In 1933 the German Nazi recreational organisation “Kraft durch Freude” (Strength through Joy), or KdF, was founded. It organised various leisure activities including physical education, swimming lessons, concerts, adult education and, in particular, trips and holidays for the German population.
The cruise ship Wilhelm Gustloff was built in 1936–38 at the Blohm & Voss shipyard in Hamburg. The ship was owned by Deutsche Arbeitsfront, and KdF was in charge of the ship’s operations. Holiday trips were arranged to places like Norway and Italy. In 1939, the ship travelled to Stockholm for an international physical education camp called Lingiaden.
The ship that was named after a Nazi Germany politician measured over 200 metres long and could carry nearly 1,500 passengers. When the Second World War broke out, the Wilhelm Gustloff was converted into a hospital ship and was named Hospital Ship B. Later, she was assigned to be a training ship for the Second Submarine Training Division in Gotenhafen (in present-day Gdynia, Poland).
At the beginning of 1945, Russian troops were rapidly advancing and pushing the German troops, people who were wounded, refugees and others towards the Polish port cities. An evacuation of the people was necessary.
At the end of January, the Wilhelm Gustloff took about 10,000 people on board. These included submarine crew members, naval officers, wounded soldiers, women, children and others. Conditions on board were demanding, and the freezing January temperatures at 18 degrees below zero didn’t make life any easier.
At the same time, Russian submarines in the sea lurked outside Gdansk Bay, including the submarine S13 under the command of Alexander Marinesko.
On the evening of 30 January, the Wilhelm Gustloff was struck by three torpedoes from S13. The first torpedo hit the ship’s bow, and the other struck near the swimming pool where almost 400 naval officers were placed. The third torpedo struck near the engine room, which quickly filled with water.
The torpedoing of the Wilhelm Gustloff attracted the attention of a great many ships, which rushed to the site to offer rescue assistance. Despite this, an estimated 9,000 people or more died.
Today, the Wilhelm Gustloff is located at a depth of nearly 50 metres and is classified as a war grave.