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

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

by Cathryn J. Prince
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Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff by Cathryn J. Prince

The worst maritime disaster ever occurred during World War II, when more than 9,000 German civilians drowned. It went unreported.

January 1945: The outcome of World War II has been determined. The Third Reich is in free fall as the Russians close in from the east. Berlin plans an eleventh-hour exodus for the German civilians trapped in the Red Army's way. More than 10,000 women, children, sick, and elderly pack aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a former cruise ship. Soon after the ship leaves port and the passengers sigh in relief, three Soviet torpedoes strike it, inflicting catastrophic damage and throwing passengers into the frozen waters of the Baltic.

More than 9,400 perished in the night—six times the number lost on the Titanic. Yet as the Cold War started no one wanted to acknowledge the sinking. Drawing on interviews with survivors, as well as the letters and diaries of those who perished, award-wining author Cathryn Prince reconstructs this forgotten moment in history. She weaves these personal narratives into a broader story, finally giving this WWII tragedy its rightful remembrance.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781137333568
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 04/09/2013
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 253,200
File size: 3 MB

About 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 covers the Connecticut State House for

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Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
BigbearBH More than 1 year ago
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’s 33. His birth date is documented by Heinz Schön, the expert on the Gustloff sinking, as 29 Jul 10, making him 34 on January 30, 1945. 7. P.56, Prince says the 63 year old Captain Petersen took charge of the W.G when the first captain, Karl Lübbe died on board ship in April 1938. Then on p.6, p.125 and p.173 Prince continually refers to 63 year old Captain Petersen. when talking about him in reference to the Gustloff in January 1945. Petersen was captured by Allies early in the war. They released him on February 20, 1944 at age 66 on a promise not to sail a ship . He was 58 when he sailed on the Gustloff in 1938 and 67 when on the Gustloff in 1945. 8. P. 125 Prince states that Petersen and Zahn settled on a zigzag pattern for the course to Kiel, It is well documented that for a number of reasons the zigzag pattern was not feasible. In fact on p.174 Prince quotes [Rear] Admiral Englehardt as saying, “at least one has to ask why the ship’s leadership didn’t go high speed and zigzag”. 9. P. 130 Prince states that the crew divided up the hundreds of wounded on board and billeted them. There were only 162 wounded on board. 10. P. 134 Prince states, “Captain Wilhelm Petersen ordered sailors to secure the lifeboats…..”. Does she mean Captain Wilhelm Zahn or Captain Friedrich Petersen? 11. P. 142 The word cleaving should be clinging. 12. P.149 Prince says the S-13 lurked off the port side of the boat waiting to fire a 4th torpedo into the [Gustloff] or a rescue boat. On p. 131 she says the Russian sub fired all 4 torpedoes, but the one marked “For Stalin” jammed in the torpedo tube with its primer armed. [The Russians were busy trying to disarm it before it blew them up. This is well documented elsewhere.] 13. P. 149 Prince states that Horst Woit, 10 years old at the time, claims the Gustloff sunk at 10:30 PM, about 90 minutes after the 1st torpedo hit. I did not find this information in Woit’s account on the Gustloff Museum website. Prince did not footnote this statement. In Vollrath’s Sea Breeze’s account he states the Gustloff sank at 22:10, one hour after the 1st torpedo hit at 21.09 Max Hastings says it was 21:04 in his book, Armageddon , p 286, and Schön says in his book, Die Gustloff Katastrphe, p307 the 1st torpedo hit at 21:16 (he looked at the clock just before it hit) and the ship sank at 22:00. That’s only 44 minutes. Prince’s statement of Woit’s account says the Gustloff was afloat for more than half an hour longer than it was according to other testimony. 14. P.156 Prince states “Shortly after midnight, nearly two hours after the S-13 fired its first torpedo at the Gustloff, the Löwe moved along side Vollrath’s lifeboat.” If the 1st torpedo hit the Gustloff at between 21:04 and 21:16 , then my math says “Shortly after midnight” is Three hours after the 1st torpedo hit, not two hours. 