THE CRUELEST NIGHT: THE INCREDIBLE STORY OF THE DOOMED VOYAGE OF THE WILHELM GUSTLOFF by Christopher Miller, John Payne, and Ronald Dobson

In the waning days of WWII, vast multitudes of German people–soldiers and civilians alike–needed to flee west to escape the vengeful invading Soviet hordes. For these Germans, a land escape was by then impracticable. The only realistic chance of escape lay via the sea. And so the German navy, under Admiral Karl Doenitz (who for a brief period of time would become the interim leader of all of Germany after the death/disappearance of Hitler and the Nazi elite), gathered together a multitude of just about any ship that would float, naval, commercial, and anything else left over, to rescue the panic-stricken German multitudes. The author calls this episode of WWII history “Germany’s Dunkirk.” And in the numbers of Germans rescued, this operation more than justifies the name, and justifies Admiral Doenitz for declaring it an overall triumph. However, unlike Britain’s Dunkirk, there was also a tremendous loss of life when at least two large German liners were sunk by torpedoes from Russian submarines.

By far the greatest loss of life occurred when the former German liner, Wilhelm Gustloff, was sunk by a Russian sub. This is a straightforward account, nothing conspiratorial or anything like that. What is perhaps most intriguing about this account is that I had never heard of it before, and neither has most anybody else outside of Germany–even people who know a thing or two about WWII history. This is all the more fascinating and perplexing when it is taken into account that far, far more people died when the Wilhelm Gustloff went down than the next three or four much better-known ship disasters in history combined! The Titannic, the Lusitania, the Empress of Ireland, etc.–one could combine all the loss of life aboard all of those ships, and one would still not come close to how many people died aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff. And I had never ever heard of this history before. And I hereby ask the reader: Had YOU?

It is also ironical and tragic what befell the captain of the Soviet submarine after WWII. Instead of being commended as a national war hero, paranoid KGB types and others sent this former sub captain to Siberia. Apparently it did not pay to be conspicuous under Stalin’s regime no matter for what reason. But then, I already did know that at least.

This is a small paperback book published in 1980, competently written by more than one author, curiously, and it looks like a fictional book in its construction but it is anything but fiction.

Rating: Δ Δ Δ Δ

9/2014