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World War II
A Narrative History

"The Greatest of All Sea Disasters"
John Toland
The Last 100 Days (1966)

An artist's rendering of the tragedy

[Jan. 1945] More than 30,000...people...were trying to escape [the Russian advance and get] back to Germany by sea in four liners. Bound for a port near Hamburg, the convoy was just rounding the Hela Peninsula and leaving the Gulf of Danzig for the Baltic Sea. The biggest of these ships, the 25,000-ton Wilhelm Gustloff, had never before carried so many passengers -- 1500 young submarine trainees and some 8000 civilians -- eight time the number on the Lusitania. No one knew exactly how many frantic refugees had boarded at Danzig. Though everyone was supposed to have a ticket and evacuation papers, hundreds had smuggled themselves aboard. Some men hid themselves in boxes or disguised themselves in dresses. Refugees had been known to go to even more shameful extremes to escape the Russians. Recently at Pillau, where only adults with a child were allowed to board a refugee ship, some mothers tossed their babies from the deck to relatives on the dock .... In the frenzy some babies fell into the water, others were snatched away by strangers.
As the Wilhelm Gustloff headed west into the choppy Baltic, a middle-aged refugee, Paul Uschdraweit, came on deck. He was one of the doughty district officials of East Prussia ... [and] had barely escaped the Red Army advance .... [T]he ship's captain announced over the loudspeaker that men with life belts must surrender them; there weren't enough for the women and children....
The rest of the convoy was skirting the coast of Pomerania to avoid Russian submarines, but the Wilhelm Gustloff drew too much water and was on its own, except for a lone mine sweeper ....
The ship steamed westward, twenty-five miles off the Pomeranian coast. A number of lights were still on, outlining the Wilhelm Gustiloff sharply against the dark Baltic. At 9:10 PM Uschdraweit was wakened by a dull, heavy explosion. He was trying to remember where he was when he heard a second roar .... Then came a third explosion, and the lights which should have been extinguished hours earlier went out. Off the port side lurked a Russian submarine, waiting to put a fourth torpedo into the liner if necessary -- or to sink any ship that came to the rescue.
Uschdraweit thought they had been bombed until he noticed the ship listing to port and realized that it had been torpedoed. He groped his way down a pitch-black passageway and somehow found his baggage; he took out a fur-lined hunting jacket, a ski cap, a pistol and a map case containing official documents. He unlocked a window and jumped to the lower promenade deck. Here it wasn't so dark and he ... found a door leading to the bow, ran forward and saw a mob stampeding toward the deck without life belts. At the jammed doorways men were clawing their way through hysterical groups of women and children, punching them, pushing them out of the way. The ship's officers were trying to halt the panic. A few drew pistols and made threatening gestures, but couldn't bring themselves to fire and were brushed aside.
The ship listed 25 degrees to port. In the engine rooms, men were still at their posts while other crewmen were closing bulkheads, starting pumps. On the decks, crewmen struggled with the lifeboats on the port side but the davits were frozen stiff. Frantic passengers pushed past the crewmen and tumbled into the boats.
At the bow, Uschdraweit saw red rockets -- distress signals -- shooting into the sky and hoped that ships were hurrying to the rescue. Below him was wild sight. Hundreds of passengers, shrieking hysterically, scrambled to the rising stern. He started up a staircase to the remaining lifeboats. An iron girder fell in front of him; he jumped back, detouring around the bridge. The Wilhelm Gustloff lurched abruptly and he heard anguished screams. He turned around and saw women and children spilling out of an upturned lifeboat into the black sea.
....He looked down at the raging waves. It was bitter cold, below freezing. He heard several pistol shots above the screams, and spray from the waves drenched his face. Animal fear hit him: he didn't want to die .... At last he got hold of himself. "Die respectably," he thought .... He decided to smoke one cigarette before dying. After a few drags he threw it overboard; took a second one, threw it away nervously. The third cigarette he smoked to the end.
"How can you smoke at a time like this?" someone asked resentfully. It was a high-ranking officer of the O.T. (Organization Todt) and he wore an Iron Cross.
"You take a cigarette too. It'll all be over pretty soon, anyhow."
The man looked at him as if he were insane, said something and disappeared. A sailor at the rail tore off his uniform and jumped into the water. A tall figure shuffled toward Uschdraweit in the dim light. He was a submarine cadet with a pale face and wide eyes. He pointed to his thigh where a bone was sticking through his fatigue trousers and blood flowed down to the ice-covered deck.
"What happened to you, son?" Uschdraweit wanted to know.
"I was down below ... hit by a shell. Now I'm finished. Shit!" He moved away slowly, turned. "Down below ... thousands are drowned like rats ... and soon we'll go over the side."
Three vessels were coming to their rescue: two 600-ton destroyers -- the T-36 and the Lowe -- and a barge. Just before ten o' clock Captain Hering of the T-36 sighted the sinking ship. As he started to bring his destroyer close, he saw the barge approach the Wilhelm Gustloff, but the swell was so great that the two vessels began grinding together. People jumped in panic from the upper decks of the liner to the pitching barge. Some landed safely; many fell into the water and were crushed between the vessels. Hering realized ... [h]e could only stand by and pick up survivors. He shut off his engines so sonar could more easily locate enemy submarines that he knew must be lurking below, waiting for more victims.
