Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff

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Overview

In late January of 1945, with the Allied victory imminent, nearly 10,000 German refugees attempted to flee the advancing Red Army aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a cruise liner-turned-escape ship. As the ship set sail in the dark of night, three torpedoes from a Soviet submarine struck the boat, causing catastrophic damage, and throwing women, children, the elderly, and wounded soldiers into the frigid waters of the Baltic Sea. When a few hours later first light broke, over ...

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Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff

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Overview

In late January of 1945, with the Allied victory imminent, nearly 10,000 German refugees attempted to flee the advancing Red Army aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a cruise liner-turned-escape ship. As the ship set sail in the dark of night, three torpedoes from a Soviet submarine struck the boat, causing catastrophic damage, and throwing women, children, the elderly, and wounded soldiers into the frigid waters of the Baltic Sea. When a few hours later first light broke, over 9,000 people had drowned in one of the worst maritime disasters of all time. For 65 years, both East and West kept this story hidden. The drowned were citizens of the future East Germany and part of the Soviet Bloc. And the German victims inspired little sympathy in the West. In Death in the Baltic, award winning author Cathryn Prince reconstructs the story of unimaginable horror by drawing on original interviews with remaining survivors and newly declassified records. Weaving the personal narratives into the broader history, she gives this overlooked WWII catastrophe its place in history. 

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Death in the Baltic is the winner of the Military Writers Society of America 2013 Founder's Award

"Based on German and Russian records, as well as material gained from interviews with survivors, author Prince has written a gripping account of one of the least-known human disasters of World War II."—Military History Magazine

“In describing the experiences of survivors, whom she has been adept in tracing, the journalist Cathryn Prince gives voices to ‘ordinary people who suffered during extraordinary times’ — and does so with scrupulous empathy.”—The Spectator

“A must-read for anyone wanting to examine the effects of the War on both sides.”—Warfare magazine

“The story of the worst maritime disaster in history…Prince has scoured the planet for survivors, treating their harrowing stories with gentle empathy, from the first sickening bolts of the torpedoes to the chaos and terror of the ship’s swift sinking as passengers fell into the freezing water, clambered for lifeboats and watched loved ones disappear in the tumult… An engaging study of a shocking tragedy.”—Kirkus Reviews

“If you think that the sinking of the Titanic was the worst maritime disaster ever, then you're wrong….Amazing and harrowing story, well written and documented.”—Jean-Paul Adriaansen, Water Street Bookstore

“The sinking of the cruise liner that was once the pride of Hitler’s Strength Through Joy program has long been overlooked by maritime historians.  Yet when the Wilhelm Gustloff disappeared beneath the freezing waters of the Baltic in January of 1945, she took with her more than six times the number of people lost on the Titanic. Through careful research and interviews with the few remaining survivors. Cathryn J. Prince vividly recreates the chaos and terror of this epic maritime disaster.”—Hugh Brewster, author of Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic’s First-Class Passengers And Their World

Death in the Baltic is the engrossing story of a tragedy that should never have been forgotten. With the grace of a writer who truly feels the loss of thousands in the cold waters of the Baltic Sea, Cathryn J. Prince has preserved their memory and improved our sense of history.”—Gregory A. Freeman, author of The Forgotten 500

“Cathryn Prince reaches into the dark corners of history, and draws attention to this unreported tragedy through the experiences of the people who lived it.”—Stacy Perman, author of A Grand Complication

“With Death in the Baltic author Cathryn J. Prince recounts an important but little known aspect of World War II. Rich in detail, drama, and tragedy, Prince's gripping narrative skillfully interweaves the traumatic events of the final weeks of the war with moving stories of survivors of a maritime disaster which claimed more lives than the sinking of the Titanic.”—Dwight Jon Zimmerman, award-winning author of Uncommon Valor

"Death in the Baltic tells a gripping, invaluable story. Out of a desire for vengeance and recognition, one Soviet submarine commander caused the deaths of thousands of refugees, deaths that the victors of World War II chose to ignore. Cathryn Prince breaks the silence around the devastation many German civilians suffered at the end of the war.  Parting the curtain on the “collateral damage” the Allied Forces accepted as a necessary strategy for defeating Hitler, Death in the Baltic reveals that war's trauma spares no one."—Leila Levinson, award-winning author of Gated Grief

“The story of the sinking of the Willhelm Gustloff is still unkown to a majority of non-Germans…It is certainly a grimly fascinating story, not least because of the wealth of human interest that it contains…Cathryn Prince tells the story of the Gustloff briskly and engagingly…making good use of the eyewitness accounts of the survivors”—History Today

