„What the commercial ships turned refugee
transporters have been accomplished
in these dramatic
cannot be duly
Hans Georg Prager
In early 1945 the
attacking wedge of the Red Army, the 1st Baltic Front,
already advanced westward in East Prussia against
Königsberg and the port of Pillau.
The 2nd and 3rd
White Russian Front, situated in the south, in the
beginning moved westward, then turned northward to the
With this operation
East Prussia has been encircled and the population could
not flee westward, the only way out was through the
ports of the Baltic Sea.
The remaining German
troops were pushed towards the shore. They defended the
encircled ports with great loss, making possible for
many people to flee the danger zone onboard ships. In
this way appr. 2,5 millions people could escape to the
Many thousands who
thought themselves saved on the ships died a terrible
death in the ice-cold water of the Baltic Sea. Although
the Allies knew very well that the ships carried mainly
women, children and elderly, they attacked them with
bombs, rockets, deck guns and torpedoes. Even hospital
ships full of seriously injured, marked by the Red Cross,
were sunk without mercy. A total of more than 250 ships
found a watery grave.
While the drama of
the "Titanic" moves thousands of movie-goers to tears,
the general public shows no interest in the biggest ship
catastrophes of all time, with the number of victims
twice or thrice that much.
The 9,343 victims of
the "Wilhelm Gustloff", a 7,000 victims of the "Goya",
the 5,594 victims of the "Cap Arcona", the 3,608 victims of the "Steuben", the 2,950 victims of
the "Thielbeck", the 1,500 victims of the "Orion",
the 970 victims of the "Karlsruhe", the 956
victims of the "Neuwerk" and the 8078 victoms of a
refugee ships did not die a less terrible death.
Their bodies were
lacerated by torpedoes or bombs, they drowned in the
ice-cold water of the Baltic Sea, trampled each other to
death on the overcrowded corridors of the sinking ships,
burnt under the deck, suffocated by smoke of fires or
were shot dead in the water by low-flying aircraft.
Among them, the
majority were women and children from East Prussia, West
Prussia or Pomerania who fled the Red Army.
But there were also
many injured who thought themselves on the way to safety.