After reading and loving Salt to the Sea a fictional account of The Sinking Of The Wilhelm Gustloff I was eager to source a copy of The Damned Don't Drown written in 1973 by Arthur V. Sellwood. I had a difficult job getting a copy but finally sourced a hardback copy in at Kennys.ie used books and was suprised when it arrived with its libary stamps dating back to 1977.
The Damned dont drown is an account of The Sinking of The Wilhelm Gustloff, a cruise ship that was designed to carry approx 2000 people but on the night of Jan 12th 1945 was jammed with over 10,000 German evacuees (of which 4000 were children) fleeing from the approaching Red army in Eastern Germany. The ship was 12 km into its journey when it was torpedoed by a Soviet Submarine and in a little under an hour over 9000 people had lost their lives on that freezing night in the Baltic Sea. The survivors (1250) had a difficult and harrowing story to tell.
I did find this an excellent read as it satisfied my curiosity for more information on what is called " The worst disaster recorded in maritime history" The author paints a very vivid and harrowing account of the night in question and he has included eye witness accounts that really were disturbing but very well written. I did google the tragedy as I knew this book was written in 1973 and more information has come to light since it was published. The figures for death and survivors has changed and I have updated as above (approx)
A very informative read and I am really glad I located a copy for my bookshelf.
At lunchtime on January 30 1945 a large German cruise liner, the Wilhelm Gustloff, left the port of Gotenhafen (now Gdynia in Poland) bound for Kiel in western Germany. She was laden with thousands of German refugees fleeing from the Red Army’s advance into East Prussia. It was beginning to snow and very cold. Just after 9pm, about 12 miles off the coast of Pomerania, the Gustloff was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine. She sank in less than an hour. It was the worst disaster in maritime history. This flawed but vivid book brings it to life.
Even today, this story is little-known outside Germany. In 1973, when this book was published, very few people in the English-speaking world would have known of it. The author of this book says in the introduction that he first heard of it by accident as early as 1948, when he was a journalist on assignment in Berlin, covering the Berlin Airlift. In later years, as he researched several books about the war at sea, he heard more, and began to get an inkling of what an enormous disaster it had been. According to the blurb for The Damned Don’t Drown, published in 1973, about 6,500 people were aboard. To put this in perspective, the number of dead on the Titanic was about 1,500; the worst peacetime maritime disaster, the loss of the ferry Doña Paz in the Philippines in 1987, killed about 4,400 people. In fact Sellwood’s figure was far too low; later research by a Gustloff survivor, Heinz Schön, eventually put the death toll at 9,343, mostly civilians, and many of them children.
Sellwood seems to have been very much a journalist, not an historian. He wrote a number of popular non-fiction books, sometimes co-written with his wife, Mary, or others. Most were on the war at sea but they included one on Victorian railway murderers, and a 1964 “startling exposé” called Devil Worship in Britain. This journalistic approach is very evident in The Damned Don’t Drown. It sometimes grates. Sometimes he adopts the viewpoint of an eyewitness, which of course he was not, or writes as if he knew someone’s thoughts: “In one of the few intervals he could spare... [Captain] Petersen found time to wonder briefly how the passengers were finding it. ...he felt a twinge of sympathy for their plight.” Petersen did survive, but died a year or so later and won’t have spoken to the author. There’s a fair amount of this sort of thing. There is also very little explanation of how the ship came to be caught by the submarine; Sellwood simply says that it was “waiting in their path” and saw them by accident. In fact Petersen was so worried about collision with other German vessels that he was not taking evasive action, and had the navigation lights on.
But it doesn’t really matter, because that’s not what you read this book for. The strength of The Damned Don’t Drown is its vivid survivors’ accounts. Here, Sellwood’s book really excels. And if I had a choice of being on the Titanic or the Gustloff, I know damn well which I’d choose.
As the ship started to sink, literally thousands of people were trapped below deck, and the stories of those who did get out are gripping. So are the accounts of the fights to get into the lifeboats, the struggles to launch them from frozen davits, the attempts by the crew to keep order at gunpoint, and the bitter cold as the temperature dropped to (Sellwood says) -20 deg C.
There is cowardice; a Party official shoots his wife as part of a suicide pact, then lacks the courage to kill himself (a passing soldier, disgusted, does the job for him). There is brutish behaviour; people on an already overloaded raft “used feet and fists to batter swimmers struggling to join them ...until finally the float itself was overturned. Dozens drowned in the ensuing panic.”