Kirkus Reviews
The story of the worst maritime disaster in history--and it wasn't the Titanic. Former Christian Science Monitor reporter Prince (A Professor, a President, and a Meteor: The Birth of American Science, 2010, etc.) pursues the little-known sinking of the German cruise liner Wilhelm Gustloff off the Polish coast in 1945 by Soviet torpedoes, to the incredible loss of some 9,000 lives, mostly refugees from East Prussia. Fleeing the Soviet Red Army advance on the Baltic coastline in late January, the German refugees were crammed aboard a converted pleasure cruiser as part of Adm. Karl Donitz's operation to help save military personnel and civilians from the Soviet onslaught. However, the effort came late: The Nazis forbade inhabitants of the eastern provinces to vacate before 1945, and soon, escaping by land would be impossible and by sea, frequently catastrophic. Thousands of refugees swarmed the port at Gotenhafen, waiting for days before boarding one of the available vessels, of which the Wilhelm Gustloff was the largest. Prince has scoured the planet for survivors, treating their harrowing stories with gentle empathy, from the first sickening bolts of the torpedoes to the chaos and terror of the ship's swift sinking as passengers fell into the freezing water, clambered for lifeboats and watched loved ones disappear in the tumult. Prince's detail extends to the experience of the troubled Soviet captain of the S-13 submarine, Alexander Marinesko, considered a hero for having "destroyed the symbol of Nazism itself." An engaging study of a shocking tragedy, in which the author takes pains to view all sides.
Military History Magazine

Based on German and Russian records, as well as material gained from interviews with survivors, author Prince has written a gripping account of one of the least-known human disasters of World War II.
The Spectator

In describing the experiences of survivors, whom she has been adept in tracing, the journalist Cathryn Prince gives voices to 'ordinary people who suffered during extraordinary times' -- and does so with scrupulous empathy.
Warfare magazine

A must-read for anyone wanting to examine the effects of the War on both sides.
Water Street Bookstore Jean-Paul Adriaansen

If you think that the sinking of the Titanic was the worst maritime disaster ever, then you're wrong….Amazing and harrowing story, well written and documented.
author of The Forgotten 500 Gregory A. Freeman

Death in the Baltic is the engrossing story of a tragedy that should never have been forgotten. With the grace of a writer who truly feels the loss of thousands in the cold waters of the Baltic Sea, Cathryn J. Prince has preserved their memory and improved our sense of history.
author of A Grand Complication Stacy Perman

Cathryn Prince reaches into the dark corners of history, and draws attention to this unreported tragedy through the experiences of the people who lived it.
award-winning author of Uncommon Valor Dwight Jon Zimmerman

With Death in the Baltic author Cathryn J. Prince recounts an important but little known aspect of World War II. Rich in detail, drama, and tragedy, Prince's gripping narrative skillfully interweaves the traumatic events of the final weeks of the war with moving stories of survivors of a maritime disaster which claimed more lives than the sinking of the Titanic.
award-winning author of Gated Grief Leila Levinson

Death in the Baltic tells a gripping, invaluable story. Out of a desire for vengeance and recognition, one Soviet submarine commander caused the deaths of thousands of refugees, deaths that the victors of World War II chose to ignore. Cathryn Prince breaks the silence around the devastation many German civilians suffered at the end of the war. Parting the curtain on the "collateral damage" the Allied Forces accepted as a necessary strategy for defeating Hitler, Death in the Baltic reveals that war's trauma spares no one.
History Today

The story of the sinking of the Willhelm Gustloff is still unkown to a majority of non-Germans…It is certainly a grimly fascinating story, not least because of the wealth of human interest that it contains…Cathryn Prince tells the story of the Gustloff briskly and engagingly…making good use of the eyewitness accounts of the survivors.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780230341562
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 4/9/2013
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 9.10 (w) x 6.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Cathryn J. Prince is the author of A Professor, a President, and a Meteor: The Birth of American Science, for which she won the Connecticut Press Club’s 2011 Book Award for non-fiction. She is also the author of Burn the Town and Sack the Banks: Confederates Attack Vermont! and Shot from the Sky: American POWs in Switzerland. She worked as a correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor in Switzerland and in New York, where she covered the United Nations. Prince works as a freelance journalist.

