History's Greatest Naval Disasters

The Little-Known Stories of the Wilhelm Gustloff, the General Steuben and the Goya

By John Ries

For many people, the image of a great maritime disaster calls to mind the well-known sinking of the Titanic, which went down in April 1912 after striking an iceberg, taking the lives of 1,503 men, women and children. Others may think of the Lusitania, which sank on May 7, 1915, after being hit by a German submarine torpedo, taking 1,198 lives. [1]

Less well known is the fate of the American packet steamer Sultana, which suddenly exploded and sank in the Mississippi River near Memphis on April 27, 1865. Estimates of the loss of life range from 1,450 to 2,200. Almost all of the victims were exchanged federal prisoners of war on their way home from Confederate camps. A recent article in The Washington Times called the Sultana sinking "the most staggering and appalling marine disaster in history." [2]

But the scale of even the Sultana disaster is dwarfed by the little-known sinkings of the Wilhelm Gustloff, the General Steuben and the Goya -- converted German liners crowded with refugees and wounded soldiers that were sunk by Soviet submarines during the final months of the Second World War. In each case, more lives were lost than in the sinkings of either the Sultana, the Lusitania or the Titanic.

Ignorance and even suppression of the facts of these marine disasters is part of the general ignorance in the United States about the great loss of life and terrible suffering endured by the German people during the Second World War, above all in the conflict's grim final months. For the story of the unparalleled loss of life in the sinkings of these three German ships can be understood only within the context of the general situation during the final months of the war, when the advancing Soviet forces, eager to take terrible vengeance against the Germans, set in motion one of the greatest mass migrations in history.

It began in mid-October 1944, when Red Army forces first broke into German East Prussia. Spurred on by the hate filled calls to violence against Germans by Soviet Jewish propagandist Ilya Ehrenburg, Red Army troops systematically plundered and murdered Germans unfortunate enough to fall into their hands. [3]

One of the first towns taken by the Soviets was Nemmersdorf, in the Gumbinnen district of East Prussia. It was only because German forces succeeded in recapturing this town a short time later that the world was able to learn how Soviet troops had set about brutally raping females of all ages, and slaughtering the old men, women and children there. The fortunate ones were shot out of hand. Many were clubbed or hacked to death. After being raped, naked women were nailed to doors in crucifix positions. In one case, a group of refugees was crushed under Soviet tanks. [4]

German authorities lost no time in publicizing the horrifying results of the brief Soviet occupation. Journalists, including some from neutral Sweden, Switzerland and Spain, were quickly brought in to report on what had happened. Shocking newsreel footage from Nemmersdorf was shown in German motion picture theaters.

Panic-stricken civilians now desperately sought to escape falling into the hands of the advancing Soviets. As a result, during the final months of 1944 and early 1945, long columns of terrified refugees streamed into the towns and villages along the Bay of Danzig, all frantically waiting for boats that would take them to at least temporary refuge further to the west.

In light of all this, it was quickly decided in Berlin to organize a mass evacuation of civilians. As a result, between January 1945 and the capitulation on May 8, 1945, more than two million people -- the great majority of them German civilians -- were safely transported to the West. This second "Dunkirk," which dwarfed many times over the British evacuation in 1940, was organized by Rear Admiral Konrad Engelhardt under the direction of Admiral Karl Dönitz, Commander-in-Chief of the German Navy.

Astonishingly, only about 25,000 lives were lost in what one historian has called "the greatest evacuation operation in history," a figure that is all the more remarkable in light of the fact that by this time the remnants of the German air force were almost powerless to fend off attacks by enemy fighter planes and submarines. [5]

This record of success masks human catastrophes of almost inutterable horror -- including the three most terrible ship sinkings, in terms of lives lost, in history. The first of the great German evacuation ships to go down, the Wilhelm Gustloff, was hit by three torpedoes from Soviet submarine S-13 on the night of January 30th. It sank after 70 minutes, taking with it at least 5,700 lives, and perhaps as many as 7,000. Only about 900 could be rescued from the sub-freezing waters of the Baltic by convoy vessels. [6]

