of the Wilhelm Gustloff
May 5, 1937
Marion & Thomas Lehmann
is alive with activity
Wednesday May 5, 1937.
Hazy weather cannot
event grand on both a naval and propaganda perspective.
Few are talking about anything other than the
launching at the Blohm & Voss Shipyards.
Hitler and most of his senior party members are on hand for the official christening of the finest ship in
the KdF (Strength through Joy) fleet – the
upon thousands gather as close as
possible to the ceremony, or along the route that the Führer takes to the platform in shipyard #511.
However, only those officially to receive an
invitation from Robert Ley, head of the DAF and its
sub-organization – the KdF, are given preferential
viewing areas. The
massive, yet still unfinished ship seems to even dwarf
numerous speeches by the top brass of the Nazi party, the
widow Hedwig Gustloff breaks the traditional bottle on the bow
to christen the ship.
Huge boards drop on the bow
quarters to reveal her late
husband’s name in Gothic letters.
The massive ship slides into Hamburg
harbour to the music of
“Horst Wessel” and “Deutschland
Fascist salutes, wild cheers and swastika-emblazoned
freely around the ceremony.
a naval perspective, the specifications of the Wilhelm
Gustloff are not exceedingly groundbreaking.
However, from a cruise ship standpoint, the ship is
an impressive and unique achievement.
When Blohm & Voss had been commissioned by the
KdF to build the world’s most advanced cruise ship (in
January 1936), the key requirements
Free of obstructions; adequate space for all to
lie down on deck; promote interaction between
passengers and crew.
bright halls with comfortable seating. No need to use
dining halls which would be reserved for eating only.
passengers accommodated in outer cabins only.
Would ensure that every guest would have an
cabins to be created equivalent in size. Regardless of status
- crew or passenger.
for the M.S. Wilhelm
Gustloff upon delivery are as follows:
GRT (Gross Registered Tons)
metres (684 feet)
metres (77 feet)
8-cylinder MAN diesel engines
(approx. 29 km/h or 18 mph)
nautical miles @ 15 knots
Arbeitsfront (DAF) - KdF
May 5, 1937
March 15, 1938
expanded specifications - click here
Hitler, visibility of the Gustloff launching is an
important propaganda tool not only within
Germany, but also on the world
the Gustloff is deliberately used as a 'flagship'
symbol of Nazi objectives though the KdF (Strength though
Joy) organization. The KdF hopes for the following:
the true underlying agenda of the KdF is about increasing
worker productivity (despite wage freezes) as Nazi Germany prepares for eventual
war, defusing desire for
American-style capitalism or Marxism, controlling consumer
consumption that would come at the expense of re-armament,
and ensuring "racial alignment" as Nazi Germany
plans it's world-leading ambitions.
by workers that the Nazi government cares about them
by providing very affordable travel opportunities
aboard such a magnificent ship.
by German workers that this cruise ship was for them.
It was designed to have one class only,
contributing to the the concept of racial unity among its people
a means to reward consumers and the workforce beyond
traditional consumer consumption.
aspiration and dreams for the German Volk.
Allow workers to be happy with this achievement and
that a potential opportunity for a trip aboard the Gustloff
would help control personal desires until the
realization of "living space" (Lebensraum).
promotion of travel as an acceptable means of
developing culture and appreciation of Germany's
standard of living.
of the power of the “New Germany”.
The gleaming ivory ship built with
technological expertise, modern design and
configuration is a symbol
of German economic power and superior ideology to the rest of the world.
part of the Nazi's anti-Semitic agenda, a not-so-subtle reminder of
“Jewish responsibility” for the death of the Nazi
leader whose name marks the bows.
will be over 10 months after the impressive launching
ceremony before the Gustloff is actually ready to be tested in March 1938 as a cruise
ship to serve all classes of the German Volk.
During this time, the interior of the ship is
prepared to offer future passengers an unforgettable
cruise experience such as impressive lounges, music
salons, a swimming pool and several “taprooms” (bars).
In its history books, Blohm & Voss refer to the
Gustloff’s interior as “simple elegance”.
