Wilhelm Gustloff ( The Greatest Maritime Disaster ) Alexander Marinesko was actually born Alexandru Marinescu, to Rumanian parents who altered his name to make it appear more Russian, on 15 January, 1913, in the port city of Odessa. A temperamental and emotional young man, he suffered from nightmares, was easily bored, and often sought solace in the bottle. He was from am early age beset by demons. But as was fitting for a man of Odessa a career at sea beckoned. Not in merchant marine however, but in the Russian Navy. Little could he have known as a young sailor that he was to become the most lethal and deadly submarine commander of all time. He made steady progress through the ranks of the Russian Navy and was recognised as a talented officer but his career was often thwarted by a deep streak of irresponsibility. In 1939, he was assigned to the Baltic Fleet and given command of the submarine M.96, considered one the best in the world, but he still wasn't entirely trusted. The Authorities were aware of and distrusted his Rumanian background. So upon the outbreak of war with Germany in July 1941, he was sent to serve in the Caspian Sea as a training officer. This bored him desparately and he was frequently drunk. His lack of sobriety was to lead to his expulsion from the Communist Party. At last in the summer of 1942, he saw action. His talent quickly became apparent and he was brave to the point of recklessness. But he was also a liar and a braggart, often exaggerating his exploits, and this brought him the enmity of many of his fellow officers. Despite this his success meant he retained his command, even if at one point he effectively deserted the service to live with a Swedish woman he had met at a drunken New Years Eve party in the port of Hanko. Despite his talent his almost total lack of discipline drove his superiors to distraction and had effectively made him and his crew expendable. So on 11 January, 1945, Captain Marinesko in command of the submarine S.13 was despatched to patrol the dangerous sea lanes that separated East from West Prussia. Here he remained patiently at his station for days on end but with little success. Frequently attacked by German torpedo boats and spotter planes he could not see the point of remaining there to no good purpose. Aware that the city of Memel had recently fallen and that the German army now in full retreat would be looking to evacuate its troops, in direct contravention of his orders he manouevered S.13 into a position he thought would be the most likely course of interception. On 12 January, 1945, the Red Army had broken through the German lines on the Eastern front and the Wehrmacht was in full retreat. By the 26th Prussia had effectively been cut off from the rest of Germany and the only escape was by sea. In the port of Gotenhafen (Gdynia) more than 35,000 civilian refugees and military personnel crammed the docks. In port were the Liners Wilhelm Gustloff and Hansa with their small escorts preparing to evacuate people as part of Operation Hannibal. So desparate were people to escape the advancing Russian hoardes that fist fights actually broke out amongst people desparate to get aboard. The Wilhelm Gustloff was a luxury cruise ship constructed in 1937, as part of the Strength Through Joy programme to provide luxury holidays for workers. Though it was mostly used by Nazi Party dignitaries and their families. It was a sleek beautiful vessel but had by now been stripped of all the trappings of grandeur. With a displacement of 25,000 tons and designed to carry just 1800 passengers and crew, when she sailed out of Gotenhafen harbour at 12.30 pm on 30 January, 1945, she was carrying more than 10,500 passengers, some 4,000 of whom were children. It was a foul day, snow and rain was being whipped up by strong winds, the sea was rough, and the air cold. After a short time the Hansa and one of the two torpedo boats serving as escorts had technical problems and were forced to return to port. The Wilhelm Gustloff was now virtually on her own with only a single torpedo boat to accompany her. On board were four experienced sea captains and a row broke out as to the best way to proceed. Captain Wilhelm Zahn, Head of the U Boat Division, suggested that they should douse the ships lights and hug the coastline. The
Gustloff's captain, Friedrich Petersen preferred to head for deep water where he believed a more powerful escort of Minesweepers awaited him, and he would keep the lights on to avoid the possibility of collison, something he feared more in the poor visibility than he did the possibility of submarine attack. Aboard the Gustloff an eerie atmosphere prevailed, every available space was taken, the aisles and passageways jammed, and in some areas there was standing room only. People were being sick as the ship pitched and rolled in heavy seas, and mothers comforted their weeping children. An order had earlier been given that lifejackets should be worn at all times but this only added to the general discomfort and many had been discarded. So as to maintain a level of calm the Captain had ordered that cheerful music should be piped throughout the ship. At one pont the music stopped for a speech from the Fuhrer broadcast to celebrate the anniversary of his coming to power. Everyone stopped to listen, even the crew who had been busying themselves keeping the ship free from ice, some cursed others took heart, but all were fearful of the hours to come. Just after 8 pm on the night of the 30th, a crew member aboard the Russian submarine S.13 spotted a light far in the distance. He at first believed it was the light from a well-known local lighthouse, but thought he should report the sighting to the Captain anyway. Captain Marinesko, who had been in his cabin completing that paperwork that always has