In many ways the fate of the Wilhelm Gustloff was symbolic of the fortunes of the Third Reich. Named by Hitler himself in honor of the National Socialist party leader in Switzerland who had been murdered by Jewish assassin David Frankfurter in 1936, the 25,484-ton liner was christened by the slain man's widow in an elaborate ceremony the following year. It served as the proud flagship of the "Strength Through Joy" (Kraft durch Freude) movement, a well publicized and highly successful program that provided inexpensive luxury vacations for German workers. Over the next two years, the Wilhelm Gustloff routinely brought German tourists to the fjords of Norway and the seaside resorts of Portugal and Italy. Many of the grateful working class passengers who strolled the ship's decks had never before ventured outside of their own towns and villages. [7]

Soon after the outbreak of the war, the great liner was repainted for use as a hospital ship. But in early 1940 it was instead sent to Gdynia (Gotenhafen) where it served as the floating headquarters of the elite 2nd Submarine Training Division, the pride of the German U-boat fleet. By late January 1945, with the safety of Dönitz's submariners threatened by the Soviet advance, the Wilhelm Gustloff was quickly reactivated after almost five years of idleness. Originally designed to comfortably accommodate 1,465 passengers and a crew of 417, it set out for Mecklenburg on January 30th crammed with as many as 8,000 crew and passengers -- most of them refugees. [8]

The much-traveled convoy route on which the Wilhelm Gustloff (and its sister ship, the 23,000 ton Hansa, with 3,000 refugees on board) had set out skirted the Stolpe Bank off the coast of Pomerania. Although this area was known to be a favorite haunt of Soviet submarines lying in wait to attack crowded convoys as they slowly steamed to safer havens in the West, so far there had been relatively few successful attacks. Indeed, the Soviet "Red Banner" fleet had failed to make much of an impact on the war, having spent most of the time trapped in the Gulf of Finland by a very effective German blockade. Although the Soviet submarine fleet was the world's largest, the German blockade had resulted in Soviet naval forces sinking far fewer German ships than those of any of the major Allied powers. The German naval command considered Britain's Royal Air Force, which had sunk as many as 18 German ships in the Baltic during the month of January 1945 alone, to be a greater threat to the success of the mass evacuation. [9]

The Germans had little esteem for the Soviet submarine fleet. As Admiral Engelhardt commented after the war, the Germans were grateful that the Soviets utilized only speed boats and submarines in the Baltic during the final months of the war. "Except for the Goya, Steuben and Wilhelm Gustloff, their submarines scarcely had any effect, despite the fact that they as many as 15 operating in the Baltic at the same time," he recalled. "If they had as few as three modern destroyers and one cruiser of the Gorki class between Pillau and Hela, our entire transport operation would have come to a standstill." [10]

The German submarine command based in Gdynia not only had a low regard for the capabilities of the Soviet submarines, it underestimated the potential danger they posed. The submarine command was so confident of German security measures that it failed to inform the 9th Escort Division in Gydnia -- which was responsible for providing security for departing convoys in the area -- of the Gustloff's imminent departure. [11]

Among German submariners a feeling of confidence bordering on arrogance prevailed. They regarded the Baltic theater as little more than a "training field" where skills could be perfected for the "real" war in the North Atlantic against heavily defended Allied convoys. Thus, when the passenger-crammed Wilhelm Gustloff set out for the open sea on January 30th -- its first voyage in almost four years -- only a single poorly equipped torpedo boat provided escort protection. (Two other escort vessels had been obliged to stay behind because of engine problems.)

Poor escort protection was not the only problem that beset the Gustloff as it set out into enemy-infested waters. Now crammed with as many as 8,000 people, the ship had emergency lifeboats and rafts sufficient for only 5,060. Moreover, the machinery that lowered the life boats into the water had frozen solid in the bitter cold, rendering the life boats virtually useless. And although each passenger had a life jacket, the temperature of the Baltic had fallen to well below freezing. No one could survive long in the frigid waters. [12]

As if these ingredients for disaster were not enough, when Soviet torpedoes finally struck the ill-fated liner, the ship's command somehow sent out the customary "SOS" emergency signal not on the frequency of the nearby 9th Escort Division, but on a different wavelength. Precious time was lost, resulting in the deaths of many who might otherwise have been rescued. [13]

* * * * *

Eleven days later, shortly after midnight on February 10th, the General Steuben sank with a loss of 3,500 lives, making this the third worst maritime disaster in history. The same Soviet submarine that had attacked the Gustloff, and in almost the same location, sank the Steuben with two torpedoes. Crammed with as many as 5,000 wounded soldiers and refugees, the converted passenger liner sank in just seven minutes. [14]

