January - May 1945
Mastermind of Operation Hannibal
The Wilhelm Gustloff was part of the largest evacuation exercise in modern times. An evacuation which surpassed the Dunkirk exercise, both in regards to its tactical operation and in the sheer number of lives saved. Yet it, like the sinking of the Gustloff, is one of the least known major successful operations of World War II.
By early January 1945, Gross Admiral Karl Doenitz had realized that Germany was soon to be defeated and, wishing to save his submariners, had radioed a coded message on January 23rd, 1945 to Gydnia (Gotenhafen) to flee to the West! Code name: Hannibal.
Submariners were then schooled and housed in big ships laying in Baltic ports, with the bulk of them at Gotenhafen. They were the Deutschland, the Hamburg, the Hansa and the Wilhelm Gustloff.
The stage was set!
Each of the major ships which were sunk during that operation are described in detail within their own chapter but the aim of the present chapter is to describe the rational behind Doenitz decision to mount Operation Hannibal and further, to list some of the operation's unchallenged successes. Indeed, notwithstanding the huge losses suffered during the operation, the fact remains that over two million people were saved from the onslaught of the Russian Army's advance into the Danzig sector.
Even as late as April 1945, Hitler believed the war had to go on and that even the wounded soldiers were to be called upon to fight again as soon as they had been restored to a fighting condition. This view, held by Hitler, would explain why, whenever Doenitz reported the loss of a large transport ship such as the Gustloff and the Steuben always stressed the fact that they had carried mostly wounded soldiers as Hitler would not have heard of 'able' fighting men fleeing 'the front'.
But all along, Admiral Doenitz's avowed aim had been to evacuate as many abled people as possible away from the Russian's grab.
In early March, a task force comprised of the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer accompanied by three destroyers and the T-36 topedo boat (the same which had played asuch a great part in the rescue of the Gustloff's survivors) were giving cover to a German bridgehead near Wollin. During that operation, naval landing crafts managed to evacuate over 75,000 refugees who had been isolated in that area. Thery were taken to larger warships and other transports laying offshore. While a number of big transports were sunk, one must remember that big liners such as the Deutschland managed to break through and carry up to 11000 souls each.
Early April. Operation Walpurgisnacht. Eight thousand men of the 7th Armoured Corps were rescued from the Oxhofter Kampe and were taken across the bay to Hela.
Night of 4th to 5th April. A flotilla of small boats, landing crafts etc evacuated over 30,000 refugees from the same Oxhofter Kampe and took them to Hela.
All told, nearly 265,000 people were evacuated from Danzig to Hela during the month of April alone.
On April 15th, another large convoy consisting of four liners and other transports left Hela with over 20,000 refugees. One of the excorts was, again, the T-36. They, too, made it safely to their port of destination.
May 1st to May 8th. Over 150,000 survivors were evacuated from the beaches of Hela during that period. They were ferried aboard small vessels to transports and warships where they embarked. One of those warships was the T 36 and this was to be her last voyage. On May 4th, she was bombed off Swinemunde and after hitting a mine, she sank taking with her Lieutenant Commander Robert Hering. The T-36 had been engaged without respite on convoy duty since the beginning of Operation Hannibal and had contributed to the savings of many of the survivors during that period.
May 8th, 1945. On the last day of the war, a convoy consisting of sixty-five small vessels left Libau carrying 15,000 men. Three hundred of them who had boarded the last of the small ships did not make it to port as they were captured by Soviet warships. They were sent to Soviet labour camps while those who made it to port helped rebuild Germany. It was an act which marked the beginning of a new era.
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