The Royal Navy survey ship HMS Echo has investigated the wrecks of two ships that sank with a total of over 16,000 lives lost during World War II.
Echo has been on operations in the Baltic Sea and recently studied the wrecks of the Nazi German cruise ship turned hospital ship Wilhelm Gustloff and the Norwegian merchant vessel Goya, which had been commandeered by Germany’s Kriegsmarine as a support ship for the Baltic U-boat flotilla.
More than 16,000 people perished when the two vessels were sunk in Germany’s Operation Hannibal, the evacuation of German soldiers and civilians from East Prussia as the Red Army closed in in the closing months of the conflict in Europe.
Using a multi-beam echosounder, Echo was able to show the destruction caused by Russian submarine torpedoes that struck the German ships.
In the images captured by Echo, Wilhelm Gustloff was seen split in three parts (pictured) while Goya was broken towards the bow.
In 1945 the Germans were in full retreat across Eastern Europe pursued by the Red Army. In early January of that year, the 3rd Belarussian Front launched the East Prussian Offensive, cutting off East Prussia from the rest of Germany.
Hundreds of thousands of German soldiers and civilians were trapped and Operation Hannibal was enforced to evacuate them. Over the next 15 weeks, around 900,000 German civilians and 350,000 soldiers were evacuated west across the Baltic to Germany and occupied Denmark (huge numbers compared to Dunkirk, which saw 338,226 British and French troops evacuated across the English Channel).
Both Wilhelm Gustloff and Goya were pressed into service for this vast undertaking.
On January 30, Wilhelm Gustloff left Danzig (now Gdansk), packed with around 10,000 civilians and military personnel. The ship was soon spotted by the Russian submarine S-13, which successfully launched three torpedoes at the liner, sinking it within the hour.
It is thought up to 9,500 people perished in the freezing cold waters of the Baltic, making the event the single greatest loss of life in a maritime incident.
On April 16, 1945, Goya left the port of Gotenhafen (now Gdynia), with around 6,700 passengers and crew. The ship, and the small armada she was sailing with, was spotted by the Soviet submarine L-3 and close to midnight, the submarine fired four torpedoes, two of which struck Goya.
The damage was fatal and the ship sunk in less than four minutes. There were only 183 survivors.
Echo is now heading to the UK to continue with its survey tasking.
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