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KdF CRUISE SHIP:  1937 to 1939


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Launch of the Wilhelm Gustloff
May 5, 1937
source: Marion & Thomas Lehmann

Hamburg is alive with activity on Wednesday May 5, 1937.  Hazy weather cannot dampen an 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 Wilhelm Gustloff.

Thousands 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 even the shipyard itself.

After 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 über Alles”.   Fascist salutes, wild cheers and swastika-emblazoned flags fly freely around the ceremony.

From 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 had been:

  • Large free decks.  Free of obstructions; adequate space for all to lie down on deck; promote interaction between passengers and crew.
  • Large bright halls with comfortable seating.  No need to use dining halls which would be reserved for eating only.
  • All passengers accommodated in outer cabins only.  Would ensure that every guest would have an optimal view.
  • All cabins to be created equivalent in size.  Regardless of status - crew or passenger.

Specifications for the M.S. Wilhelm Gustloff upon delivery are as follows:


Passenger Cruise Ship


25,484 GRT (Gross Registered Tons)


208.5 metres (684 feet)


23.5 metres (77 feet)


Four 8-cylinder MAN diesel engines


2 (“twin-screw”)


9,500 hp


15.5 knots (approx. 29 km/h or 18 mph)


12,000 nautical miles @ 15 knots






Blohm & Voss, Hamburg

Yard #:



Deutsche Arbeitsfront (DAF) - KdF

Managed By:

Hamburg-South America Line


May 5, 1937


March 15, 1938

for expanded specifications - click here

For Hitler, visibility of the Gustloff launching is an important propaganda tool not only within Germany, but also on the world stage.  Overall, 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:

  • Perception by workers that the Nazi government cares about them by providing very affordable travel opportunities aboard such a magnificent ship.
  • Belief 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 (Volksgemeinschaft).
  • Provide a means to reward consumers and the workforce beyond traditional consumer consumption.
  • Provide 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).
  • Continued promotion of travel as an acceptable means of developing culture and appreciation of Germany's standard of living.
  • Demonstration 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.
  • As 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.  
Ultimately, 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.

It 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.



On 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 North Sea .

Filled 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 adventure.



Only 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.

With 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 Germany .  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 opportunities.

The 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.

Captain Carl Lübbe directs the ship out the North Sea for a three-day cruise.  Journalists are 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 Austrians on board.  Even at sea the propaganda arrives!

The cruise is considered a tremendous success, with its many participants ready to bring the news back to Austria of this awe-inspiring symbol of German engineering and unity.

Soon 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.



The 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 unplanned.

Like the first, this was a three-day cruise.  This time, the Gustloff will head toward the Strait of Dover instead of the North Sea .  Leaving Hamburg on April the 2nd, the Gustloff will be joined by three other KdF ships: Der Deutsche, Oceana, and Sierra Cordoba.

One 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.

Captain 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 next morning before nineteen (19) seamen from the condemned English freighter are rescued using one of the Gustloff’s motorboats.  The 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.

The rescued sailors are on board as the Gustloff rejoins its detached fleet and returns to Hamburg at noon on April 5 to a thunderous welcome.  The 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 fleet.



On 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.

With 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.  The Wilhelm 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 London and perhaps the most extravagant polling station in history.

The ship has the desired propaganda effect as the English press reports favourably on the both the impressive ship and voting process.

Out of the almost 2,000 votes cast, only 4 refrain from voting “yes” on a matter which in reality has already been preordained.


PLEASURE CRUISING (April 1938 – May 1939)

After returning from the coast of England in its role as a floating polling station, the Wilhelm Gustloff prepares to begin its more typical cruise program.

The 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 North Sea , especially the fjords of Norway.  During winter months, it will head south toward Portugal (and its remote islands of Madeira), or cruise around the “boot” of Italy - the friendly Axis nation.

Passengers are kept active and days are structured.  Agendas/menus (Speisekarten) 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. 

Excursions 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.

The 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 Cordoba on the 21st of April 1938 , Captain Lübbe, directs the Gustloff out of Hamburg harbour along the Elbe river.  

The 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).

Unfortunately, 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.

Flags 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 .

After the Madeira cruise (which included a stop in Lisbon), the Gustloff spends the summer of 1938 cruising the Norwegian fjords.  Cruise #2 (as officially named) kicks off the summer season leaving Hamburg 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.

On September 16, 1938 , it is less than one year before Britain declares war on Germany .  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.

With 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 Hamburg for a 20-day cruise – the longest it will ever experience.  The ultimate destination of Genoa will serve as surrogate home port during this time.  Stops on the way include Madeira, Tripoli and Naples before arriving in Genoa on the 31st.

The 10th and final trip around Italy begins on February 28, 1939 . The Wilhelm Gustloff eventually returns to Hamburg (via another cruise through Madeira) to reprise the spring and summer cruising season.



As the Gustloff prepares for another cruise to Madeira on May 20, 1939 , Captain Heinrich Bertram receives orders four days earlier to set off down the Elbe River to an unannounced destination.  Devoid of any passengers, he is joined by seven other KdF ships including the newly christened Robert Ley. 

When the sealed orders are eventually opened, they reveal that the destination is the Spanish port 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 since 1936.

Members of the Condor Legion relax on the decks of the Wilhelm Gustloff as it departs Vigo.  The Robert Ley sails along the port side.

This “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.

The welcome received in Hamburg is described as "triumphant".  Field Marshall Hermann Göring, Robert Ley and numerous other ranking officials add weight to the ceremonial homecoming.


PLEASURE CRUISING  (June 1939 – July 1939)

Passengers board in Hamburg
for a Norwegian cruise

World War II looms on the horizon as the Gustloff continues with its Norwegian cruise agenda for the summer of 1939.  With six more North Sea excursions beginning on the 3rd of June, passengers enjoy a beautiful summer.  The five-day cruises are still cheap - costing just 45 Reichmarks.  Although 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.

Some 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 Poland within a couple of months.  

There 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.



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German athletes assemble and march into Stockholm after being ferried by motorboat to shore from the Gustloff.

The 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 young gymnasts.

The 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”).

Over 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.

The event considered a success, the Gustloff now enters the twilight of its peacetime cruising.



Only days after its return from Stockholm, the Gustloff promptly heads out to the North Sea for its 46th cruise.

However, 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 twilight.  Only 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 - ever.

During the 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.

Out 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 Hamburg .  Without alarming passengers or offering any explanations, the mighty ship heads home and leisure days with the KdF have just ended.

One 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.

However, 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.

Within one week, Germany invades Poland, sparking off a chain of events that ultimately destroys the Wilhelm Gustloff and the Third Reich.

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