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The Heroic Deed of Marinesko and the Tragedy of the German “Gustloff”

Alexander Marinesko is one of the most controversial figures of the Great Patriotic War, who is still a subject of much controversy and is in the limelight of heated debates. There are different opinions about him ranging from praise to accusations of a war crime. He is a person covered with a lot of myths and legends. First, he was undeservedly forgotten only to be resurrected later.


Nowadays, the Russians are proud of him and perceive him as a national hero. A monument dedicated to him was erected in the city of Kaliningrad last year, while his name was registered in the “Golden Book of Saint-Petersburg”. There have been published a lot of books describing this heroic deed, one of them is a recently published “Submariner ¹1” written by Vladimir Borisov. It is worth mentioning that the Germans still can not forgive him for the sinking of their large ship “Wilhelm Gustloff”. In Russia this legendary historic episode is called “the torpedo attack of the century”, whereas the Germans believe it to be the disastrous sea catastrophe, almost as horrible and devastating as the wreck of the “Titanic”.

I think it will not be an exaggeration to say that the name of Marinesko is known to almost everyone, and the topic of the German “Gustloff”, many years since this shipwreck, is still the cause of grief and public stir. Especially in the recent years after a sensational novel “Crabwalk”, which was destined to become a bestseller, has been published in Germany. Its author, Gunter Grass, is a famous German writer, the Nobel Prize winner, who unveils the un-known facts of how the Eastern Germans fled north and vividly describes in detail the sinking of the "Wilhelm Gustloff", which is, actually, in the spotlight of this story. To many Germans this novel appeared to be some kind of revelation…

It is not accidental that the sinking of the “Gustloff” is called a “concealed tragedy” because none of the parties disclosed any information about it, and the truth was concealed for a very long time. We always used to say that there were highly-trained and experienced German submariners, the pick of the German Navy, on board of that ship, but we did not even mention a word about thousands of refugees; and the post-war generation of the German people, brought up with the deep-seated feeling of repentance for the crimes, committed by the Nazi, kept this story secret out of fear that they would be blamed for and accused of revanchism. Those who yet took the liberty of speaking publicly of those fallen dead on the “Gustloff”, of all the horrors of the Germans escaping from the Eastern Prussia were immediately labeled and perceived as the “extreme Right’. It is only after the Berlin Wall collapse and Germany entering the European Union that it became possible to talk more freely about all those things and look in the eastern direction with less agitation and alarm…

The Price for the "Attack of the Century"

Whether we want it or not, but one day we all will have to face this question: what did Marinesko sink, after all? Was it a German warship carrying top-flight specialists, the veritable cream of Hitler’s infamous submarine fleet, or was it just a hospital-ship with refugees and wounded men on board? What actually happened in the Baltic Sea on 30 January, 1945?

Back in those days, the Soviet Army was swiftly advancing due North in the direction of Konigsberg and Danzig. Panic-stricken and afraid of retribution for the Nazi’s crimes, thousands of Germans became refugees and were trying to make their way to the city-port Gdyn’, the Germans called it Gotenhafen. On the 21st of January, Gross-Admiral Karl Deniz gave the following order: “All the German ships available must be sent to save from the Soviet Union everything that can be saved”. Officers were ordered to redeploy the students-submariners and their military weapons and equipment and accommodate the refugees, first of all, women and children, in the vacant corners of their ships. The operation under the coded name of “Hannibal” became the biggest evacuation of population in the history of navigation: more than two million people were conveyed to the north.

To many refugees Gotenhafen was the last hope because in this city there were not only large warships but also big liners each of which was capable of taking on board thousands of refugees. One of those liners was the “Wilhelm Gustloff” which was thought by the Germans to be unsinkable. Built in 1937, this wonderful cruise liner with a cinema and swimming pool was the Third Reich’s pride and joy, it was constructed with the purpose to demonstrate the whole world the impressive achievements of the Nazi Germany. Hitler himself participated in the launching of this ship, where his personal stateroom was situated. In order to organize the cultural pastime known as “Strength through joy” and popular entertainment for Hitler and his closest people, this liner during one and a half years was to convey the passengers to Norway and Sweden, and, at the outset of the World War II, the ship became the floating barracks for the students of the 2nd underwater navigation training division.

30 January, 1945, was the day when the “Gustloff” set off from Gotenhafen for her last voyage. The German sources give discrepant information concerning how many refugees and military men were on board that day. As for the refugees, up to 1990, these figures were stable and invariable because many people, who survived this tragedy, lived in the German Democratic Republic where this question was not entitled to be discussed. Now they are free to give testimonial evidence, and the general figure of refugees totals ten thousand people. With respect to the military men, the figures remained more or less unchanged – they are in the range of one and a half thousand soldiers. These calculations were carried out by the “passenger attendants”, one of such people was Heinz Schen who later became the chronicler of the “Gustloff” wreck and the author of several documentary books dedicated to this theme, including “The Catastrophe of Gustloff” and “SOS – Wilhelm Gustloff”.


