To inspire German workers to work harder at their jobs, the propaganda department of the Nazi “Strength Through Joy,” Kraft durch Freude, (KdF), workers program suggested the use of cruises as an inducement. Using leased ocean liners starting in 1933, the first cruises were a huge success. Robert Ley, who ran the KdF, commissioned the construction of two new, first ever, European purpose-built, cruise ships as a result of this popularity. These ships were critical for propaganda uses both inside and outside of Germany, but there were other purposes, quietly understated, in their design that only became apparent after the war began.
These two KdF cruise ships looked dramatically different from the ocean liners of the day. This was an important propaganda point. Liners transported people, luggage, and cargoes from point to point across the sea. They had long bows filled with king posts, derricks, masts and other machinery used to stow cargo in the holds whose hatches were inter-mixed amongst the equipment needed to handle the ship. Though the first KdF leased or requisitioned ships were ocean liners, the newly designed KdF cruise ships, Motor Ship (MS) Adolph Hitler and MS Robert Ley, were dramatically different with their short bows and no hold spaces for cargo. The sole, stated reason for their existence was to take workers on pleasure cruises.
David F. Krawczyk, on his site Wilhelm Gustloff.com, writes, “From a naval perspective, the specifications of the Wilhelm Gustloff are not exceedingly groundbreaking. However, from a cruise ship standpoint, the ship is an impressive and unique achievement. When Blohm & Voss had been commissioned by the KdF to build the world’s most advanced cruise ship (in January 1936), the key requirements had been: Large free decks….free of obstructions; adequate space for all to lie down on deck; promote interaction between passengers and crew. Large bright halls with comfortable seating…dining halls which would be reserved for eating only. All passengers accommodated in outer cabins only…would ensure that every guest would have an optimal view. All cabins to be created equivalent in size…regardless of status - crew or passenger.”
The first KdF cruise ship, to be named the MS Adolf Hitler, which began construction in 1933 at Blohm & Voss at a cost of 25 million Reichmarks. Just as she was ready to be launched on February 4, 1936, Wilhelm Gustloff, leader of the German Nazis in Switzerland, was assassinated by David Frankfurter, a young Yugoslavian Jew. Mr. Gustloff became a Nazi martyr. His death was used as an excuse for anti-Semitic excesses, while his name became a propaganda tool. Immediately Robert Ley changed the new KdF ship’s name to the MS Wilhelm Gustloff. Gustloff’s Widow stood alongside Hitler in a dramatic propaganda pose as the Gustloff slid down the ways in May of 1937. After she completed her sea trials in March of 1938, she made over 50 excursions and provided over 65,000 vacationers experiences they would never forget in the next 17 months.
The second KdF ship came off the ways from Howaldt in Hamburg. Named the Robert Ley after the leader of the “Strength Through Joy” movement, she was launched on March 29, 1938. Again, Adolf Hitler took the time to be present. After fitting out, she was put into service September 22, 1939.
After the invasion of Poland, the Wilhelm Gustloff was “requisitioned” into the Kriegsmarine (German Navy), and she became an auxiliary hospital ship with simple adaptations to her basic design that had originally included unusually large medical facilities. The crew debated if the Gustloff was designed with this in mind from the beginning. She made trips to Norway, then later she was moved to Stettin awaiting orders for the invasion of England as part of Operation Sea Lion. When the invasion was cancelled, the demand for hospital ships diminished. On October 22nd, the Gustloff was sent one last time to Oslo to collect 414 wounded soldiers then she was transferred to the Navy. The Gustloff spent the next four years as a U boat barracks ship in Danzig, another task to which she again easily adapted.
After showing the flag and serving as a KdF cruise ship for only two months, The Robert Ley soon followed the course of her sister ship the Gustloff. She was commissioned as a hospital ship then later used as an accommodation ship until 1944. With her wide promenades and large public rooms, she also adapted easily to barracks use.
In January 1945, with the British and the Americans advancing from the West and the Russians pinching in from the East, the Robert Ley and the Wilhelm Gustloff became part of the giant flotilla of ships sent to rescue thousands of panicked German citizens from the Eastern Front. As the Russians grew closer, theaters showed newsreels of Russian rape and murder in reprisal for earlier German atrocities. When news of the massacres in Nemmersdorf reached the Germans in the East, panic increased. Thousands crushed into Danzig hoping for passage home. As the roads were closed because of the weather, thousands more died trying to cross frozen lakes into Danzig.
Krawczyk writes, “Despite Hitler’s refusal to yield an inch, Gross Admiral Karl Dönitz of the Navy manages to send the one word coded signal ‘HANNIBAL’ on January 21, the signal for his submariners to flee to the West. Unlike Hitler, Dönitz accepts the true nature of the desperate situation and uses this opportunity to evacuate all Germans possible – including refugees.”
