Monday, June 8, 2015
The Kriegsmarine made its last major surface effort in the Baltic during the last months of the war. Dönitz concentrated all remaining surface ships along the southern Baltic coast, covering retreat and evacuation of cut off garrisons and civilian refugees. Evacuations totaling 1 million troops and 1.5 million civilians were carried out under intense Soviet bombing and submarine attacks, altogether forming the single largest maritime evacuation in history. Soviet submarines caused three of the greatest maritime disasters in history when they sank three German liners packed with troops and refugees. Each sinking cost several times the peacetime casualties lost on the far more famous civilian ships Titanic and Lusitania: over 9,000 died in the frigid Baltic when the Wilhelm Gustloff was sunk by three torpedoes. There were only 900 survivors. The Kriegsmarine continued to run the gauntlet to Courland until the end of the war, supplying the shrinking pocket and removing wounded and refugees. By the end of the Baltic campaign the Germans had lost 1 old battleship, 7 U-boats, 12 destroyers, and nearly 200 smaller warships (minelayers, minesweepers, and various landing craft).
The joint operation by the Kriegsmarine and the merchant navy to evacuate the Courland Pocket saw the following horrendous loss of life at sea, Lloyd's of London accepts that the loss of “Wilhelm Gusloff and Goya being the largest civilian casualties at sea:
30-31 Jan 1945 Wilhelm Gusloff. 25,484 GRT some 6,000 killed, 900+ rescued
16-17 April 1945 Goya, 5,230 GRT, some 6,000 killed, approx 100+ rescued
9-10 Feb 1945 General Von Steuben, 14,660 GRT, 3,000 killed, 300 rescued
11 April 1945 Moltkefels 7,862 GRT, and Posen 1,062 GRT, both either torpedoed or mined simultaneously within yards of each other - 3,500 rescued, and 1,000 plus killed.
Please note various sources put loss of life higher.
Whilst the majority of those killed in the vessels above were civilians, there were also military personnel on those vessels. Many other vessels were sunk by aircraft, submarines, mines and motor torpedo boats, including plainly marked and illuminated as per convention, hospital ships.
The evacuation from the Courland Pocket between January and 8 May 1945, was the greatest evacuation ever. Some 20,000 civilians were killed in the sea evacuation alone, in the land evacuation various sources give some 18 percent of those attempting escape died (approx some two million reached Germany).
Over this period some 800 ships evacuated civilians from Germany's eastern provinces to Germany or Denmark: Danzig/Gotenhafen/Hela 1,047,000 Konigsberg/Pillau 451,000 Kolberg 70,000
The exact number may never be determined due to the chaos at the time, for instance from Libau there were 75,000 wounded and 25,000 combat soldiers evacuated, but even though there were large numbers of civilians - no figures of civilian evacuee's kept. Large numbers of civilians (and military) were also evacuated from the many minor ports/fishing villages along the coast; also figures of persons landed in Finland and Sweden were not kept.
During the same period some 548,000 plus, wounded and combat military personnel were evacuated by sea to Germany/Denmark. At least a further 27,000 military were evacuated by air from the Courland Pocket.
Sources give varying numbers of those evacuated and killed during this time of great chaos. What is certain however it was the Kriegsmarine's most successful campaign - saving life!