The Oranje was a Dutch hospital ship during the Second World War. The Germans had their own hospital ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff. The ships had many similarities, and they both ended up at the bottom of the sea. The gloomy difference between them was in the number of people on board who died. The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff went down in history as resulting in the highest naval death toll of all time, yet you have probably never heard of it.

The Wilhelm Gustloff (built in 1937) had many different roles in its short period of service, as did the motor vessel the Oranje (constructed in 1938). Originally designed as a cruise ship for 1800 passengers, the war brought a change of plan for the Wilhelm Gustloff, as it was requisitioned and used as a floating barracks, an evacuee transportation ship, and a hospital ship. It had been designed for leisurely voyages to sunny destinations and was not equipped for war. Its Dutch counterpart, the Oranje, was also originally a passenger liner. Soon after the outbreak of the Second World War, it was withdrawn from passenger services between the Netherlands and the Dutch East Indies. It was imperative that the Oranje was not captured by the Germans, and it had to be protected against mines and submarines in times of war. The Oranje was also given a new role as a hospital ship, but rarely sailed in European waters. The Wilhelm Gustloff remained in Europe, with fatal consequences.

The Hitler?

In terms of appearance, the ships also looked very similar: both the Wilhelm Gustloff and the Oranje had a flared bow which made the ships less stable but allowed them to travel through the water faster. Both measured about 200 metres in length and had an inauguration ceremony in the presence of key national figures. Both ships were the pride of the nation. The German ship was launched by Hitler, while the Oranje was christened by Queen Wilhelmina, but only the Dutch royal family managed to name the vessel after itself. Adolf Hitler would have liked to have called the ship the 'Hitler' but instead gave the honour to Wilhelm Gustloff, the founder and leader of the Swiss branch of his party, the NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers’ Party). Gustloff was the first Nazi to be assassinated by a Jewish man: he was shot in the head five times in 1936, and a tribute to him was considered fitting. He died as a martyr, and Hitler therefore decided that Gustloff's name should be put on the new ship's bow instead of his own. And let's be honest: the ‘Hitler’ doesn't sound like a great name for a ship, does it?

Wilhelm Gustloff

Wilhelm Gustloff

The Wilhelm Gustloff was Germany's the hospital ship. On 30 January 1945, around 7,000 people died on board. It was the largest loss of life in history from a single ship.

Photograph credits: German Maritime Museum Bremerhaven

Fleeing for their lives

While the Oranje sailed in relatively safe and quiet seas between New Zealand, Australia, and Suez carrying the wounded from war zones, the Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic Sea was right in the danger zone. To understand what happened at sea, let's briefly jump to the problems on land. It was 1944, and the Russian armies were advancing further and further through Eastern Europe towards Nazi Germany. Hundreds of thousands of Germans wanted to flee from the region and escape death. In the freezing cold January of 1945 – with temperatures of 30 degrees below zero – many left their homes and began the journey to the coast of Poland to avoid capture by the Russians. Travel by road and rail had become too dangerous, so water transport offered a solution... at least, so it seemed. Gdynia (Gotenhafen) was heaving, with people pushing and shoving on the quayside trying to get on board the Wilhelm Gustloff. More than 60,000 people were there trying to get onto the ship, and that was a mere fraction of the millions of refugees needing to be evacuated. Only a small proportion of them – between 8,000 and 10,000 – were ‘lucky’ enough to board the ship, thinking they were on their way to safety, though the ship was only designed for at most a quarter of that number. There were people everywhere, even in the emptied swimming pool. The toilets were blocked, and people suffering from seasickness often didn't manage to get to the railing in time as they were too far away in a hold. The stench was unbearable. At that point, nobody thought things could get worse... but they did. Things went terribly wrong for the Germans on the evening of 30 January...

Propaganda on torpedoes

On 30 January, the Russian S-13 submarine captain Marinesko brought his vessel up to the surface. As he listened to the hydrophone, he thought he could hear another ship approaching. He was right. He saw a large ocean-going German ship coming towards them and decided to attack with his S-13. Marinesko gave the order to prepare the torpedoes, which had been decorated with rallying Russian slogans. The slogan on torpedo number one read ‘for the Motherland’; torpedo two read ‘for Stalin’; number three read ‘for the Soviet people’; and the last bore the words: ‘for Leningrad’. The S-13 approached the Wilhelm Gustloff on port side (left) and fired.

Bright lights and darkness

On board the Wilhelm Gustloff, alarms sounded following the first explosion, and the watertight connecting doors were closed. It was an awful decision to have to make, as everyone on the wrong side of the doors faced instant death. Everything possible was done to try to keep the ship afloat. At first it was thought that the ship had struck a mine, but then the next torpedoes struck. The chaos was horrific. The ship began to list to one side, the icy-cold water gushed in, and people were trampled in the stampede for the lifeboats. Eyewitnesses later said that people with a pistol committed suicide in order to avoid drowning. The electricity had failed, and it was completely dark on the ship. It was as if the devil was playing games with it. When most of the ship had been pulled under water, sucking people down into the cold depths with it, the lights suddenly came on again. Brightly illuminated, with screaming people along the railings, the ship was visible for a few seconds more on the black horizon. Three torpedoes caused the deaths of an estimated 7,000 people. Torpedo two turned out to have got jammed and had not been fired. Even without the ‘Stalin’ torpedo, one of Hitler's biggest evacuation operations was halted, resulting in the largest number of deaths ever in a single ship sinking. It is curious that so few people in the Netherlands are aware of this historic wreckage.

And what became of the Oranje? The Dutch ship survived the war but sank to the seabed in 1979 following a major fire on board. Fortunately, no lives were lost.

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