Most people are familiar with the sinking of the RMS Titanic. Still, not many have ever heard of the deadliest maritime disaster of all time - the sinking of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff on January 30, 1945, which killed 9,343 people. The Wilhelm Gustloff was a German luxury ocean liner that was initially meant to be used for leisure travel by high ranking National Socialists. Originally, the ship was to be named Adolf Hitler but instead was christened after the leader of the National Socialist Party, Wilhelm Gustloff, was assassinated. The vessel was built to accommodate 1900 people, and by the end of World War II, the ocean liner joined the war effort and was converted into a hospital ship used to transport injured naval men.
Wilhelm Gustloff’s role changed again because of Operation Hannibal, a mass evacuation plan of all German troops and civilians from the advancing Red Army.
8,956 refugees, mostly women and children - Prussians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles, Estonians, and Germans - climbed aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff to escape the Red Army. Also on board were 162 wounded military personnel, 918 newly trained submarine cadets, 373 female naval auxiliary helpers, and 173 naval armed forces auxiliaries.
The Wilhelm Gustloff and her escort, a German torpedo boat, were spotted by the Soviet submarine S-13, which fired three torpedos, causing the ocean liner to sink into the Bay of Danzig. Within 40 minutes of being struck, the ship was on its side, and after 10 minutes she sank. Thousands were trapped on the ship, and some jumped into the freezing Baltic Sea and died. Out of the 10, 582 people on board, only 1,252 people survived.
One of the survivors was a 19-year-old man named Heinz Schön, who worked as an assistant purser. Some important details of the Wilhelm Gustloff are still a mystery, but thanks to Schön, who dedicated his entire life to piecing together information on this tragedy, we have some answers.