In 1945, the German populace who found themselves in the path of the advancing Soviet Union army were scrambling to get out rather than find themselves at the mercy of the Soviet forces. A massive evacuation effort called Operation Hannibal was set into motion in order to transport civilians, soldiers, and equipment back to safety via the Baltic Sea.
Originally a luxury cruiseliner, the Gustloff was repurposed as a hospital and later a floating barracks before being enlisted to transport refugees as part of the evacuation effort. Although the ship was meant for 2,000 passengers, it is believed that many of the thousands of refugees thronging the port of Gotenhafen (now Gdynia, Poland) forced their way on board in the hopes of making it out before the Soviet armies arrived.
As per reports, the Gustloff set sail on January 30, 1945, with an estimated 10,000 people consisting of U-boat trainees, Women’s Naval Auxiliary Members, Hitler Youth, reluctant conscripts, German civilians, mothers, and children crammed onboard. Little did they know that the ship was en route to a fatal rendevous with a Soviet submarine captained by Alexander Marinesko.
The Soviet submarine fired three torpedoes that hit the port side of the Gustloff instantly killing many and trapping others with no means of escape. Those who were not able to get a spot on the life rafts had no choice but to leap into the dark, frigid waters of the Baltic. Even though rescuers were quick on the scene, only 1,200 people could be saved.
This is an excerpt from an article that explains why so little is known about the deadliest disaster at sea: "The stories of the survivors and the memory of the many dead were largely lost in the fog of the closing war, amid pervasive devastation and in a climate where the victors would be little inclined to feel sympathy with a populace considered Nazis—or at the very least, Nazis by association."