But there is also great courage and selflessness. A teenager who Sellwood names as Ilse Bauer (it won’t have been her real name) is being evacuated after being raped by Soviet troops in East Prussia. She is slipping down the icy, sloping deck into the sea when a sailor rescues her and wedges her behind a deck fitting, where an older woman hugs her to keep her warm; later, the woman gives Bauer her fur coat, then jumps into the sea, presumably to her own death. The coat protects Ilse and she survives, just. A newly-married naval auxiliary, Ruth Fleischer, is literally flung onto a lifeboat by a burly seaman who thrusts aside others who are fighting for a place. Fleischer too survives, although her new husband – the communications officer on a nearby cruiser – is convinced for some days that she is dead.
The Damned Don’t Drown isn’t a history book and doesn’t pretend to be. There’s no index, and nothing is referenced; presumably it’s all from survivor interviews and some of it will have been secondhand. It’s also quite brief (the US edition is 160 pages). Anyone who wants a well-researched book in English should read Dobson, Miller and Payne’s The Cruellest Night (Cruelest in the US), published not long after, in 1979; this is an outstanding book that combines journalism and historiography, both to a high standard. It also covers the sinking, a few days later, of the General Steuben by the same Soviet submarine, which caused similar loss of life. There is also a much more recent book on the Gustloff, Cathryn J. Prince’s Death in the Baltic (2013); this is not as complete or well-researched an account, but does give a moving portrait of some of the passengers.
Still, journalism is the first draft of history. In any case, The Damned Don’t Drown, whatever its flaws, is a quite extraordinarily vivid book that does give just a taste of what that appalling night must have been like – in particular, the 45 minutes or so between the torpedo hits and the sinking. After all, the naval archives are still with us; the survivors, increasingly, are not.
One of the worst disasters ever took place in 1945 in the Baltic Sea just twelve miles off the coast of Germany. The German cruise ship, Wilhelm Gustloff had been ordered to take evacuees from the port of Danzig. The thousand-year Reich was collapsing some 980 years ahead of schedule as the Russians moved east with ferocious speed. The port of Danzig had become crossroads attracting refugees fleeing the Russian menace. The ship was unprepared for such an influx of passengers.
She had been converted to a military hospital/floating barracks/ U-boat training ship and had been moored for several years. The engines needed work, and virtually all of the lifeboats had been stripped for duty on other ships. The captain did what he could to obtain several open whaleboats, but the area they were to sail into was filled with mines, enemy aircraft and submarines. It was a sub: marine that was to initiate the tragedy The ship, only twelve miles from land – it might as well have been a thousand given the conditions – was hit by three Russian torpedoes. There were lifeboats for barely one-third of the 6,000 passengers. The weather was horrible, and it had been only by the most bizarre chance that the Russian captain had seen them. Atmospheric interference had also hindered their reception of the submarine warnings. Panic erupted almost immediately, and the captain was forced to issue shoot-to-kill warnings if anyone rushed the boats. Those boats that managed to get away without spilling their contents were found to be devoid of oars – it had been an administrative oversight.
The captain of the battleship Hipper, when he realized what had happened, violated all rules of common sense by turning back to help. Putting his ship in great danger, he lit up the area with searchlights, but the huge ship's sides made rescue virtually impossible despite heroic efforts by his crew. They were running down more boats and survivors than they could save, so he was forced to abandon the area.
I tried to read Salt to the Sea earlier this year and disliked the author's writing style so much I gave up after a few chapters. But the historical backdrop event--the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff--did intrigue me, so I ordered this book instead.
This book wasn't perfect--the writing style was occasionally over-the-top, there are no citations, and it is relatively brief--but it is a gripping, harrowing read. The author does a good job of capturing the anxiety of the ship's many passengers, many of whom were fleeing the Soviet advance in the waning days of WWII, as the ship waited in the harbor.
When it was finally dangerously overcapacity, the ship was allowed to depart, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief because they were bound for Germany. Even knowing other Allied forces were closing in on Germany wasn't as bad as being caught in East Prussia by the Russians.
However, within a few hours, the ship was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine, and absolute bedlam broke out in the hour or so the ship survived.
I've read about quite a few shipwrecks. As a 90s kid, I know way more Titanic history than is probably emotionally healthy, but the descriptions in this book of the panic on the boat during the sinking and in the freezing water after the ship was gone will haunt my nightmares for years to come. Take your pick between the stampede to the deck that killed hundreds, the outbreak of violence and suicides that erupted as people realized they were trapped, the savage Lord of the Flies struggle for lifeboats and wreckage in the water, and the hundreds who still froze to death in the lifeboats due to the horrendous weather.
This book is from the 70s and lists the death toll as about 6,000, but more recent accounts claim 9,000. I can easily believe the higher total.
I have another book on this ship, but I'm probably going to have to take a mental health break on the subject before reading it. :(
Gripping disaster story about the World War II ship Wilhelm Gustloff that was torpedoed by the Russians. The loss of lie in the horrific aftermath of a night in the Baltic Seas was one of the worst ever. A story of heroism and heartbreak this ranks up there with the Titanic for sheer frozen terror.