Hitler's Titanic - the deadliest and most secret catastrophe in the history of maritime warfare.
When the Wilhelm Gustloff was sunk by a Soviet submarine, with the loss of nearly 10,000 lives in January 1945, it wrote itself an unenviable record in the history books as the deadliest maritime disaster of all time.
Yet, aside from its grim fate in the icy waters of the Baltic, the story of the Gustloff is a fascinating one, which sheds light on a number of little-known aspects of the wider history of the Third Reich.
Launched in Hamburg in 1937, the luxury liner Wilhelm Gustloff was originally to be christened the “Adolf Hitler”, but instead was named after the Swiss Nazi leader, who had been assassinated by a Jewish gunman the previous year.
The ship was the pride of the Nazi Labour Movement, and would be run as a cruise liner by the subsidiary KdF, an organisation responsible for German workers’ leisure time, cruising the Baltic and Scandinavian coast, seducing its passengers with the apparent benefits of belonging to the Nazi ‘national community’.
The Gustloff also served a vital propaganda function for Hitler’s Reich.
It was moored in London in 1938 to allow Austrian citizens in the city to participate in the plebiscite over Hitler’s annexation of the country and the following year, it brought the elite German ‘Condor Legion’ home from service alongside Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War.
When war came in 1939, the Gustloff was used as a hospital ship and ferried wounded soldiers and sailors home from the 1940 campaign in Narvik.
Later, moored in the harbour at Gdynia, it served as a floating barracks for U-Boat crews undergoing training.
In 1945, the Wilhelm Gustloff would meet its nemesis.
That spring, it would be requisitioned for “Operation Hannibal”, the attempt to evacuate civilians, soldiers and officials westwards from the German eastern provinces threatened by the Soviet advance.
While many ships made numerous crossings, the Gustloff would not survive her first voyage.
Packed to the gunnels with desperate evacuees, she was torpedoed off the Pomeranian coast on January 30 – ironically the twelfth anniversary of Hitler coming to power – with the loss of almost 10,000 lives.
The story of the Wilhelm Gustloff’s sinking in the freezing waters of the Baltic is dramatic and it has rarely been satisfactorily told in the English language.
This gripping Kindle Single will explore the history of the German ship that suffered the deadliest maritime disaster of all time.
Roger Moorhouse is a critically-acclaimed freelance historian specialising in modern German and Central European history. Published in 15 languages, he is the author of the international bestseller 'Berlin at War' and 'The Devils’ Alliance' which was published in the UK & US in the autumn of 2014. He is also author of 'His Struggle: Hitler in Landsberg, 1924.'