From the more visible exterior, the funnel (to
carry the distinctive logo of the KdF), 3 main anchors,
bridge, compass platform and 22 lifeboats are added.
March 15, 1938
, the Wilhelm
Gustloff is finally ready to be put to sea in its
capacity as the most advanced cruise ship in the world.
However, this is not to be an “official” trip.
It is a two-day “test run” in the
to capacity with primarily with employees from the
shipbuilding company Blohm & Voss, the ship encounters
rough and stormy seas.
Despite the inclement weather and some reported
seasickness, many passengers are reported to have enjoyed
more celebrating than sleeping during the two nights of
the most carefully screened passengers are selected
for the Gustloff’s
maiden voyage (Jungfernreise).
Set to leave
on Thursday March 24, 1938
, eager passengers begin boarding the day before.
a touch of irony, most of the passengers are not German
(at least not officially by nationality at this point).
Over two-thirds of the passenger list is comprised
of Austrians, whose country would soon vote in a
plebiscite on whether to be annexed by
Although the plebiscite is a mere formality (Hitler
had already announced on March 12, 1938 that Austria was
to be annexed into Germany), the Nazis do not pass up an
opportunity to cultivate powerful propaganda
rest of the passenger complement seems to only reinforce
the propaganda – 300 girls selected specifically from
the BDM - Bund Deutscher Mädel (Federation of German Girls) and 165
journalists join the Austrians and the crew.
Escorted by Captain Lübbe, Hitler inspects the new ship.
It will be the first and only time he is ever on board.
Carl Lübbe directs the ship out the
for a three-day cruise.
treated to detailed information and
tours of the ship, courtesy of
KdF guide Paul Wulff.
Halfway through the cruise, a flattering telegram
arrives from the Führer directed to the
board. Even at
sea the propaganda arrives!
cruise is considered a tremendous success, with its many participants ready
to bring the news back to
of this awe-inspiring
symbol of German engineering and unity.
after the cruise ends, Hitler pays an official visit to
the ship on
March 29, 1938
– the first since
attending the launching ceremony over 10 months earlier.
ON THE SECOND CRUISE
first cruise and its proactive Austrian agenda was not the
typical “Strength through Joy” voyage.
The second cruise would also prove to be
uncharacteristic - except in this case the propaganda was
the first, this was a three-day cruise.
This time, the Gustloff
will head toward the Strait of Dover instead of the North Sea
on April the 2nd, the Gustloff will be joined by three other KdF ships: Der
Deutsche, Oceana, and Sierra
day into the cruise heading westward toward the English
Channel, the Gustloff encounters uncooperative weather – much worse than
encountered during its test run over two weeks earlier.
More ominously, its radio room receives an SOS from
an 1,825 ton English cargo ship Pegaway.
A victim of the storm, it is damaged, rudderless and sinking 25 miles northwest of
Terschelling Island, Netherlands.
Lübbe orders an immediate course set for the Pegaway,
and breaks away from his three-ship entourage.
Dutch salvage tug Holland also heads to the
scene. The crew spots the failing ship with searchlights
within a couple of hours.
However, the weather worsens and it is 7:45AM the
before nineteen (19) seamen from the condemned English
freighter are rescued using one of the Gustloff’s
same motorboat is also used to rescue one of the Gustloff’s
own lifeboats and crew. The solitary lifeboat (Number 1)
had been used in
an earlier attempt to rescue the English sailors, but is thrashed against the side of the ship and
careens off with heavy damage.
It eventually washes up on the shores of Terschelling
Island on May 2.
rescued sailors are on board as the Gustloff
rejoins its detached fleet and returns to Hamburg at noon
on April 5 to a thunderous
heroic rescue plays well in the media.
Local and international newspapers laud the efforts
of the captain and crew of the newest addition to the KdF
FLOATING POLLING STATION
the morning of
April 7, 1938
, Captain Carl Lübbe
receives unusual (yet not surprising) orders.
