On January 30, 1945, a Soviet submarine under command of Captain Aleksandr Marinesko attacked and sunk the German liner “Wilhelm Gustloff” in the Baltic Sea. There were some 8,000 people on the liner and only 1,200 survived. This attack went down in history as “The Attack of the Century”.
The commander of the submarine division, Commodore Aleksandr Orel, in a recommendation for decorating Marinesko, described the attack as a feat of arms. According to the recommendation, there had been more than 8,000 people aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff and 3,700 of them had been trained submariners. “By this attack, - Orel wrote, - Marinesko caused serious damage to the German fleet”.
In 1968, “Neva” magazine published an article about Marinesko, saying after the attack Hitler declared three days for an all-German mourning. This might have been the back-story for the popular legend about Hitler calling Marinesko “the main enemy”. In fact, there was no mourning and Hitler did not call Marinesko any names – after the attack, the German government did not say a word about Wilhelm Gustloff. This article also said that there had been SS officers on the liner, and that there were several military convoy ships as part of the escort.
All the sources of information named different numbers of victims and could not reach agreement about the victims’ social status and ranks. Until now, one can read of about 22 Nazi leaders or even some 7,000 Wermacht soldiers killed in the attack on Wilhelm Gustloff. Some sources described the liner as a training base for suicide units.
In the beginning of 1945, the Soviet Army entered Eastern Europe heading towards Gdansk, Poland, and Konigsberg. Germans, running from Eastern Prussia, gathered in the seaport of Gdynia. The fleet officers received an order to take as many refugees as possible on board each ship. It was the largest evacuation in the history of the Navy which saw about 2 million people transported to Western Europe. This evacuation went down in history as “Operation Hannibal”.
On January 30, 1945, Wilhelm Gustloff left the port of Gdynia with one convoy minesweeper escorting it. There were 1,500 military men aboard the liner. Wilhelm Gustloff had been an accommodation ship for the submariners training division, so most of those military men were untrained cadets. In addition, there were 370 women from the auxiliary troops of the German Fleet and some wounded soldiers, but there were no Nazi leaders or SS troops.
The exact number of refugees who were taken aboard the liner is still unknown. Until 1990, western historians placed them at 6,000. The Soviet government prohibited discussions about Wilhelm Gustloff in the Soviet Union or the German Democratic Republic. Nevertheless, after the collapse of Soviet Union when the archives were opened, new information appeared. According to this account, there had been 10,000 refugees on the liner when it sunk.
When the torpedoes hit the liner, the passengers rushed to rescue boats in panic. People dressed the children in cork-jackets and threw them into the sea. One of three Soviet torpedoes hit the swimming pool, where the women from auxiliary troops had been training.
Only 419 refugees survived. The other survivors were 528 cadets and officers from the training division, 123 women from the auxiliary troops, 86 wounded German soldiers and 83 crewmembers from the liner.
German officer Heinz Shon survived the attack and wrote several books about it. According to his conclusions, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff was not a crime, because the ship was not marked as a vessel carrying refugees, was armed and had been used as an accommodation ship. However, the whole truth about the Wilhelm Gustloff is still unknown.