The name Titanic became synonymous with disaster after the ocean liner sank on its maiden voyage in 1912, causing more than 1,500 people to die. However, that tragedy is far from the world’s worst maritime disaster, in terms of loss of life.
History’s deadliest shipwreck occurred in 1945, when some 9,000 people perished after a German vessel, the Wilhelm Gustloff, was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine in the Baltic Sea.
On January 30, 1945, some 9,000 people perished aboard this German ocean liner after it was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine and sank in the frigid waters of the Baltic Sea. The Gustloff, named for a Nazi leader in Switzerland assassinated in 1936, was constructed as a cruise ship for the Nazis’ “Kraft durch Freude” (“Strength through Joy”) program, which provided recreational activities for working-class Germans. Adolf Hitler launched the 684-foot-long, 25,000-ton vessel in 1937. However, its cruising career was brief; after World War II began in 1939, the German military converted the Gustloff into a hospital then later used it as a U-boat training school.
In January 1945, as the Soviet army advanced on East Prussia, the Nazis launched Operation Hannibal, a mass naval evacuation of German military personnel and civilians from the region. On January 30, as part of Operation Hannibal, the Gustloff left the East Prussian port of Gotenhafen (which today is the Polish city of Gdynia) bound for Kiel, Germany. The Soviet submarine S-13 soon spotted the Gustloff and blasted it with three torpedoes. The German liner sank within 90 minutes, about 12 nautical miles off Stolpe Bank near present-day Poland. Historians now estimate that only about 1,000 of the approximately 10,000 people aboard the Gustloff survived, making it the deadliest maritime disaster in history.
In the aftermath, the world learned little about the disaster for a variety of reasons. The Nazi regime kept news of the sinking out of the headlines and censored survivors, and some survivors kept quiet because they felt guilty about their German heritage and the atrocities Nazi Germany had inflicted on millions of people.