By Pierre Kosmidis
Many ships have sunk with horrible loss of life, but never have so many lives been lost with a single ship.
When the Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed by a soviet submarine and sank, it was an event unlike any in naval history, because of the sheer scale of the tragedy.
According to the list of passengers on the 30th aboard the Gustloff were 918 Naval officers and men, 173 crew, 373 members of the Woman’s Naval Auxiliary units, 162 wounded, and 4,424 refugees, for an official total of 6,050 people.
This is according to the official list though and doesn’t take into account the many hundreds of other people that one way or another, were able to make their way onto the seemingly safe decks of the Gustloff.
In fact, research has proved that the total number of people on the Gustloff at the time it was sunk was actually 10,582!
One survivor of this unspeakable tragedy, Heinz Schön, who at the time of the sinking was a 19 year old assistant purser aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, dedicated his whole life in piecing together the tragedy.
Heinz Schön has set the number of people on the Gustloff as follows:
8,956 refugees, 918 officers NCOs and men of the 2.Unterseeboot-Lehrdivision, 373 female naval auxiliary helpers, 173 naval armed forces auxiliaries, and 162 heavily wounded soldiers, for a total of 10,582 people on board on January 30th.
Schön passed away in 2013 and his last will was to be buried at the shipwreck, along with so many of his friends and thousands of people who tragically perished in the shipwreck.
A team of scuba divers, including Dimitris “Dima” Stavrakakis and Tomasz “Tomek” Stachura from Poland, materialised Heinz Schön’s last will:
They dived at the haunting wreck and put a commemorative plaque as well as an urn containing Schön’s ashes at the Wilhelm Gustloff.
Like all naval tragedies, the scene was one of sheer and complete horror. The suffering of those on the Gusltoff was unspeakable, it transcends all time and place, all nationality, and all borders.
At around 9 p.m. on January 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler was speaking to the German people. In the packed dining hall of the luxury liner “Wilhelm Gustloff,” as in most of the rest of the country, a radio was broadcasting Hitler’s address, but the thousands of refugees from Pomerania and East and West Prussia who had struggled onto the ship weren’t listening to the nazi dictator now.
They wanted one thing – to be rescued. Only very few, 1,252 to be precise, made it off the steamer alive, of the well over 10,000 – mostly women and children, but also crew and soldiers.
The ship had been hit by three Soviet torpedoes within an hour; the temperature outside was minus 18 degrees Celsius.
Dimitris “Dima” Stavrakakis, from Gdynia, Poland, shares with pierrekosmidis.blogspot.com his experience diving at the Wilhelm Gustloff:
“No matter what you have read or heard about the “Wilhelm Gustloff” shipwreck, you just cannot grasp the magnitude of this tragedy where thousands of people, including women and children, drowned”, scuba diver Dimitris “Dima” Stavrakakis, from Poland, says to pierrekosmidis.blogspot.com.
“Once I was inside the ship and lit the place with my torch, huge piles of bones and sculls were all over the place, at some points the human remains were piled over a metre high”,Dimitris Stavrakakis adds.
“Each shipwreck is a reminder of a human tragedy; you have to approach it with respect and dignity.
When I first started diving at shipwrecks, I was focusing on the technical aspects of the dives, but as soon as you start researching the history of the ship, you cannot help but become sensitive to the loss of life and the unspeakable proportions of this tragedy”, Mr. Stavrakakis says.
The Gustloff is not only the biggest loss of life because of a shipwreck, but the story of Heinz Schön, who tried for decades to make the wreck known, is an example of a man who dedicated his whole life to the memory of the lost people,Mr. Stavrakakis explains and adds:
“Our dive at the Gustloff had a special significance for all of us: German diver Matthias Schneider overcame all bureaucratic obstacles, in order to dive at the protected site of the wreck and 3 divers from Poland were part of the team.
Diving at the Gustloff is technically demanding, because of the conditions: Cold water, low visibility, ghost nets are all obstacles you have to take into account. When you know you are about to dive at a wreck which is essentially the final resting place of so many thousands of people, you cannot help it but feel sad.”
Mr. Stavrakakis and his fellow divers carried the urn with Heinz Schön’s ashes. “With utmost respect, we placed the urn and the plaque at the wreck and my thoughts were that at last Heinz found his friends”, Mr. Stavrakakissays.
Dimitris “Dima” Stavrakakis, one of the most active wreck divers in the Baltic Sea from Gdynia, Poland, as his name implies, is of Greek descent. His family history is directly linked to the history of Greece, as it unfolded during the Civil War that was fought in the country, from 1946 to 1949 and is reminiscent of the “Odyssey”: In Dima’s own words: “I was born in 1966, to a Greek father and mother. Both were refugees that fled at a very young age the Greek Civil War, my mother was 9 years old at the time, my father was 12. My mother lived in Bulgaria for a year, then in Romania for another year and she ended up in Poland, where her mother, my grandmother, found her after many years in exile. My parents returned back to Greece in the late 1980s and my sister is currently living in Athens too. I served my military service in Greece, I am married and live in Gdynia, Poland”
Tomasz Stachura is one of the most active wreck divers in the Baltic Sea.
He specializes in deep wreck photography.
He has taken thousands of underwater pictures of Baltic wrecks as well as many caves on different continents. At present he is working on an innovative way of presenting wrecks in 3D technology.
His photo was on the covers of National Geographic in Germany, Sweden, Spain, Portugal and Poland in 2014 and 2015.
The whole situation is indeed noteworthy as a great success, because it is only the third time in the history of the magazine, when the picture of Polish photographer goes on the cover of another country.
Through the last two years this legendary mosaic of the Swedish wreck aroused admiration around the world. Consisting of approx. 650 photos (selected from over 1200!), the whole is a true work of art and the level of difficulty to carry out and a full size are able to understand only those who realize what an underwater photography on deep wrecks really is.
It is one thing to dive to 70m, and another repeatedly dive to 70m with a camera and make a few hundred images, which then through hundreds of hours a person has to wrestle in a graphics program to combine them together like pieces of a puzzle.
No wonder that for the combination of hard work, talent and extraordinary skills Stachura was honored with this remarkable distinction (which he refers as his Mount Everest), which is the cover the foreign edition of National Geographic.
Member of the Explorers Club New York. Founder, owner and CEO of SANTI Diving – a worldwide diving company producing diving equipment. Co-founder of an international Baltictech Conference dedicated to promotion of the wreck diving in the Baltic Sea.
Originator and chief of the ‘SANTI Find the Eagle’ expedition – a long term project aiming to find wreck of the submarine ‘Eagle’ (ORP Orzeł) lost in the North Sea in 1940.