Lost at Sea

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Polish Navy sonar image of S. S.Steuben laying on her side.

“Past the promenade deck I saw the entrance to the concert halls that had been packed with wounded German soldiers, and I knew that inside there must be the remains of thousands of them. I remembered what Polish Navy officers had told me after they’d investigated the wreck in late May 2004. They’d taken a good look at the sea bottom with a remotely operated vehicle and found the entire area around the wreck “covered with human remains, skulls, and bones.” – Marcin Jamkoswki, “Ghost Ship Found,” National Geographic, February 2005

Jamkowski was the Polish editor of National Geographic Poland. An adventure writer and expert diver, he brought to the magazine an amazing story about the German liner, S. S. Steuben. She was filled with 4500 (some say more) men and women, including thousands of wounded German soldiers, and more than 1,000 refugees when she was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine. Jamkowski’s eyewitness account is of finding and examining the wreck in deep water, below 150 feet.

I was the fact-checker on the article, and helped with arranging some of the firsthand accounts from survivors to be translated into English. Working on the article brought me to the stark realization of what war does to non-combatants. A very powerful visualization of the deaths during WWII, especially the civilians, is shown at the video at Omeleto: The Fallen of World War II: A Data Visualization of War and Peace.

I wrote a “Did You Know” on the three largest losses of human life in wrecks at sea. People throw a lot of statistics around. It’s always interesting to chase down what the actual numbers are, and who they represent. Because it is always about the people, from children to women and men of all ages. Along the way in my research for the article, I had read Antony Beavor’s piercing study of war crimes perpetrated against civilians as the Red Army moved westward in 1945. I expanded into the refugees that streamed, and were herded across Europe, against their wills, forced out of their traditional homes for political reasons. Some of those migrations, which were then considered the largest movements of people in history, remain a thorn in the side of countries in Eastern Europe today. The loss of the S. S. Steuben, a German passenger liner that had been converted to serve as an ambulance ship comes out of the large, forced migrations of Europe at the tail end of World War II.[1]

“Did You Know: The Three Largest Marine Disasters”

David W. Wooddell, for National Geographic, February 2005

The three largest marine disasters in history were the 1945 Baltic losses of Wilhelm Gustloff, Goya, and Steuben. But how many people were on these ships? Approximately 5,200 people were on Steuben when it set sail on February 9, according to our article, and 4,500 people died when the ship sank. This is based on the eyewitness testimony of Joachim Wedekind, a German merchant marine officer who was on Steuben as a passenger and says he was involved in helping the ship’s officers estimate the number of people on board: “I counted 5,200, but we reported only 3,600 or so.” Wedekind claims they reported less than were on board because German authorities had forbidden such large evacuations.

Counterbalance that with historian Heinz Schön, who claims that a smaller total is accurate. Schön says Steuben had 2,800 injured soldiers, 800 refugees, 100 returning soldiers, 172 navy hospital crew including doctors and nurses, 12 Red Cross nurses, 64 crew for the ship’s anti-aircraft guns, 61 navy seamen, radio operators, signal men, machine operators, and administrators, and 165 navy crewmen, for a total of 4,267 people. Since 659 survivors were counted after Steuben sank, according to Schön, 3,608 died when the ship went down.

Let’s compare that to the sinking of Wilhelm Gustloff on January 30, 1945. The Gustloff’s records cite 918 naval officers and men, 173 crew, 373 women’s naval auxiliary, 162 wounded, and 4,424 refugees, for a total of 6,050 people. In 1980 a trio of British journalists studied the tragedy and reported an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 deaths on board Gustloff. But Schön, a survivor of the Gustloff tragedy, has revised the Gustloff numbers in his more recent works, based on an analysis of the movement of people conducted by a documentary film company. “When it sank,” Schön wrote to me, “there were 10,582 passengers on board. 8,956 were refugees, mainly women and children. 9,343 died when the ship sank (it took 62 minutes after the torpedo attack) and 1,239 survived.”

And Goya? One of the more reliable reports says 7,000 refugees and wounded soldiers were on board when it departed Hela, near Danzig. When Goya was hit by Soviet torpedoes and sank in four minutes, all except 183 survivors went down with the ship. And until Schön revised his figures in the late 1990s, Goya was reported to be the largest loss of life in maritime history. Now it is the second largest loss. And Steuben remains third.

—David W. Wooddell


[1] Beevor, Antony. The Fall of Berlin 1945. Viking, 2002.

Beevor, Antony. “They raped every German female from eight to 80.” The Guardian (May 1, 2002).

De Zayas, Alfred-Maurice. A Terrible Revenge: The Ethnic Cleansing of the East European Germans, 1944-1950. St. Martin’s Press, 1994.

Dobson, Christopher. The Cruellest Night. Arrow Books, 1980.

Schieder, Theodor (editor). The Expulsion of the German Population from the Territories East of the Oder-Neisse-Line. Federal Ministry for Expellees, Refugees, and War Victims, 1959.

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