1938 - 1945
was one of the countries that suffered worst from The Great Crash of 1929.
Along with many European nations, Germany was cast into the darkest of
economic times. As a result, the number of unemployed people increased
greatly. This situation paved the way for Adolf Hitler and his Nationalsocialistic
party, and they came to power with the election of 1933.
primary objective was to bring Germany to the position of being the greatest
nation of the globe, no matter the cost. Violating the Versailles Treaty
of 1919, they soon began rebuilding the country’s military forces, thus
creating a great number of job opportunities for the people.
pride on the high seas also needed to be reinforced. The two German superliners
of the early 1930s, the Bremen and Europa, no
longer held the Blue Riband. Yet Germany would not go for this prize, they
would instead start a special type of cruising activity.
|The launch of the Wilhelm
effective propaganda makers in the Third Reich conceived the idea that
would soon be known as ‘Kraft durch Freude’, or ‘Strength through Joy’,
in 1934. Commonly known as the KdF, the program was partly a result of
the Nazis came to power, they soon sequestered all trade unions in Germany.
All workers were instead to join the Deutsche Arbeitsfront (DAF) or German
Labour Front. Naturally, not all workers would do this if they could gain
nothing from it, so Hitler needed a carrot to lure them with.
lay in the Kraft durch Freude-scheme. As a member of the DAF, a worker
would be given the opportunity to go on low-price ship cruises to exotic
destinations. This would make the workers happy, thereby increasing their
work ability – hence the expression ‘Strength through Joy’. The offer of
cruising was also given to the members of the Nazi party.
the program first set off, the ships needed were taken from Germany’s three
largest shipping companies; the Hamburg-Amerika Line, Norddeustcher Lloyd
and the Hamburg South-America Line, in Germany commonly known as Hamburg
Süd. Ships as the Dresden, Der Deutsche, Oceana
and Monte Olivia which might otherwise have been laid up during
the Depression were now put to good use.
soon proved to be one of the Nazis’ greatest ideas. The Germans loved the
cheap cruises, as they gave them the opportunity to visit places they had
never though possible. During the first three years of the KdF-program,
the ships were nearly booked solid on every voyage. This led the DAF to
order two especially built cruise ships for the program.
|An interior shot from the
these ships was built as yard no. 511 at the shipyards of Blohm & Voss
in Hamburg. It had been decided to have the name of a high-ranking Swiss
Nazi who had been assassinated in 1936 – Wilhelm Gustloff. On May 5th
1937, the new ship was launched in the presence of among others
Adolf Hitler himself. The late Wilhelm Gustloff’s widow gave the ship her
husband’s name, and sent it to the water by smashing a bottle against the
Gustloff and her running mate Robert Ley, which was being built
at the yards of Howaldt in Hamburg and would enter service in 1939, would
go into history as the world’s first purpose-built cruise ships. These
two vessels brought equality to the high seas. All cabins on board lay
along the side of the ship’s hull, so that no one would lack a supply of
natural illumination. The passengers were not divided into classes, and
it was notable that the crewmembers were given the exact accommodation
as the passengers. The ships had not been built as luxury ships, but simply
as comfortable ones. Therefore, there were not more passenger amenities
than needed. Nevertheless, the German people loved them and the cruises
two ships had been built with leisure cruising in mind, their engines would
not be able to bring them above the speed of 15.5 knots. With a deep draught
of only 21 feet or 6.5 meters, they would be able to visit also smaller
ports on their voyages.
Gustloff set out on her maiden voyage on April 2nd 1938,
on a North Sea KdF-cruise. Although owned by the Deutsche Arbeitsfront,
the ship was managed by the more experienced Hamburg Süd. These cruising
duties continued for a year, with the ship cruising in the Mediterranean
and Atlantic Ocean as well. But then another task was given to her. In
May 1939, the Wilhelm Gustloff, Robert Ley, Der Deutsche,
Stuttgart, Sierra Cordoba and the Oceana were used
for bringing home the so-called Legion Condor from Spain, where it had
helped Franco’s Nationalists defeat the Spanish republican forces.
on September 1st 1939, Hitler marched into Poland and set off
what was to become the Second World War. Naturally, no cruising could be
done in the time of war, so the Wilhelm Gustloff was instead commissioned
by the Kriegsmarine as a hospital ship on September 22nd. Her
first mission in this role was to take on wounded from the defeated Polish
the months of April and June in 1940, the Wilhelm Gustloff operated
in Norwegian waters, taking on wounded from the Norwegian invasion campaign.
On June 18th, she left Oslo with wounded soldiers on board and
sailed for Germany. This was to be her last task as a hospital ship.
|The KDF cruise ship Wilhelm
Gustloff dressed in flags.
of 1940, the Wilhelm Gustloff was sent to the German port of Gotenhafen,
where she would serve the Third Reich as an accommodation ship. There she
remained until the last days of the war in 1945. By then the Germans luck
had changed and their forces was now on the retreat. It was then decided
to give the Wilhelm Gustloff a new mission.
eastern front of the German Reich, Soviet forces were now marching swiftly
towards Berlin. This resulted in millions of soldiers, refugees, sick and
wounded that had to be evacuated quickly. For this purpose the Germans
called upon the services of nearly all the former KdF-vessels,
as well as using a large number of freighters to transport people. The
Wilhelm Gustloff was to play a part in one of the greatest naval
evacuations in history.
freezing and blustery morning of January 30th 1945, the Wilhelm
Gustloff steamed out of the harbour of Gotenhafen. Cramped with more
than 6,000 people, the Gustloff now set out unescorted across the
Baltic Sea. The only protection against enemies was the few anti-aircraft
guns carried on deck, nothing more. The evacuation was truly a desperate
that night, a few minutes after 9 p.m., the escaping Wilhelm Gustloff
was spotted by the Soviet submarine S-13. The Russian commander
did not hesitate and immediately fired three torpedoes on the Gustloff.
The first torpedo hit on the starboard side, just below the bridge, followed
by the other two further aft, hitting the engine room. The ship quickly
took on a list to starboard, and began to settle in the cold, black water
of the Baltic. The stern rose into the air as the Wilhelm Gustloff
started her journey towards the seabed. Needless to say, the chances of
survival for the 6,000 – perhaps 7,000 – men, women and children on board
were very small. The water was ice cold, a temperature in which no human
can survive for more than a few minutes.
|The wreck of the Wilhelm
Gustloff as it appears today on the bottom of the Baltic Sea.
than an hour later, the Wilhelm Gustloff was gone and had taken
with her at least 5,200 people. About 1,000 people were amazingly saved
by the small German vessels T-36, the Löwe, the M341,
the TS2, the TF19 and the V1703 who had all been in
the vicinity. Yet the terrible loss of more than 5,000 people was horrible
and still ranks as one of the worst sea disasters in all history. Looking
back at the fact that this was the dying days of World War II, it also
counts as one of the most unnecessary. It can probably only be explained
with the very special sentiment against Germans that existed at the time,
but it is still no good explanation.
the Wilhelm Gustloff remains on the bottom of the Baltic Sea. Her
bow and stern is rather well preserved but the section in between has collapsed
upon itself. The site has been marked as a gravesite and any visits from
divers are prohibited.
|The Wilhelm Gustloff -
||684 feet (208.9 m)
||77 feet (23.5 m)
||25,484 gross tons
||MAN diesels turning two