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Disaster at sea

Disaster at seaThe Wilhelm Gustloff in Danzig 1939
The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff on January 30, 1945 rates as one of the worst maritime disasters in history. Primarily used as a deluxe Nazi cruise liner, the vessel had been based in Gdynia for much of the war. With the Eastern Front collapsing, German Admiral Doenitz ordered the evacuation of German civilians and wounded troops from the Tri-City region. Overcrowded with refugees seeking safety from the advancing Red Army, the Gustloff limped out of the port of the Gdynia apparently destined for either Rostock or Kiel.

Just minutes after relaying an address to the nation by Adolf Hitler, the Gustloff - named in memory of the assassinated leader of the Swiss Nazi party - was hit by three torpedoes from the Soviet submarine S-13. Within 50 minutes the 650foot vessel had sunk to the bottom of the Bay of Gdansk. Freezing temperatures, overcrowding and a shortage of lifeboats meant that of the estimated 10,600 passengers, only 1,200 survived; a figure that is over six times the number that died on the Titanic.
Ignoring rules of engagement S-13 continued to fire torpedoes at rescue ships. The captain of the Gustloff, predictably, managed to scramble to safety.

Today the ship lies 42 metres below the ocean surface, marked as a maritime grave with a ban on diving within 500m. Following the war S-13’s captain, Alexander Marinesko, was awarded the honour of Hero of the Soviet Union. But in a final twist Marinesko fell out of favour with communist officials and was sentenced to hard labour in the Gulag after being caught selling bricks on the blackmarket. He died in 1963 a broken man.

A bell belonging to the Gustloff could be found in the entrance to the Barracuda restaurant in Gdynia but has since been lent to a private exhibition in Berlin.

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