There was an ominous feeling in the air as the old liner Steuben slipped her moorings under dark clouds and set off across a slate-grey Baltic Sea. Crowded onto the ship were 5,200 German refugees and wounded soldiers. Everyone on board was attempting to escape the fast-approaching Russian forces that threatened destruction, rape and death.
The 22 year-old Steuben had been built in 1923 as a luxury liner but, by 1944, the need for transport shipping was greater. Her luxurious fittings and fixtures had long since been removed and replaced by bunks and bare floors. The 550-foot long vessel had also been equipped with a variety of anti-aircraft guns. Steuben was, on February 9th, 1945, part of a ragtag flotilla of vessels cobbled together to evacuate German forces and refugees.
The beleaguered port of Pillau had been under increasing pressure throughout the surprisingly mild winter of 1944. Instead of the usual icy conditions, the warmer than usual weather created mud that bogged down Stalin’s forces in a quagmire and delayed their advance by a few precious months.
The frost came early in January 1945, and on frozen ground, the Soviet assault resumed. Two hundred Soviet divisions poured forward at all points along the Eastern Front, smashing German resistance and inexorably pushing them back. As the Third Reich retreated, a tide of refugees formed, demanding to be rescued and fearful of a repeat of the massacre at Memmersdorf in East Prussia. There the Soviets raped the local women regardless of age and crucified them on barn doors and houses. Men and children were clubbed to death or shot, their bodies flattened by the advancing tanks.
On the night of February 9th 1945, the roads leading to the port of Pillau were streams of human misery; endless miles of pitiful people stumbling towards the waiting ships. All around them lay shattered and broken houses. Many of the refugees had been walking with their belongings for over a fortnight and were tired and hungry. When they finally reached Pillau (nowadays Baltiysk), the scene they saw was of utter devastation, the port having been bombed by Russian Air Force bombers only days before. Everywhere there were wounded soldiers and, at one point, refugees outnumbered locals by a factor or four to one.
German authorities knew they had to get everyone out of Pillau before it too was overrun. They organised Operation Hannibal which became the largest maritime evacuation in history. Over the course of four months, nearly 1,100 German ships transported 2.4 million people to safety across the Baltic Sea. Every conceivable type of vessel was utilised in the effort, with ships sailing from Pillau, Danzig (Gdansk), Gotenhafen (Gdynia), Zappot (Sapot) and Hel. At one point, iron ore colliers loaded people in the bins usually used to transport cargo. They were uncomfortable, but relieved to be leaving the Eastern Front.
Pillau quickly became the focus of the operation with over 441,000 people using the port to escape. Not everyone, however, got away safely.
The Steuben’s classic lines and white painted hull had been stripped and repainted in a mottled camouflage grey. Officially she could accommodate 1,100 passengers, but with Russian forces getting ever closer by the hour that number was doubled, tripled and then quadrupled.
Steuben was alongside the pier at Pillau loading and every available space onboard was filled with the wounded. Captain Karl Hormann was prepared to leave port when his ship’s capacity was reached, but orders directly from Hitler made him load another 4,000 people onto his dangerously over-crowded ship. Luggage and personal belongings were not permitted and left on the quayside.
In the early afternoon of February 9th, she slipped away to sea and was soon making 12 knots. Her destination was Swinemunde, two days’ steaming away. Alongside, she was accompanied by a single minesweeper that escorted her as far as the Hel peninsula. After that, two old torpedo boats took up position on her beam.
The mood on board was of cautious optimism as people started to believe they had escaped. Below decks, makeshift operating rooms worked tirelessly to save the lives of wounded soldiers and civilians. Amidst the horror of war, three babies were also delivered as the Steuben sailed out on calm seas under a moonlit night with a full panorama of stars in the sky.
There was a final obstacle to pass before the Steuben’s captain could relax – Soviet submarines. Up until the end of the war, Soviet submarines hadn’t played a very significant role in the fighting, but just ten days earlier on January 30, the liner Wilhelm Gustloff was attacked and sunk on the same course that Steuben had set. Like Steuben, the Wilhelm Gustloff was filled with refugees and wounded soldiers and had been targeted by the submarine S-13 under the command of the brilliant Alexander Ivanovich Marinesko.