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NAVY SHIP / BARRACKS:  1940 to 1945 


It is November 20, 1940 and winter beckons in Gotenhafen.  The Wilhelm Gustloff once again begins a process of metamorphosis – its second in just over a year.   Over the next few weeks, the ship is converted for use as “floating barracks” for the Second Submarine Training Division, housing approximately 1,000 U-Boat sailors.

Inside, the ship is gutted.  Medical equipment is dismantled and removed.  Doctors, nurses and medics are gone – discharged or reassigned.  Only a handful of the engine maintenance crew is ordered to remain.  Captain Bertram also stays on board, though he no longer can take the Gustloff to sea – a frustrating position for any experienced sailor of such rank.

Outside, naval grey paint eventually replaces the bright white coating and green stripes the Gustloff displayed as a hospital ship.  Red crosses are removed on the funnel, leaving barely visible raised imprints of colourless KdF logos.  The goal is no longer visibility but camouflage.  International law no longer protects the Wilhelm Gustloff as it did while operating as Lazarettschiff D.  For the first time, the former purveyor of affordable leisure cruises is a legitimate military target.

A very interesting photo from 1941 that shows the Gustloff (background) in the process of being painted naval grey.  In the foreground is the Löwe - a torpedo boat that would play a critical role on January 30, 1945.
source: SOS Shicksale Deutscher Schiffe Nr. 23, 1953

It is in the role of U-boat barracks that the Gustloff will spend the majority of its life (just over four years).  The structured and disciplined training of the young U-boat personnel produces effective results in the early years of the war.  Taking command of the recruits in 1942, U-boat officer Lieutenant Commander Wilhelm Zahn ensures a rigorous training program.

However, as war continues, recruits become younger and training becomes shorter.  The odds are not good for those commissioned to feared German submarines – as few as 1 in 10 will survive during the war.



Sheltered well behind enemy lines and with secure control of the Baltic Sea by the German Navy, not much exciting happens in the first few years in Gotenhafen.  Admiral Karl Dönitz, in charge of the Kreigsmarine, officially visits Gotenhafen in March of 1943.  However, it is around this time ominous signs begin to appear.  After breaking the pact with Stalin and invading the Soviet Union in 1941, front lines (although still far away from the Danzig ) are beginning to recede. 

American bombers from the 8th Air Force reach the skies over Gotenhafen on October 9, 1943.  Bombs rain down on the harbour.  The Gustloff narrowly escapes disaster as a bomb explodes in the water off its starboard side, creating a reparable gash only 1.5 metres long in the hull.  Several other ships in the harbour are not so lucky.  Many are sunk in the raid, including the hospital ship Stuttgart, another ship from the more carefree KdF cruising days.

source: Gustloff Archiv -  used with permission

February 20, 1944 marks the return of Friedrich Petersen as captain (Captain Bertram gets his wish to be back at sea with a “ship that moves” and is to report back in Hamburg on the 21st).  Petersen has been through quite an ordeal since commanding the Gustloff for just one cruise during peacetime.  He had been captured by the Allies and was held as a POW.  Repatriated to the Germans because of his age, at 66 years old he is not considered a threat.  He gains freedom in return for a written promise not to take active command of any ship.  The Gustloff must seem like the perfect option.

By this time however, front lines continue to disintegrate.  Official press releases struggle to find any form of victory.  Fewer U-boats return from missions.  North Africa has been evacuated.  D-Day looms on the horizon.  Although the Danzig still stands, there is a troubled uneasy feeling over the bay as the Russians drive nearer by the day.  Refugees begin heading toward the ports in the Gulf to escape Russian retribution.

By October of 1944, the Red Army under the command of General Galitsky is crossing the eastern border of the Reich and taking the town of Nemmersdorf in East Prussia– the first Germany city to fall into Russian hands.  Terror is only just beginning in the Gulf of Danzig .  

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