Unaware that rescue ships were standing by, Uschdraweit clung to the rail so he wouldn't slip on the canted deck. The bow of the Wilhelm Gustloff was almost in the water. He saw a naval lieutenant and called, "It's all over now." The lieutenant crawled closer .... "Come on, we'll save ourselves," he told Uschdraweit. "Crawl to port and grab the raft we'll push down to you. Hurry, or it'll be too late."
Wind shrieking in his ears, Uschdraweit started cautiously down toward the bridge. He slipped on the icy deck and slammed into the rail ... The lieutenant and three cadets had freed a raft and shoved it toward Uschdraweit. Frozen like a rock, it hit him in the shins and only his heavy boots saved him from broken bones. But he didn't even think of his pain.
Just as the five men picked up the raft, a large wave flung them against the window of the bridge. Uschdraweit saw people on the other side of the glass staring at him as from a fish bowl. It was like some weird dream. The next wave washed him into the sea. The abrupt, cold shock gave him a burst of energy and he swam strongly to the drifting raft. For some reason his terror had vanished. He and the other four men grabbed for the raft.
"Paddle, paddle, we're coming into the wake!" the lieutenant shouted. The five men held the raft with one arm and splashed frantically in the water with the other ... At last they clumsily clambered inside. For the first time Uschdraweit thought he might be saved. He looked back and saw the afterdeck of  the big liner high above, like a leaning tower. He could hear hundreds of women and children screaming. The terrible sound almost drove him mad. It was the most awful part of this night of terror.
The bow dipped deeper; the big ship trembled. The bulkheads collapsed and water poured through the lower decks. As the Wilhelm Gustloff slowly rolled to one side, the screams became even shriller ....
The slow roll quickened and the Wilhelm Gustloff, siren screeching, flopped heavily on its side. The five men watched the shadow of the ship sink, lower, lower...till it disappeared.
....[T]hey sat trembling in the freezing wind, staring silently into the sea. Dead bodies floated by in their life belts. The survivors were too depressed to talk. Every so often on the crest of a wave they would see a lifeboat not far away -- nothing else. It was the only sign of life around them.
In the raft Uschdraweit noticed that the water was slowly crawling up his legs, but said nothing.
"I believe we're sinking a little," the lieutenant said. When the next high wave brought them in sight of their neighbor -- the lifeboat -- he ordered everyone to paddle with their hands. The lieutenant asked to be taken aboard, but someone shouted that they were too full already. When the men in the raft continued paddling, the lifeboat was quickly rowed away.
....The T-36 and the Lowe were drifting around in the darkness, engines still off, landing nets over the sides, hauling aboard survivors. All at once the sonar of the T-36 picked up a submarine. Hering started the engines and moved out of the path of the marauder.
"Look, our destroyer!" someone in the raft shouted, and they all began to paddle frantically. Uschdraweit couldn't see a thing until a dim shadow appeared 100 yards away; then the beam of a searchlight suddenly swept around and hit them. The next thing he knew, a wave dashed the raft against the T-36. The lieutenant hung on to a rope thrown down from the destroyer while the ... young sailors scrambled aboard. Uschdraweit urged the lieutenant to climb up, but he clung to the rope and said tersely, "Get moving. I'll be the last one." Somebody grabbed Uschdraweit's arm and he was yanked aboard the T-36. As he staggered up from the pitching deck he saw the raft drifting away, with the lieutenant still in it.
Uschdraweit was helped down below. Sailors stripped him, wrapped him in a blanket and laid him like a package in a hammock. His body trembled; the sudden warmth was more painful than the freezing. But all he could think of was the lieutenant in the raft -- who had saved their lives.
Hering pulled more than 600 out of the Baltic. Some were already frozen to death; others were dying. Then a second submarine came onto the sonar screen and the T-36 was forced to flee, zigzagging to avoid torpedoes....
....Next to Uschdraweit was a sixteen-year-old boy, tears running down his face. At the earlier announcement that only women and children could keep life belts, he had given his away. Then his mother had convinced him to take hers, since he could save her if he wore it. But in the panic they became separated. "If I hadn't taken the belt, Mother would still be alive," he kept telling Uschdraweit. "I can swim."
Only 950 were saved by the rescue ships. Over 8000 perished in the greatest of all sea disasters -- more than five times the number lost on the Titanic....
The Last 100 Days is available from AMAZON
 Wilhelm Gustloff
25,484-ton German liner, named after a Swiss Nazi leader assassinated in 1936, which was torpedoed in the Baltic Sea by a Soviet submarine on 30 January 1945. She was carrying 8,000 service personnel and refugees from Gdynia which was about to fall to Soviet troops during the last phase of the German-Soviet war. More than 7,000 died, the largest single loss of life in maritime history.
Oxford Companion to World War II, Dear and Foot, eds. (1995)