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Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Acknowledgments
Introduction
Chapter One: "You Have to Go On This Ship"
Chapter Two: Hitler's Hostages: Life in the Eastern Territories
Chapter Three: Operation Hannibal and the Crown of the Fleet--the Wilhelm Gustloff
Chapter Four: "We Knew We Had to Get Out"
Chapter Five: Saving a Scuttled Reputation
Chapter Six: Battle for the Baltic
Chapter Seven: Chaos on Deck
Chapter Eight: Plummeting to the Sea Floor
Chapter Nine: The Little Red Sweater
Chapter Ten: Forgotten Story
Chapter Eleven: "We Had To Get Over It"
Appendix
Bibliography

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 7 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 29, 2014

    I have studied the available documentation about this tragic


    I have studied the available documentation about this tragic event for many years because my wife and 7 of her family members were on board when the Wilhelm Gustloff sank.

    When I read this book I was shocked at the number of incorrect historical facts and downright silly errors. For example;

    1. On page 29 Prince tells us that Stutthoff Concentration Camp was liberated by the Russians in 1944. Then on page 82-84 Prince she tells us that in January 1945 the Russians were about to overrun Stutthoff. The camp guards forced 50,000 prisoners to march out of the camp. 5,000 were forced into the Baltic see where they were shot or drowned. The rest were force marched west. .

    Here is the Holocaust Encyclopaedia’s version# of what happened:

    “The evacuation of prisoners from the Stutthof camp system in northern Poland began in January 1945. When the final evacuation began, there were nearly 50,000 prisoners, the overwhelming majority of them Jews, in the Stutthof camp system. About 5,000 prisoners from Stutthof subcamps were marched to the Baltic Sea coast, forced into the water, and machine gunned. The rest of the prisoners were marched in the direction of Lauenburg in eastern Germany. They were cut off by advancing Soviet forces. The Germans forced the surviving prisoners back to Stutthof. Marching in severe winter conditions and treated brutally by SS guards, thousands died during the march“.

    “In late April 1945, the remaining prisoners were removed from Stutthof by sea, since Stutthof was completely encircled by Soviet forces. Again, hundreds of prisoners were forced into the sea and shot. Over 4,000 were sent by small boat to Germany, some to the Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg, and some to camps along the Baltic coast. Many drowned along the way. Shortly before the German surrender, some prisoners were transferred to Malmo, Sweden, and released to the care of that neutral country. It has been estimated that over 25,000 prisoners, one in two, died during the evacuation from Stutthof and its subcamps.”

    “Soviet forces liberated Stutthof on May 9, 1945, and liberated about 100 prisoners who had managed to hide during the final evacuation of the camp.”

    2. On page 58 Prince states that “The New York Times noted the ship’s antiaircraft guns and questioned whether the Gustloff might eventually be deployed as an aircraft carrier”. She cites the New York Times article dated May 1, 1938 titled “Reich’s Cruise Ships Held Potential Plane Carriers”.

    This article does indeed talk about the Gustloff’s potential to be converted into an aircraft carrier but it does not say anything about the Gustloff’s antiaircraft guns. In January 1945, Lt. Cdr Zahn, the Gustloff’s Military Transport Officer, was concerned about air attacks during the Gustloff‘s trip from Gotenhafen to Kiel.. He had the guns installed a few days before the Gustloff sailed. In fact Zahn had to bribe the Polish crane operators with 10 bottles of schnapps in order to get the guns on board the W.G.

    3. On page 58 Prince refers to the Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion. While the Condor Legion# name was given to it by Goering the Condor Legion (German: Legion Condor) was a unit composed of volunteers from the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) and from the German Army (Wehrmacht Heer) which served with the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War of July 1936 to March 1939.

    4. On page 59 Prince states, “ The Gustloff was a floating hospital ship until 1940”. In fact the Gustloff was a floating hospital ship from September 22, 1939 until November 20, 1940. In the late summer of 1940, the Gustloff was ordered to prepare for operations during the planned Invasion of England. The British Royal Air Force defeated the Luftwaffe over the English Channel and the German plan to win air superiority over Southern Britain and the English Channel as a prerequisite to the attack caused Hitler to cancel the invasion of Britain. . On October 20th, 1940, the Gustloff sailed again to Oslo and took on 414 wounded for transport back to Swinemünde. Shortly after this trip, the Gustloff ended its service as a Lazarettschiff . It was directed to Gotenhafen for serve as a barracks ship for the U-boot arm of the Kriegsmarine#.