15. P.158 Prince says their were 69 people in Hoist’s life boat, and that some slipped into the water and drown; then on page 159 Prince says there were 70 people transferred from the lifeboat to the Löwe. 16. P.164 Prince says that most casualties of the army, Luftwaffe and other refugees were not identified. While the Heer, Kriegsmarine (KM) and Marinehelferin are well documented I have never seen a reference to the Luftwaffe being on board. Normally military personnel moves would be documented and accounted for by their failure to report for duty after the sinking. Where did her info come from? My reference says that out of 918 Kriegsmarine 516 survived, out of 373 Marinehelferin 123 survived and out of 173 crew members 83 survived. Also, it was noted that out of 3,150 documented children on board only about 100 survived. It does not mention whether any of the undocumented children were included in the 100 count. 17. P 177 Prince says that [Erich] Koch escaped East Prussia in April 23, 1945, aboard an icebreaker from Pillau. His flight was interrupted when the British caught him on the island of Ruegen…….Koch stood trial in 1958 in Poland….. According to Wikepedia who quote Ian Kershaw, The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1944-1945, p. 319 Koch was captured by British forces in Hamburg in May 1949. 18. P.174 Prince calls the Captain of the T-36, Admiral Robert Hering. His actual rank was Kapitänleutnant, which is equivalent to a U.S. Navy Lieutenant. A far cry from an admiral. Furthermore, she says Admiral Hering of the T-36 exchanged letters with Admiral Englehardt for decades after the war. On page 49 Prince calls him Vice Admiral Conrad Engelhardt. On page 84 she refers to him Rear Admiral Conrad Engelhardt. On page 154 she calls him Vice Admiral Conrad Engelhardt. On page 172 she goes back to Rear Admiral Conrad Englehardt. On page 174 Prince calls him Admiral Conrad Engelhardt. Finally, on page 179 Prince refers to him by his correct name and rank, Rear Admiral Konrad Engelhardt. 19. P. 179 Prince stated that the German leadership imposed a silence on the survivors for months and years following the sinking. The war was over by early May 1945. Why would post Nazi Germany’s leadership tell survivors to keep quiet about the sinking for years after. On Nov. 12, 1948 the German newspaper, “Christ Und Welt” No. 24 printed the Gustloff story titled, “Die Katastrophe der Flüchtlingsschiffe 1945” (The Catastrophe of the Refugee Ship 1945). At the time my in-laws said that the sinking of the W.G. was kept quiet but they were never told by anyone not to speak about it. Besides this was a minor event compared to the death camps, the Nuremburg Trials and the cold war. 20. P.184 Prince says that the Tschinkurs received visas to immigrate to Regina, Ontario. Regina is a city in the province of Saskatchewan not in the province of Ontario. In Canada a province is analogous to a state in the U.S.A. 21. P. 188 Prince says that there were thousands of soldiers and sailors on board [the Gustloff], many of whom were destined to replenish German troops. The use of the word thousands of soldiers and sailors is an exaggeration in reference to the Gustloff sinking. There were 918 Kriegsmarine, 162 wounded, 373 women’s auxiliaries (who were not regular military), about 1,500 military personnel if you count a few unnamed military staff supporting the wounded. 22. In Prince’s Appendix she lists Heinz Schön’s survivor tally by rescue boat incorrectly: She lists Minensuchboot (minesweeper) M 387/TS II as Minensuchboot M375ITS 8 twice, although she got the number of survivors right, then she omits Minensuchboot M 341 and its 37 survivors. So her count was only 1,215 survivors rather than Schön’s 1,252 I believe the first book about the Gustloff sinking was SOS Schicksale Deutscher Schiffe, Katastrophe bei Nacht (in German) by Otto Mielke Nov. 23 1953. Unfortunately the good English books on this event such as A.V. Sellwood‘s, The Damned Don’t Drown, 1973 and Dobson, Miller & Payne, The Cruellest Night, 1979, are out of print. If anyone wants to learn about the Gustloff sinking they should Google the Wilhelm Gustloff Museum annexed save their money on the purchase of Prince’s book. There are also documentaries on U Tube. .ee
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was an amazing read. The narrative was gripping and learning the back story of all the people most compelling.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Insightful. Fascinating and meticulously researched. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very well written.Most informative, educational and historical