The submarine “S-13” (of the type S (Stalinets), under the command of Alexander Marinesko, struck the liner with three torpedoes with the deadening roar that survivors described as being hit by a meteor. The passengers, who managed to survive, had the most terrible and dreadful memories of the last minutes of the “Gustloff”. People were trying to escape using the life rafts and rescue vessels, but the majority could stay in the freezing water for only several minutes. Nine ships took part in the “Gustloff” passengers rescue operation. Horrible scenes have imprinted in the memory forever: the children’ heads which were heavier than their legs and that is why there were only their legs on the water surface. Lots of children’ legs…

So, how many of them managed to survive that awful catastrophe? According to the data presented by Schen, 1239 people, half of which, 528 people, were the members of the German naval crew and submarine trainees, survived as well as 123 people of the female naval auxiliary aides, 86 wounded soldiers, 83 crew personnel and only 419 refugees. These figures are well-known in Gernamy and today there is no sense in hiding this information in our country, too. To sum it up, 50% of the German submariners and only 5% of refugees managed to survive. So, what remains is to admit that, for the most part, it was the lives of women and children that were lost during that attack because they were vulnerable and completely defenceless in the face of war. This was the price for the “atack of the century”, and is precisely the reason why nowadays many Germans believe Marinesko’s actions to be a war crime.

Refugees Became Hostages of the Ruthless and Merciless War Machine

However, let us not jump to any hasty conclusions. We need to address this question from a different perspective and look at it as a tragedy of the war. Even the most righteous, defensive war is inhuman and ruthless because it is the peaceful, non-militant population that suffers badly from it. Following the strict, inexorable laws of war, Marinesko had to destroy the enemy warship, and it is no fault of him that this ship was carrying refugees on board. A huge share of responsibility for this tragedy falls on the shoulders of the German headquarters which followed only their military interests totally neglecting the civilians.

The thing is that the “Gustloff” left Gotenhafen without proper escorting and prior to the scheduled date because there was an urgent need to transfer the German submariners from Eastern Prussia which by that time had already been encircled. The Germans knew perfectly well that this sector is especially dangerous for ships. A fatal role in this sea accident was played by the side lights which were turned on on the “Gustloff” after they had received a message that the German minesweeper and trawler units were coming to meet her. It was those side lights that helped Marinesko to spot and detect the liner. And, finally, the liner was sent on her last voyage not as a hospital vessel but as a war transport marked in grey colour and equipped with the complex anti-aircraft weaponry.

Up until now, the Schen’s figures are practically un-known to most of the Russians, and they keep on citing the data suggesting that it was the pick of the German underwater fleet that sank on the “Gustloff”, there were 3 700 seamen, enough men to form whole 70 to 80 submarine crews. This number, taken from the reports published in the Swedish newspaper the “Aftonbladet” of 2 February, 1945, was considered unquestionable and was never subject to any doubts. Even nowadays the legends created as far back as 1960 with a help of the writer Sergey Sergeevich Smirnov, are very popular. He revealed the un-known pages of that war: namely, the heroic deed of Marinesko and the selfless defense of the Brest fortress. But, no, never was Marinesko “Adolf Hitler’s personal enemy”, and never did the German government declare a three-day’s mourning period for the sinking of the “Gustloff”. And the reasons for it were quite evident – thousands more people were waiting their turn to be evacuated by sea and the information about this catastrophe would have spread panic among all of them. The mourning period, however, was declared for Wilhelm Gustloff himself, the leader of the Swiss National-Socialist Party, who was murdered in 1936, and it was his murderer, student David Frankfurter, who was called Hitler’s personal enemy.

I wonder why even in our days we fail to bring ourselves to talk about the real scale and horror of that tragedy? Pitiful though it may seem, but we are afraid that the glory of Marinesko’s legendary deed will fade. However, nowadays, many Germans understand that the German side actually provoked Marinesko and forced him to carry out that historic attack. “This was a brilliant military operation owing to which the Soviet submariners managed to seize the initiative and dominate in the Baltic Sea battle-ground utterly and completely,- says Jury Lebedev, deputy director of the A.I. Marinesko Museum of the Russian Underwater Forces. – Acting as they did, the submarine “S-13” crew advanced the end of the war. It can be rightly considered the huge strategic success of the Soviet Navy while for Germany it was the most disastrous sea catastrophe. The greatness of Marinesko’s deed lies in the fact that he destroyed the symbol of Nazism itself, which seemed unsinkable, the dream-ship emphasizing and promoting the might of the Third Reich. The civilians, who happened to be on the ship, became the hostages of the German war-machine. That is why it is Hitler’s Germany, not Marinesko, that must be blamed for the “Gustloff”’s tragic death.

If we admit the fact that the “Gustloff” carried not only German submariners on her board but also refugees, we will make one more step in the direction of admitting this historic, though most distressing for us, fact. Anyway, we are to find the right solution to this situation because for Germany the “Gustloff” is a symbol of its tragedy while in Russia it is a symbol of our heroic victory. The issue with Marinesko and “Gustloff” is a very complicated and delicate one as it deals not only with our past but also seriously affects future relationships between Russia and Germany. It was not fortuitous that during his recent visit to the A.I. Marinesko Museum of Russian Underwater Forces, Ulrich Schening, Germany Consul General, left the following note in the honorary visitors book: “Sixty years after those tragic events of the World War II, the time has, finally, come for the German and Russian people to be able to build the future together. The sinking of the German liner “Wilhelm Gustloff’ in January, 1945, requires us to do it”.

Today we are presented with a unique opportunity to find reconciliation in such a difficult matter – through historical objectivity, validity and authenticity. We all know that there are no black-and-white colours in history. The uniqueness and singularity of Marinesko lies in the fact that his personality leaves no one indifferent. It is quite possible that this heroic figure is destined to immortality. He has become a legend and will remain one…

Source: www.mediasprut.ru, author: Sergey Glezerov.