Built in 1922, and owned and operated by North German Lloyd, the 17,500-ton luxury liner was named after the Prussian general who had rendered invaluable assistance in training the army of the insurgent American colonists during their struggle for independence. When it sank, the Steuben was serving as a transport ship for wounded soldiers. [15]

Although hospital ships are internationally considered to be off limits from military attack during wartime, the Soviet government categorically regarded German hospital ships as legitimate military targets. In an official note delivered in July 1941, the Soviet government brusquely rejected a German request to abide by international law regarding the immunity of hospital ships: " ... The Soviet government gives notice that it will not recognize and respect German hospital ships according to the Hague Convention." Accordingly, Soviet planes and submarines sank four of the 13 German hospital ships employed in the Baltic evacuation operation, and eight of 21 German transport ships used to carry wounded soldiers. [16]

* * * * *

The sinking of the Goya on April 16, 1945, just three weeks before the end of the war in Europe, is acknowledged as almost certainly the greatest maritime disaster, in terms of lives lost, of all time. [17]

Indeed, when the 5,230-ton transport ship set out from Hela near Danzig (Gdansk) with its human cargo of some 7,000 refugees and wounded soldiers, the Soviets were pressing into Berlin itself, and the Bay of Danzig, with the exception of the narrow Hela peninsula, had become virtually a Soviet lake. In spite of the merciless blows that were bringing Germany to its knees, what was left of its once mighty military continued to evacuate civilian refugees to the west. Under almost constant fire from Soviet artillery, ships, and planes, German authorities were still able to evacuate 264,887 people to relative safety during the month of April 1945. [18]

German ports in the western Baltic were by now so overcrowded with shipping and refugees that when the already badly mauled Goya weighed anchor on its final voyage, it set out with five other ships for the Danish capital of Copenhagen. As the convoy made its way along the treacherous Stolpe Bank, it was spotted by Captain Konovalov, commander of the minelayer submarine L-3. Considered to be the most successful submarine in the entire Soviet fleet, the L-3 was credited with sinking four ships in 1941, six in 1942, and three in 1943, including U-boat U-416, by mining. [19]

At precisely four minutes to midnight, the L-3 fired two torpedoes at the Goya, which found their marks amidship and stern. Almost immediately the ship broke in half, her masts crashing down upon the passengers crowding the decks. Before anyone could escape from the holds, the onrushing sea quickly drowned out the anguished screams of the refugees below. The vessel sank in just four minutes, resulting in the loss of almost 7,000 lives. There were only 183 survivors. [20]

"The special tragedy of the Goya," American historian Alfred de Zayas has commented, "was that it happened so close to the of the war, at a time when the German surrender was within grasp." These deaths failed to hasten the end of the war in any way. At a time when the Soviets had already begun the actual expulsion of Germans from the entire Baltic region, he asked rhetorically, "Why then send so many thousands of refugees to the bottom of the sea?" [21]

At the time, the loss of the Goya was hardly noticed in Germany, which had grown accustomed to similar catastrophes on a daily basis. All the same, it was cited in the report of the Führer Naval Conference of April 18, the last conference of which there is any archival record. It is written in language that characterized the cool professionalism that the German Naval High Command had shown throughout the entire period of the evacuation: [22]

"In connection with the loss of several hundred persons in the sinking of the steamship Goya, the Commander-in-Chief of the Navy points out that personnel losses in the transports in the Eastern areas up to this time have been extremely small, that is, 0.49 percent. These unfortunate losses seem very large every time a ship is sunk, and it is easy to forget that at the time a large number of ships with numerous wounded and refugees reach port safely."

Although the estimate of losses given here is understated, the mass evacuation operation did, indeed, prove to be an overall success. Under terrible conditions, the German navy and merchant marine succeeded in saving many hundreds of thousands of civilians from horrible mistreatment and almost certain death at Soviet hands.

* * * * *

Although little known, the sinkings of the Wilhelm Gustloff and the Goya -- with a combined loss of more than 12,000 lives -- remain the greatest maritime catastrophes of all time. Moreover, the deliberate and unnecessary killing of thousands of innocent civilian refugees and helpless wounded men aboard the Gustloff, the Steuben and the Goya -- as well as many other smaller and lesser-known vessels -- is unquestionably one of the great atrocities of the Second World War.