As a coda to the first cruise filled with Austrians
friendly to the Reich, the Gustloff is requested to sail on the 9th of April toward England.
the approaching plebiscite on Anschluss
(“Union” of Austria
with Germany), the Gustloff is
ordered to act as a floating polling station for German
and Austrian citizens living in England.
Gustloff casts anchor over three miles offshore in
order to remain in international waters.
During the 10th day of April, eligible
voters are ferried between the Tilbury docks east of
and perhaps the most
extravagant polling station in history.
ship has the desired propaganda effect as the English
press reports favourably on the both the impressive ship
and voting process.
of the almost 2,000 votes cast, only 4 refrain from voting
“yes” on a matter which in reality has already been
1938 – May 1939)
returning from the coast of England
in its role as a
floating polling station, the Wilhelm
Gustloff prepares to begin its more typical cruise
Gustloff will provide low-priced/high-value cruise vacations for
German workers. Costs
of a cruise are typically 1/4 to 1/3 the price of similar
European offerings. During
summer months, it will concentrate on cruising the
, especially the fjords
During winter months, it will head south toward
(and its remote islands
of Madeira), or cruise around the “boot” of Italy
- the friendly Axis
are kept active and days are structured.
for each day of each cruise detail of daily events aboard
the ship. Music,
games, swimming, sport, and dance are all interwoven with
the inevitable Nazi propaganda.
off the ship at foreign ports are controlled with coupons
and paperwork. During
cruises though Norwegian waters, passengers are not
allowed to disembark.
Entertainment is ferried over from shore.
first cruise in this series - in fact it is referred to as
Cruise #1 - the “official”
maiden voyage (Jungfernreise) - will provide the Gustloff
with an opportunity to “flex its muscles”. It
will travel to its furthest destination yet – the
Madeira Islands of Portugal off the coast of Morocco.
Departing with its KdF sister ship Sierra
the 21st of April 1938
, Captain Lübbe,
directs the Gustloff out of
harbour along the Elbe
Gustloff in the Rocha do Conde de Óbidos port
(Lisbon) during its first official
voyage to Madeira. It is seen here
accompanied by the Sierra Cordoba (which is
only partially visible behind its stern).
it’s the last time the 58 year old Lübbe will leave
port. One day
later aboard his remarkable ship at sea, he lies dead on
the bridge from
a heart attack.
fly at half mast on the Gustloff
as a replacement captain is chosen: Friedrich Peterson.
Ironically, Peterson will only command the Gustloff at sea twice in his career.
After completing his responsibilities on this
cruise, the next time he commands the Gustloff
is on the fateful night of
January 30, 1945
cruise (which included a stop in Lisbon), the Gustloff spends the summer of 1938 cruising the Norwegian
#2 (as officially named) kicks off the summer season
on the 8th
of May. Each
cruise is filled to capacity with a total of over 16,000
vacationers enjoying the sights and pleasures associated
with the many amenities aboard.
September 16, 1938
, it is less than one
declares war on
Yet British Consulate-General L.M. Robinson is on
board to dedicate a plaque in recognition of the Pegaway
rescue, and offer remembrance to Captain Lübbe.
colder weather on the horizon, the ship prepares to spend
the winter of 1938 rounding Italy’s “boot”.
On the 12th of October, the Gustloff leaves
for a 20-day cruise –
the longest it will ever experience.
The ultimate destination of
will serve as surrogate
home port during this time.
Stops on the way include
before arriving in Genoa
on the 31st.
10th and final trip around
February 28, 1939
. The Wilhelm
Gustloff eventually returns to Hamburg
(via another cruise through Madeira) to
reprise the spring
and summer cruising season.
prepares for another cruise to Madeira
on May 20, 1939
, Captain Heinrich
Bertram receives orders four days earlier to set off down
to an unannounced destination. Devoid
of any passengers, he is joined by seven other KdF ships
including the newly christened Robert
the sealed orders are eventually opened, they reveal that
the destination is the Spanish
of Vigo. The Civil War in Spain
has recently ended and
German troops fighting for the victorious Nationalists
headed by Franco are ready to come home. The German
volunteer soldiers are members of the notorious “Condor
Legion” and have fought along the side of General Franco
of the Condor Legion relax on the decks of the Wilhelm
Gustloff as it departs Vigo. The Robert
Ley sails along the port side.
