The Deadliest Disaster at Sea Killed Thousands, Yet Its Story Is Little-Known. Why?
By Francine Uenuma/Smithsonianmag.com
By the time the Soviet Union advanced on Germany’s eastern front in January of 1945, it was clear the advantage in World War II was with the Allies. The fall of the Third Reich was by this point inevitable; Berlin would succumb within months.
Among the German populace, stories of rape and murder by vengeful Soviet forces inspired dread; the specter of relentless punishment pushed many living in the Red Army’s path to abandon their homes and make a bid for safety.
The province of East Prussia, soon to be partitioned between the Soviet Union and Poland, bore witness to what the Germans called Operation Hannibal, a massive evacuation effort to ferry civilians, soldiers and equipment back to safety via the Baltic Sea.
German civilians seeking an escape from the advancing Soviets converged on the port city of Gotenhafen (now Gdynia, Poland), where the former luxury ocean liner Wilhelm Gustloff was docked.
The new arrivals overwhelmed the city, but there was no turning them back. If they could get to the dock and if they could get on board, the Gustloff offered them a voyage away from besieged East Prussia.