to be done, was called to the conning tower.As the sighting became more distinct he could see it was a huge ship, possibly an Ocean Liner, with its lights on! He could not believe his luck. Marinesko had been presented with an opportunity and he was determined to get things right. He stalked the Gustloff for hours approaching the ship from the shore side so as to get a better shot at it. This was a dangerous manoeuvre. He knew this area was heavily mined and criss-crossed with dangerous sandbanks. He skilfully manouevred his submarine through depths sometimes as little as 30 metres, and at one point only 9 fathoms. It was a courageous act on his part, but then no one had ever doubted his courage. Approaching to within a thousand yards of the ship, and in the early hours of a bitterly cold morning, Marinesko launched three torpedos with the words, " For the Motherland and for the Soviet people." On board the Gustloff, Captain Petersen was relaxing in his cabin confident that the most dangerous part of the journey was over. When the first torpedo hit survivors described it as like being struck by a meteor, the whole ship shook. Petersen was stunned, making his way to the bridge he was heard to utter the words time and time again, "this is it, this is it." In order to keep the ship afloat he orders that the watertight doors be closed, trapping thousands of people, including many experienced sailors, below decks and sealing their doom. Another torpedo then hit the quarters of the Womens' Naval Auxillary incinerating those inside with only 3 of the 374 women surviving. At this point the electricity fails plunging the ship into darkness. The third torpedo hit s the engine room and the Gustloff begins to list heavily to port, she is doomed. Panic now ensues and hundreds are trampled to death in the rush to get on deck. Gunshots are heard above the cries and screams of the terrified passengers as the crew try to retain some semblance of order, but it is to no avail. Many of the military personnel on board now commit suicide. The crew struggle to release the lifeboats as they are frozen to the davits. It was normal procedure for these to be swung out in preparation for hasty release before sailing, but Petersen had not done this because he had not wished to induce panic amongst the passengers. Now they could not be released in time. The ship was sinking quickly. Lifejackets that had earlier been discarded were now being fought over. They were also found to be too big for the children and simply tipped them upside down in the water and survivors testified to the number of legs they witnessed sticking out of the sea. Survival in the ice-cold, unforgiving Baltic Sea, was in any case limited. For those struggling below decks it was already too late. Unable to find their way out in the darkness they were drowned in the frozen water now flooding the ship. An hour after being hit by the first torpedo the Wilhelm Gustloff sank to the bottom taking thousands of lives with her. A frantic rescue operation was now underway. The message had gone out for all German shipping in the area to rush to the scene. The Cruiser Admiral Hipper which was one of the first to arrive and could have taken all the survivors on board fled without doing so however, fearing
further torpedo attacks. Many of those dragged out of the water were already dead, and there were so many that nets were used for the purpose. Of the survivors it transpired that most were military personnel, the majority of the victims being civilians. It would appear that the policy of women and children first did not apply on the Wilhelm Gustloff. The most recent research suggests that 9,400 people drowned or were burned to death on the Wilhelm Gustloff, 1,250 were plucked from the water alive. It was the greatest maritime disaster in history. It would appear that Captain Marinesko was at first unaware of his achievement, but just over a week later on 10 February, he confirmed his reputation as the worlds most deadly submariner when he torpedoed and sank the unmarked hospital ship, Steuben, with 5,000 people on board. More than 3,000 died. For his achievements Marinesko expected to receive the title Hero of the Soviet Union but his past reputation went before him, he wasn't entirely believed, and he had made a lot of enemies. So instead he was awarded the Order of the Red Banner. So outraged was he that when his superiors arrived to present his award he submerged his submarine so that he would be unable to receive it. Upon the conclusion of the war Marinesko's life quickly unravelled. By now a hopeless drunk the alcohol had taken a severe mental and physical toll. In September, 1945, he was demoted and by November of the same year he had been discharged from the navy altogether. Plunged into poverty his life fell apart. In 1949, he was jailed for 2 years for theft. Broken and forgotten, he finally died on 25 November, 1963, aged just 50 of a burst ulcer. In May, 1990, he at last got the recognition his many supporters had campaigned for and he was finally awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union he believed his exploits had merited, and statues of him now stand in his home town of Odessa and the port city of Kaliningrad. Many consider what Alexander Marinesko did on that freezing January morning to be a war crime; but he could not have known that the Gustloff had been primarily a refugee ship. Had he have known would it have made any difference to his decision to fire those torpedos? I doubt it. Such things are lost in the fog of war, and despite the many civilians on board there were also a great many experienced and specialised military personnel. Alexander Marinesko merely did his duty bravely and with considerable daring. But it was a moment of horror in a desparate life.