… I was weakening because of hypothermia. I grabbed a little sheet-metal raft and tried to keep swimming away from the suction. I was about 50 yards away from the Gustloff and saw the forecastle was already halfway underwater. The stern began to show itself. Hundreds of people were still there, desperately screaming in mortal fear. The ship sank faster and faster. Then suddenly, a deadly silence. The Wilhelm Gustloff had slipped beneath the waves, carrying most of the passengers with her. The greatest and most terrifying naval catastrophe had lasted about 50 minutes. – Oberbootsmannsmaat Karl Hoffmann, Wilhelm Gustloff

The sinking of the Gustloff and Stueben have remained enigmas of war. The stories, just as the wrecks, have remained shrouded in the depths since 1945. Details of these two wrecks are scant facts and figures, few names and even fewer faces can be affixed to these tragedies, and with each passing year, there are fewer survivors to tell the story.

An estimated 10,000 refugees – women and children, the sick, elderly and wounded – died from the torpedo blasts of Soviet Sub S-13 at the command of ‘Hitler’s Number One Enemy,’ Commander Alexander Ivanovitch Marinesko. Was this a deliberate act of war? Was the captain merely following orders? Did he know these were refugee and hospital ships? The more you learn about these forgotten wrecks, the more questions there are to be answered.

Ulrich Restemeyer is a professional wreck diver from Paderborn, Germany. It has been his obsession to locate World War II wrecks in the Baltic Sea. During a 10 year fact finding study, Restemeyer has uncovered startling commentary and details, but more importantly, he has discovered the final resting places of both the Wilhelm Gustloff and the General von Steuben.

Restemeyer studied maps from war archives, eyewitness accounts from survivors, rescuers and Russian submariners, but found the information was lacking. He travelled to Russia to view their archives and even located the torpedo-gunner who fired the fatal blasts.

‘There was a bonus on warships sunk,’ the gunner told Restemeyer. ‘There was no bonus on merchant ships. The Gustloff was unmarked … we had not been able to recognize the Steuben as a refugee or hospital ship … so it was sunk, declared a war ship and a bonus was paid.’

The story had been strikingly similar for the Steuben. Submarine Captain Alexander Marinesko was convinced he had found a cruiser of the Emden class when he ordered torpedoes launched. Within 10 days, Marinesko had sunk two ships of unknown identity and sent over 10,000 people to a watery grave. Soviet Command ordered Marinesko back to his base in Turku. When he arrived on 14 February, Marinesko was informed that he had not torpedoed Emden class cruisers but the Wilhelm Gustloff and the General Steuben. Marinesko was not a hero of the Motherland, but denigrated by his comrades.

THE SEARCH BEGINS: The Soviets had kept records and their data afforded Restemeyer with the best chance of discovering the wrecks. In August of 1991, armed with a 360° satellite-based sonar and ‘hacker karten’ – maps kept by fisherman to pinpoint locations where nets have been torn – the expedition began. After years of research and only four days at sea, the Wilhelm Gustloff was found after almost 58 years in the obscurity of the depths.

After a devastating torpedo attack and so many years at depth, the obvious question is how does the Gustloff look today? According to Restemeyer, ‘on a scale of 1 to 6 – if 1 is good and 6 is the worst – it is a 5.’

The wreck is in four pieces, varying in depths of 32–45 metres. The bow section still heads north-west, toward the safety sought by the refugees. Even though it is covered in shells and the soft muck of the seabed, you can imagine the force of the first torpedo blast when you see how the steel plates of the hull are shredded and mangled. The doors on the forward deck are still closed, just as they were the night the ship was hit, blocking the escape of over 1,000 people. The mid ship is nothing more than a large debris field. The Gustloff received a direct hit amid ship, but the damage to this section is more severe than from a torpedo blast. Was this excessive damage the result of Russian divers looking for the fabled cargo of the Amber Room? Was this the result of demolition on the part of the Russians in 1945 to destroy the evidence after it was confirmed that the Gustloff was a refugee hospital ship? When I asked Restemeyer if this was destruction of evidence, I only received silence in response. No comments, no implications. Only the Russian government knows for sure and the rest is speculation. The stern of the Gustloff is at 47m and imploded into two sections because of increasing water pressure. All three torpedoes hit in the front section so the stern is in fairly good condition, but littered with debris and torn fishing nets. A corridor on A-Level affords a view to the very stern of the ship.

Reports of fatalities vary from 5,348 to 7,000 people. Accurate records were difficult to maintain when refugees and wounded were rushed aboard during the final moments before departure. The military was equally secretive about the cargo – both human and material – placed aboard the Gustloff before she sailed. It is unknown how many remain buried within the wreck today.

Locating the Gustloff fuelled Restemeyer’s passion to find the Steuben where an estimated 3,000 refugees perished. Six years of research and several failed diving expeditions did not deter him. In August 2002, what was believed to be the Steuben was located 16 nautical miles off the coast of Stolp, Poland. The next task was to confirm the identity of the wreck.

Gerhard Döpke of Bielefeld, Germany, was a survivor of the Steuben – he had truly ‘gone down with the ship.’ Döpke, now 72-years of age, recounted that there was very little suction when the ship went down, indicating that the wreck would be in shallow waters. Restemeyer’s discovery was in 23-metres of water, which corresponded well with Döpke’s account.

