Konrad, grows up to become an awkward, geeky teenager with neo-Nazi tendencies. He starts a revisionist website dedicated to the Gustloff and the Nazi “hero” after whom it was named. But a Jewish boy enters his chatroom, and starts to argue with him. Who this Jewish boy turns out really to be, and how their dispute ends, shouldn’t be revealed here. But this book is a fascinating allegory for Grass’s view of postwar German history. The wartime generation (Tulla) appears to repent (but does it? – or does it simply adopt new orthodoxies?); the next generation (Paul) is so appalled by their country’s history that they barely speak of it, and so do little to help the third generation (Konrad) come to terms with it. The book ends against a backdrop of skinhead hate crimes in the late 1990s, forging a link between fascists past and present.

If I were German, I’m not sure how I would view this book. If I liked Grass, I might see it as a shrewd warning of time-bombs from the past. If I didn’t, I might see it as a contrived vehicle for Grass’s own view of postwar Germany. Either way, my view would likely be coloured by where I lay to the left or right. I honestly don’t know. Let Germans decide. In any case, it isn’t seen as Grass’s best book. The characters, though well-drawn, are unattractive and don’t engage you. The structure is complex and confusing. Neither is it especially vivid; there’s nothing like the haunting horse’s head scene in The Tin Drum. The critical reception for the English translation was mixed (the Observer, in particular, gave it a good kicking). Nonetheless it’s a sharp, shrewd sideways look at history, by a man who, at 75, was still profoundly engaged with the past and future of his country.

Still, it isn’t Crabwalk that brings the disasters in the Baltic alive. It’s the other three books that show how wars are not historical events in which X beat Y. Rather, they are accretions of individual agonies. Seen in the mass, they are beyond comprehension. They become easier to grasp when A.V. Sellwood describes passengers trying to escape from the Gustloff’s sun deck and being held back at gunpoint; or the marine auxiliaries settling down cheerfully in the swimming pool where they will soon be blown apart. In Death in the Baltic, Cathryn J. Prince describes how many of the children drowned because their lifejackets were too big, and they were seen floating with only their legs above the water. The Cruellest Night includes an ID picture of one of the auxiliaries before the sinking, pretty and smiling with a saucy cap on her curly hair (she was to be one of the very few survivors). The same book describes refugees waiting at Pillau, from which the ill-fated General Steuben would leave on February 9. “They queued before the wrecked buildings where the authorities boiled cauldrons of porridge to feed the helpless... A soldier reported that the most pathetic sight was that of the children who had lost their parents. ‘Even their tears froze’.”

Why have we known so little of the Gustloff and the other Hannibal disasters? After all, they have never been a secret, at least not in the West (the Eastern bloc did discourage their discussion). Perhaps it’s not a mystery. There was little sympathy for the Germans at the time. The Allied occupiers in the three western zones of Germany had their hands full with literally millions of German refugees from the east; there was little time to ask how they had got there, and what they had seen on the way. In any case, 1945 was the worst year in history. When everyone has a story, no-one does.  

Nearly seventy years later, survivors would tell Prince that they had never felt able to discuss the wreck. Ellen Tschinkur, who emigrated to Canada, mentioned it tentatively years later to a Canadian workmate. “One of her colleagues interrupted her. ‘Oh the war. That was hard, we had to use margarine’,” she says. Tschinkur did not speak of it again. Instead, says Prince, some of the remaining survivors talk to each other each January 30; sharing, in Prince’s poignant phrase, their “lifeboat of shared memory”.

It is a phrase that Heinz Schön might have understood. He was the young assistant purser who survived, but devoted much of the rest of his life to researching, and writing about, the Gustloff and other losses during the evacuation. When he died in April 2013 at the age of 86, the urn with his ashes was placed on the stern of the wreck that he had survived, but not escaped, as an 18-year-old nearly 70 years before.

There is an extensive online display of pictures and memorabilia on the Wilhelm Gustloff and her sister ship, the Robert Ley, at

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Mike Robbins’s latest book, Three Seasons: Three Stories of England in the Eighties, is available as an e-book or paperback from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Scribd and other online retailers, and can also be ordered from your local bookshop. Requests for review copies should be sent to thirdrailbooks (at), via NetGalley, or to the author.


  1. Mr Robbins,
    You have written: "...what is now the Polish port of Gdynia (...)The city had historically belonged to Germany, but had been ceded to Poland as part of the Treaty of Versailles;...". Polish port of Gdynia was completed in 1927 in very new town -Gdynia and never belonged to Germany before 1939. After Poland was defeated by III German Reich in September 1939 - all Polish citizens of Gdynie were relocated to Generalgouvernement and the name of city was changed: Gotenhafen. In 1945 Gdynia returned to Poland. You probably think of town and port of Danzig, which was Free City of Danzig after IWW. Aber port in Danzig was too small for ships like Wilhelm Gustloff.

  2. No, I wasn't thinking of Danzig; the Gustloff sailed from Gdynia. Before 1919 (not 1939) it did belong to Germany, but there was no city of any size there then so far as I know, and no port; and I don't think it was called Gotenhafen.