The sinking of the German ship, filled with civilians, was recorded as the worst maritime disaster in history, but its story is seldom told. Until now.
Weston author Cathryn Prince has captured the historic event in her new book, Death in the Baltic, The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff.
The sinking occurred on Jan. 30, 1945, at the tail end of World War II. More than 10,000 civilians — many of whom were women, children, sick, and the elderly, were packed aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, the former crown jewel of German cruise ships. Their intent was to flee East Prussia, which was under the Nazi regime, as the Russian Army approached.
By this time, the outcome of World War II had been pretty much determined and the Third Reich was ready to fall.
The ship had just set sail in the icy waters of the Baltic when three Soviet torpedoes struck it, inflicting catastrophic damage and throwing passengers into the frozen waters.
More than 9,400 German civilians drowned in the attack, six times the number lost on the Titanic, yet the incident was hardly reported.
Ms. Prince first learned the shocking story of the Wilhem Gustloff in 2007, from her father who had read about it in a history trivia book. She decided it was time to tell the story to the world.
The book discusses the tragic sinking through a series of interviews with seven survivors from around the world. Ms. Prince interweaves their stories with her research to describe what led up to the attack and its after effects.
With such a large number of casualties, one would think the Wilhem Gustloff attack would have been big news; instead it was covered up. Ms. Prince explained there were two possible reasons for the silence.
First, she said, the Germans did not want to scare people by letting them know a large number of people had been killed. “This ship was the symbol of Nazi power, it had brought leisure to the masses. The Germans were embarrassed and didn’t want the world to know what happened,” she said.
The Russians were in no position to boast about the attack either, which primarily took the lives of women and children. Ms. Prince said the Russian submarine commander Alexander Marinesko, who launched the attack, had a reputation for excessive drinking and womanizing. Before this mission, he was facing a possible court marital for a desertion charge. He was on duty at the time only because submarine commanders were in short supply.
To tell her story, Ms. Prince interviewed seven survivors — Horst Woit, Eva Dorn Rothschild, Inge Bendrich Roedecker, Rose Rezus Petrus, Helga Reuter, and sisters Irene Tschinkur East and Ellen Tschinkur Maybee. Their recollections tell of the confusion, chaos, and profound sadness and loss they experienced on the Wilhelm Gustloff.
Cathryn Prince of Weston is a freelance journalist and author. She has written four books, including A Professor, a President, and a Meteor: The Birth of American Science, about the famous Weston meteorite, for which she won the Connecticut Press Club’s 2011 Book Award for non-fiction. She is also an adjunct professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University, and an instructor at the Westport Writers’ Workshop.
Death in the Baltic, The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff is available in bookstores and on amazon.com.