  1. These figures are taken from The World Almanac and Book of Facts, 1987 edition (New York: 1986), p. 754.; In May 1941, the battleship Bismarck went down with nearly 3,000 men. See: Alfred de Zayas, Nemesis at Potsdam (University of Nebraska Press, 1989), p. 75.
  2. The World Almanac and Book of Facts, 1987 edition, p. 754.; "Union Survivor Recalls Loss of Sultana with 2,200 Aboard," The Washington Times, May 16, 1992.
  3. Alfred de Zayas, Nemesis at Potsdam (University of Nebraska Press, 1989), pp. 61-66, 201.
  4. A. de Zayas, Nemesis, pp. 61-65.
  5. Karl Dönitz, Memoirs: Ten Years and Twenty Days, (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1990), p. 465.; C. Dobson, et al., The Cruelest Night (Boston: 1979), pp. 67-71, 187-188.; A. de Zayas, Nemesis, p. 74.
  6. Estimates vary of the number of persons aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff on the night of January 30, 1945, and of the number of those who perished. According to one German reference work, there were 4,974 refugees and 1,626 military service personnel on board. Of this total of 6,600, only 900 could be rescued, and 5,700 perished. Source: W. Schötz, ed., Lexikon: Deutsche Geschichte im 20. Jahrhundert (Rosenheim: DVG, 1990), p. 497. A 223-page English-language work on the sinking of the Gustloff reports that in addition to the 6,050 people (including 4,424 refugees) officially recorded as being on board, another 2,000 desperate refugees were hastily let on from small boats as the ship was leaving the harbor. This would have meant that about 8,000 people were aboard the Gustloff when it sank. Of this number, 964 were rescued from the icy sea, some of whom died later. "It is likely, therefore, that at least 7,000 people perished." Source: Christopher Dobson, John Miller and Thomas Payne, The Cruelest Night: Germany's Dunkirk and the Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff (Boston: Little Brown, 1979), pp. 83-84, 140-141.
  7. C. Dobson, et al., The Cruelest Night (1979), pp. 29-32.; W. Schötz, ed., Lexikon (1990), p. 497.
  8. C. Dobson, et al., The Cruelest Night (1979), pp. 32-33, 50-57.; W. Schötz, ed., Lexikon (1990), p. 497.
  9. C. Dobson, et al., Cruelest Night, pp. 34, 35, 52, 65, 68.
  10. Fritz Brustat-Naval, Unternehmen Rettung (Herford: Koehlers Verlagsgesellschaft, 1970), p. 147.
  11. Cajus Bekker, La Ultima Odisea: Danzig 1945 (Barcelona: Bruguera, pb., 1976), pp. 243-247. This is a Spanish-language edition of Flucht übers Meer (Oldenburg: G. Stalling, 1976).; C. Dobson, et al., Cruelest Night, pp. 75-77.
  12. C. Dobson, et al., Cruelest Night, pp. 83-85.; C. Bekker, La Ultima Odisea (Barcelona: 1976), pp. 246-250.
  13. C. Bekker, La Ultima Odisea (Flucht übers Meer), p. 249.
  14. C. Dobson, et al., Cruelest Night, pp. 153-156.; F. Brustat-Naval, Unternehmen Rettung, pp. 48-49.; A. de Zayas, Nemesis, p. 75-76.
  15. C. Dobson, Cruelest Night, pp. 150-151.
  16. Alfred de Zayas, The Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau, 1939-1945 (University of Nebraska Press, 1990), p. 261.; A. de Zayas, Nemesis, p. 76.
  17. A. de Zayas, Nemesis at Potsdam, p. 75.; W. Schötz, ed., Lexikon (1990), p. 154.
  18. C. Dobson, Cruelest Night, pp. 163, 165-169.
  19. C. Dobson, Cruelest Night, pp. 166-167.
  20. C. Dobson, et al., Cruelest Night, pp. 167-168; W. Schötz, ed., Lexikon, p. 154.; F. Brustat-Naval, Unternehmen Rettung, p. 146.
  21. A. de Zayas, Nemesis at Potsdam, p. 75.
  22. C. Dobson, et al., Cruelest Night, pp. 168-169.

From The Journal of Historical Review, Fall 1992 (Vol. 12, No. 3), pages 371-381.