    5. On page 59 Prince states, “Then, when the British blockaded the German coastline, the Gustloff housed U-boat crewmen undergoing training….”. A blockade of the German Coastline at this time never occurred.
    . Wikipedia defines a blockade as an effort to cut off food, supplies, war material or communications from a particular area by force, either in part or totally. Actually, from 1939–1940, the German U-boats attempted to blockade Great Britain and from 1939-1945 they attempted to blockade the North American coastline from delivering supplies to the Allies in Europe.

    6. In the photo of Milda Benrich and baby Inga following page 112. the caption states,” Inga aged two remains the youngest known survivor of the Wilhelm Gustloff”.

    The youngest known survivor was Egbert Wörner, born 29 January 1945 on the W.G. 24 hours before the "Wilhelm Gustloff"#sinking#.

    Also, it is well documented, and Prince also wrote about the last survivor picked up by VP-1703 at the bottom of page 159. Prince refers to an infant boy adopted by Petty Officer Fick and his wife, but she does not mention his age. In their books Schön# and Dobson# estimate Peter Fick (adopted name) to be one year old at the time.

    3. On P.117, last paragraph, Prince refers to Friedrich Petersen as the ship’s military captain. He was the ship’s civilian captain.

    4. On P.118 Prince states that the ship had 22 lifeboats . While this was the official compliment of lifeboats4 the ship left port with only 12 of the original boats. It is well documented the Harbormaster requisitioned 10 of the boats for other uses during the four years the Gustloff was docked for use as a training centre. The Gustloff was able to replace the missing boats with 18 small, heavily oared craft normally used by U-boat cadets for elementary sea training. These boats were lashed to the sundeck along with a number of naval life rafts

    5. P. 119-120 Prince wrote that 13 members of the Danzig burgermeister’s (mayor’s) group, including the country’s Nazi Party leader, his wife, their 5 children, a maid and a parlor maid1took over the Adolph Hitler suite. Prince’s footnote reference was Hasting;‘s book , Armageddon, p328. In my copy of , Armageddon there is no mention of the above on page 328. However, on page 285 Hastings states that the officials and their family are from Gdynia, which is the Polish name for Gotenhafen, (not Danzig, which was later named Gdansk).
    Also Prince refers to the country’s Nazi Party leader. This would be a Gauleiter. Hastings says it was the Gotenhafen Kreisleiter, the local Nazi Party leader for Gotenhafen.

    Prussia had 2 Nazi Party leaders. Albert Forster was Gauleiter of Danzig-West Prussia and Erich Koch was Gauleiter for East Prussia. Neither were on the Gustloff. At war’s Forster surrendered to the British who handed him to communist Poland. He was condemned to death by the Polish court for crimes against humanity in 1948 and hanged on February 28, 1952 in Mokotów Prison in Warsaw. His wife, who had not heard from him since 1949, found out about his death in 1954. Koch was responsible for the evacuation of Germans from East Prussia. Prince talks about hia post war fate on Page 177.

    The Kreisleiter for Gotenhafen was Arthur Diethelm. I could not find any information on him post the Gustloff sinking indicating he was the Nazi Party Leader on board the Gustloff.

    6. On p.123 Prince states that Lt. Cdr. Zahn is 35 Years old. On p.125 she says he’

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 9, 2013

    This book was an amazing read. The narrative was gripping and le

    This book was an amazing read. The narrative was gripping and learning the back story of all the people most compelling.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 8, 2013

    Who edited this book?

    I disagree with a previous review. This book is neither concise nor readable. The information is disorganized and repetitive. I have read three times about the same family raising rabbits and chickens. In another two paragraph section, the timeline jumps from 1937 to 1938 and back. A man dies in the first paragraph and yet in the next is commanding a rescue operation.

    Most of the book has had nothing to do with the actual voyage or sinking. I have finished half of the book, and no one has boarded the boat. I get the impression the author had to digress and repeat to have enough pages to be published. Feels like an undergraduate history paper with a word count minimum. Book had great potential with an interesting subject, but fails in execution.

    Two stars instead of one because of author's detailed research.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 20, 2013

    Prince tells the tragic story of the Wilhelm Gustloff and its pa

    Prince tells the tragic story of the Wilhelm Gustloff and its passengers in a concise, readable and vivid way. She did track down survivors and was able to coax painful memories out of them much to the benefit of the reader.
    A well balanced account that reads like a novel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 20, 2013

    Insightful. Fascinating and meticulously researched. 

    Insightful. Fascinating and meticulously researched. 

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 11, 2013

    Great WW II insight.

    Very well written.Most informative, educational and historical

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 12, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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