The Narrow Escapes of World War Two series on the Yesterday tv channel this week featured the worst maritime disaster in history. On the night of 30 January 1945, the German cruise liner, the Wilhelm Gustloff was carrying more than 10,000 refugees, soldiers and sailors, packed like sardines, trying to escape the advancing Red Army.
The vessel was heading along the Baltic coast from Gdynia in what was still occupied Poland towards Kiel when it was hit by three torpedoes from the Russian submarine, S-13, about 20 miles off shore.
The captain had reluctantly put on the ship’s navigation lights in order to avoid a collision with German naval vessels in the area, and this had made it a highly visible target for the submarine. In the resulting nightmare with icy Baltic water pouring into the ship, some passengers simply decided to end it all, and shot themselves.
A few people managed to get into lifeboats, and about 400 were picked up by a German destroyer, but altogether it is thought that no more than 1,000 people survived. For the full story, see A Disastrous History of the World.