By Leigh Bishop –
When disasters at sea are under discussion, the names that inevitably come to mind are those of the Lusitania and Titanic. The name Wilhelm Gustloff is rarely mentioned!
From 7000 to 10,000 people perished when the Gustloff, a former Nazi Liner was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine in January 1945, five times the causalities of the Titanic. Leigh Bishop travelled to Leba, a small Northern Polish coastal town resting beside the cold waters of the Baltic sea off Poland to photograph the remains of this most tragic of sea disasters in maritime history.
I was more than happy to break the surface after my first dive into the icy 6ºc waters of the Baltic Sea. As I waited for the dive vessel to pick me up I had time to allow my emotions to engage with the events that the Baltic Sea had witnessed. Closing the rebreather’s mouthpiece I gasped some fresh air. The sea was calm under a sunny sky. In reality it’s impossible to imagine what it was like on a freezing January night 70 years ago. It was reported that the unfortunate people lasted no longer than four minutes! 46 metres below lay the 25,484-ton ocean liner, a legendary ship built by the Nazis once proudly displayed the swastika on her flags and moulded into her huge single funnel stack. The ship was named after the Nazi Wilhelm Gustloff, leader of the German Nazi movement in Switzerland who was assassinated by a young Yugoslavian Jew in 1936. The dive to the wreck had allowed me to become physically in touch with the Nazi ‘Strength through Joy’ way of life, plus the privilege to photograph this rarely visited shipwreck.
As cold as Ice
The visibility was, easily 30 metres with plenty of ambient light. The cold was painful. After eleven minutes in the 3ºc water I had lost the feeling in my fingers. I had to physically watch that my hands were on the correct camera controls before shooting.
Lying on white sand listing over to her port side, with her collapsed decks cascading down to port. Apart from the bow and stern the amidships appear almost certainly a victim of a salvage attempt. Her starboard davits were clearly seen still in position, as are their working mechanisms and surrounding deck winches. The cold Baltic Sea has preserved much of her wooden decks, stairways as well as the elegantly oval shaped tops of the safety rails which remain as new especially on the very intact stern where the name Wilhelm Gustloff’ stands out in large gothic lettering. On dropping down to the seabed at the stern the evidence was clear re salvage, she had been robbed of her propellers.
Local people believe it was the Russians who commenced salvage operations soon after the war ended. What interest did the Russians have in a Nazi liner carrying refugees fleeing the Red Army as the eastern front broke down? One thing that isn’t a secret is that the Russians searched extensively for the famous Amber Room soon after the war was over. Said to be the eighth wonder of the world the Amber Room was constructed by King Frederick I of Prussia, completed in 1709. It consisted of 55 square metres of beautifully carved amber panelling set in polished mosaic that covered a palace room. In 1941 with the Nazis advancing on Leningrad the Russian’s were too late in an attempt to dismantle the Room leaving the Nazis to loot the famous room. The amber panels were last seen in the hands of the Nazis in Konigsberg two days before the Gustloff sailed! Much speculation suggests the amber is hidden deep in a mine in Germany, however, others are convinced it was loaded aboard the Gustloff.
Whether the Russians did salvage the amber is unknown. If it remains on the ship our Anglo American team of explorers would hope to find it. Its estimated value is US$300 million.
As the expedition unfolded we soon realised that finding an appropriate dive boat to operate from was one of the more difficult tasks. Ziemowit Kierkowski a local Polish technical diver helped us locate a suitable boat. Each day the dive boat would be boarded by armed authorities, which made us believe the wreck is actually taken seriously by the Polish.
Cauldrons, porridge, ice, torpedoes fired
As the Eastern front began to break down in the later part of WWII the Russian Red army began to advance on the German front with strong revenge. A wave of horror spread throughout German occupied pockets as the Red army slaughtered everything in their path. Germans and Nazis alike fled in fear with their refugee families believing their fate was better in the hands of the west.
The days leading up to Jan 30th 1945 saw a beehive of activity aboard the Gustloff, as like many other liners and ships of her kind she prepared to make passage to the west. Refugees Nazis and U-boat servicemen queued while authorities boiled cauldrons of porridge in the freezing sleet conditions. One soldier reported the most pathetic sight was that of children who had lost their parents “Even their tears froze!”
At 12:30pm, January 30, 1945 four tugboats pulled her off the wharf into the direction of the open sea. The weather was bad: wind strength of seven, snow, ten degrees below zero, ice flows on the water’s surface. Gustloff began pounding her way westward into the blustery Baltic Sea. As night fell it became even colder. Below deck most of the refugees were lulled into a false sense of security, believing that in a few days they would reach Stettin or the coast of Denmark.
At 9:10PM, the Gustloff was struck by three deadly torpedoes fired from the Russian submarine S-13 commanded by Alexander Marinesko. Thousands of people immediately broke into a terrible panic. Many plunged overboard into the icy sea. Some people aboard chose suicide as told by a soldier who forced entry into the cabin of a Nazi U-boat serviceman after hearing repeated gunshots! Before him lay the man’s wife and child his pistol still smoking his OTHER five year old child clinging to his leg with fear. “Please let me finish my business” said the serviceman.
After two or three dives strategic landmarks become familiar sights such as prominent lifeboat davits, the mast that lies across the port side seabed and particular deck areas. Navigation on the wreck became easier allowing the divers to make more sense of just how the wreck lies. Mike Boring swam up to the bow tip and again saw further evidence of salvage, her anchors gone!
No human remains were seen on the outside of the wreck. Finding remains was something that had played on our minds in the build up to the trip. Borings initial expedition was more of a visual photographic project and none of the team made any penetrations. After each dive we could establish more of the wreck as we watched digital film that had been shot on that day. UK diver Paul Dixon fixed his video camera to his scooter and was able to circumnavigate the wreck filming as he went. I and American author and photographer Brad Sheard set up our still cameras on tripods on the 45º decks! A bizarre sight to see two divers both resembling wedding photographers, as quoted by the Polish divers!
If the Amber Room remains still exists deep inside the wreck it’s clear that any team may have difficulties of even knowing where to start. By studying a scale model of the ship at Kiel museum in Germany I was able to locate where the ships bell or ‘heart’ would have been. I later discovered it had been raised a number of years ago by Polish divers who had taken it for a memorial purpose.
Teams intent on exploring this wreck and staying in this part of the world are advised to have documents and vehicle papers in order to prevent time loss at the Polish Russian border!
With the knowledge gained from this expedition a return expedition is in the planning. Hopefully we will uncover more secrets of the wreck as well as the legendary Amber Room!
Expedition members: Mike Boring, (expedition leader), Dan Stevenson, Andy Aston, Tim Elley, Brad Sheard, Paul Dixon, Chris Hutchison, Mike Cross and Leigh Bishop.