Though Gustloff’s engines haven’t run for four years, she’s made ready to take on thousands of refugees. The Ley too begins making trips immediately. In March of 1945, after returning from Danzig to Hamburg, RAF bombs hit the Ley and she burned out completely. Her wreck sat abandoned in the harbor until 1947 when she was towed to England and scrapped.
“Minus 18° Celsius (0° Fahrenheit) weather grips the Oxhöft Pier in Gotenhafen (Gdynia) on Tuesday the January 30th,” writes Krawcsyk. Ten thousand German citizens crush aboard the Gustloff and settle into assigned spaces. Music blares from the loudspeakers. Four captains argue on the bridge, and, below decks, many of the refugees take off their life jackets in the heat. “The "German Dunkirk" spearheaded by Gross Admiral Dönitz is about to begin.”
Life boats that had been removed are located and reinstalled as the panic to board increases. Children are separated from their parents, and the crush on the gangways throws some children into the freezing waters below. The bitter cold penetrates everything as the last of the crowds push on board. In the increasing snow and sleet, the lines are cast off.
At 2108 January 30, 1945, the Soviet sub S-13, commanded by Alexander Marinesko, hit the Gustloff with a spread of three torpedoes. The first hit the bow in the crew quarters. The second torpedo hit the drained swimming pool where the nurses were bunkered sending splintered tiles out like shrapnel, and the third blew the engine room shutting down all power.
The Gustloff’s captain closes the bulkhead doors trapping the crews who knew how to handle the lifeboats in the bow. Emergency power is started and the Gustloff’s wireless sends an SOS while flares are sent skyward. PA messages ask everyone to stay calm, but no one does. Hundreds die as they attempt to get to the boat decks. Thousands more die in the icy waters of the Baltic Sea.
“In under 50 minutes time, the Gustloff was gone…with 9,343 men, women and children (dead)….1,239 people were saved by a number of German ships in the area,” writes Jason Pipes in A History of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Days later, the small patrol boat, Vorpostenboot 1703, was searching through the lifeboats, one last time, and discovered a one year old child still alive.
Krawcsyk eloquently writes, “We will never know the exact number of those who perished in the Gustloff tragedy because crew members lost count as thousands of refugees jammed every corner of the ship. Regardless, historians commonly agree that it is the most deadly single ship disaster ever. For years, estimates of those who lost their lives ranged from 5,000 to 10,000. Now it is generally agreed to be well over 9,000.”
The news of this worst sea tragedy of all times quietly vanished as the war ground toward its end. Krawcsyk writes, “News of the Gustloff’s sinking is not reported within the remains of the Third Reich. Obviously Hitler can not bear to bring more bad news to his collapsing regime. With the exception of minor mention in a couple of newspapers, it also remains largely unreported in western Allied countries. Official bulletins in the Soviet Union make no mention of it.”
Even today, he notes, that the life and demise of both these once great, propaganda cruise ships is rarely mentioned. Few who took cruises will discuss their vacations. The sinking and the deaths of the women and children aboard the Gustloff was repressed and is rarely mentioned in Germany or by the survivors fifty years after the sinking. In the final days of the war, no one had time to concern themselves with the Gustloff losses. Later fear and shame are a factor in the continuing repression of the disaster. Not only did this sinking happen in wartime, but it happened to the losing side.
In the end, even today, history is written by the victors.
This essay was begun in march of 2009, read to the poetry group in June of that year. It was published here in June of 09. It’s been freshly edited and read again to the Writers Group in June of 2011.
Ships owned or controlled by the KdF: Gustloff and Ley were owned
Der Deutsche: (11.430BRT)
Line: North German Lloyd Company / Nord-deutscher Lloyd: Sierra Morena: 1935 sold (Requisitioned) to Nazi Deutsche Arbeitsfront for Strength Through Joy cruising renamed Der Deutsche. 1946 became Russian owned Asia.
Monte Olivia: (14.000BRT)
Monte Sarmiento: (14.000BRT)
Robert Ley: (27.288BRT)
Sierra Cordoba: (11.469BRT)
WILHELM GUSTLOFF: 1937 (25.484BRT)
KdF: Kraft durch Freude history
Maritime Quest: Wm Gustloff
feldgrau.com: Wm Gustloff
Robert Ley and the KdF cruises
Hitler aboard the Robert Ley
Ships descriptions, ship list
Cruising the past
Wilm Gustloff resources page
Dive images Gustloff
Ley discussed KdF
German hospital ship list with links