Diving for evidence would be the obvious solution to the mystery, but the wreck lies within Polish waters and it is a German war memorial, Restemeyer had to secure the permission of both the Polish and German government. Cutting through the official ‘red tape’ ate into the Baltic Sea’s short diving season, but he was finally permitted to clean, manipulate and photograph articles on the ship that were marked and would lead to the ship’s name and identity.

The ship’s wheel house nameplate was located and photographed. Next the prop and screw were uncovered, measured and photographed. German shipbuilding expert, Frank Döscher examined the evidence and concluded, ‘the 4.3 metre-wide iron propeller found on the ground and the 6.9 metre-long rudder are definitely from the sunken refugee ship.’ translation

What is the condition of the Steuben today? Sadly, it is worse than the Gustloff. While it sustained major damage on the night it sank, time has continued to batter the ship. The wreck rests upright on a sandy incline and according to Restemeyer, ‘… in view of the shallow depth and the constant current the ship is completely destroyed … the currents have shifted and undermined the wreck, possibly moving the ship from its original position.’

Can you dive on the Gustloff and the Steuben? The answer is again enigmatic – yes and no. Both ships are designated ‘naval warfare grave sites’ and cannot be touched. While it is possible to dive around them, penetration wreck diving is forbidden.

‘Every wreck is a gravesite,’ says Restemeyer. ‘You are allowed to dive on the outside, but you cannot disturb the wreck or the graveyard.’

As for the Steuben, the rules are even more stringent. Restemeyer’s discovery vessel, the Fritz Reuter, may take you to the wreck, but there is only one Polish dive organization that is authorized to lead tours to the site. The exact location of the Steuben is a closely guarded secret to protect it from recreational divers with the wrong attitude.

‘The Baltic Sea is the largest ship cemetery of the world’, says the 42-year-old wreck diver, ‘and not only because of the two World Wars. Thousands of missing person wrecks lie down there.’

CALLOUS OR CARELESS?

The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, the General von Steuben and the Goya, were not the only tragic casualties of the War in the Baltic Sea. The Captain of the Cap Arcona was forced to load 4,500 Jewish concentration camp inmates into the holds of his ship and carry 500 SS guards on her decks. At anchor next to the Cap Arcona, the Thielbeck had also been requisitioned for a human cargo from the concentration camps.

On 3 May, 1945, the RAF attacked both ships in harbour and the ferry used to transport the inmates to the waiting ships. The Cap Arcona burst into flames and finally rolled onto her side in her death throes. The Thielbeck languished for 45-minutes before she sank. The prisoners had been caught below decks and any survivors at the surface were shot by SS machine gunners on shore.

In 1945, a thick veil of silence covered these events and many more equally evil. Why? Were they truly cases of ‘unidentifiable targets?’ Was it media or political cover-up of Allied misconduct? Were these victims easy to overlook as they only accounted for less that two percent of the total war dead? Were other issues of the day more crucial? Were the nationalities of the victims less crucial?

Well, that is for the historians, politicians and philosophers to analyze, but it hasn’t happened in 58-years so I doubt it will ever come about.

THE FINAL IRONY

Nothing seems to elude the shadow of mystery and confusion regarding the Steuben and Gustloff. Even the submarine commander who was responsible for sinking the ships lived the remainder of his life in an enigma. When he returned to the Soviet Union, Commander Marinesko was not given the Gold Star ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ as expected, but was given the Order of the Red Flag, a standard issue medal awarded to no less than 250,000 other Soviet veterans. Was it because Marinesko had wrought disfavour on the Soviet Union from the Allied forces for his wilful sinking of refugee ships? Was it because Marinesko, referred to as ‘the Red Wolf’ by his subordinates, had exceeded his authority in his zealous acts for revenge? Had he been caught in an affair with a foreign citizen, which was a crime and a disgrace. He avoided a tribunal and automatic sentence to the Gulag, the prison work camp in Siberia, but at the cost of his career.

The Soviet line insisted that the Gustloff had carried 6,000 Hitlerites and was therefore a rightful target of war. In the west, Marinesko was considered a war criminal who knowingly killed refugees. As a member of the victorious Allied Forces – and in a time when the Cold War was already threatening a thinly-veiled peace – no efforts were made to bring Marinesko to justice. The matter was filed away and classified.

Marinesko bitterly left the Navy in 1946. In the 1950s he was sentenced to the Siberian Gulag, but not for war crimes. The official line is that he allowed a friend to remove bricks from a construction site. After his release, Marinesko worked in an automobile factory and lived a life on the edge of Soviet hard-line poverty. He died in 1963, despondent and scorned. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Marinesko was finally awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union status. Now a statue and a museum stand in Russia to honour his accomplishments in the Second World War.

‘We, the almost 1,000 survivors, had escaped death one more time. We members of the German Navy were comrades, loved our homeland, and believed we were doing the right thing through our service. None of us wanted to be heroes, and we do not honor our casualties as such, only as human beings who had done their duty according to the oath they had taken.

The Wilhelm Gustloff, a mass grave bearing the names of thousands of young people, has to warn us, the living and influence the leaders of nations in such a way that wars, which bring unspeakable suffering to mankind, will never be allowed to start again.” – Oberbootsmannsmaat Karl Hoffmann,

Wilhelm Gustloff

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