“detour” from normal cruise program will mark the only
time the Wilhelm
Gustloff will ever be used exclusively as a military
troop transport ship.
It arrives with its entourage on the 24th
of May in Vigo.
Medical supplies and various other aid materials
are unloaded to make way for 1,405 soldiers.
welcome received in Hamburg
is described as
Marshall Hermann Göring, Robert Ley and numerous other
ranking officials add weight to the ceremonial homecoming.
CRUISING (June 1939 – July
Passengers board in Hamburg
for a Norwegian cruise
War II looms on the horizon as the Gustloff
continues with its Norwegian cruise agenda for the summer
of 1939. With
excursions beginning on
the 3rd of June, passengers enjoy a beautiful
five-day cruises are still cheap - costing just 45
they are still not allowed to disembark, vacationers are
kept busy with a comprehensive on-board agenda and
numerous photo-opportunities of the spectacular fjords of Norway.
During beautiful days, the sundeck is crowded full
of sunbathers on the Gustloff’s
wooden deck chairs.
of passengers surely feel frustration being unable to set
foot on Norwegian ground.
Most are not too inclined to complain.
Regardless, they can remain blissfully ignorant of
the preparations Hitler is undertaking to brazenly invade
within a couple of
were exceptions to the standard program of cruising.
On June 15, the Gustloff left Swinemünde for a
short cruise exclusively designated for members of the Reichsjugendführung
(Reich Youth Leadership). For two days, the KdF
ship cruised the Danish coast and up to Bornholm.
DORMITORY FOR GYMNASTS
athletes assemble and march into Stockholm after
being ferried by motorboat to shore from the Gustloff.
previous time the Gustloff
was requisitioned away from its pleasure-cruising duties,
it carried German troops from Spain.
This time, during mid-July 1939, orders take it to Stockholm
loaded full of
Gustloff will host the cream of the German athletic corps at the “Lingiad”,
a non-competitive sporting event run in honour of a
founding father in Swedish gymnastics and physical therapy
(amusingly, he is better known in modern times as the
inventor of the “Swedish Massage”).
the course of two weeks, over 1,000 gymnasts are shuttled
back and forth from events via motorboat.
As always, due to strict Nazi control the Gustloff
will not tie up at port in countries not “officially”
considered an Axis ally.
Although by all accounts, this event certainly
helps promote friendship between the two nations.
event considered a success, the Gustloff
now enters the twilight of its peacetime cruising.
FINAL CRUISES (August
days after its return from Stockholm, the Gustloff
promptly heads out to the North
Sea for its 46th cruise.
as the “midnight sun” off the coast of Norway
fades and summer begins
to bid its farewells; the affordable dream-ship cruise for
everyday workers in Germany is already in its
4 more cruises are completed in their entirety.
The fifth leaving Hamburg on
August 19, 1939 will be the final
pleasure-cruise for the Gustloff
last night of its 50th and final “Strength through Joy”
cruise, the ship's radio room receives a coded message to
be delivered directly to Captain Bertram.
Bertram decodes the message and is directed to open
a sealed envelope stored securely in his cabin.
of at least six envelopes in the safe, Bertram opens the
one marked order “QWA 7”.
He is to immediately return the Wilhelm
Gustloff to port in
Without alarming passengers or offering any
explanations, the mighty ship heads home and leisure
days with the KdF have just ended.
could imagine the rumours and discussion exchanged on
the ship as it ties up in home port on the afternoon of
August 25, 1939.
Passengers and crew have ample time to debate the
issues as they are not disembarked until the next morning.
Many feel that it is only a matter of time before the magnificent
cruises provided by the KdF will resume.
the ship is never again to provide the joyful cruises of
the KdF. This chapter is closed. In 17
months and over 50 excursions, the Gustloff has provided
65,000 vacationers an experience they will never forget.
one week, Germany
sparking off a chain of events that ultimately
destroys the Wilhelm
Gustloff and the Third Reich.
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