Ship of Fate by Roger Moorhouse is the story of a ship named the MV Wilhelm Gustloff. It was a luxury ship but not designed as a playground for the rich, instead, it was to be used to provide cheap, heavily government subsidized vacations to the workers of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. In this way, it was a propaganda tool for the National Socialism (Nazi) philosophy. As is pointed out in at least two places in the book, the history of the ship and that of the Third Reich are mirrored in time. Launched in 1937 when Hitler’s government was at its height of power when the conviction of the German populace was the dawning of a new world order, the ship sank in 1945, at the same time of Hitler’s death.
This is a 66-page nonfiction Kindle Single which I obtained through a Kindle Unlimited subscription. It is well referenced with 175 citations filling the last 15% of the book. As Moorhouse traces the history of the ship he also puts the different roles of the ship, as a cruise ship, as a hospital, and as a barracks for submariners, in the context of what was happening to Germany militarily and socially at a defined period of WWII.
As a cruise ship, the Gustloff was a tool of the Kraft durch Freude (KdF) organization which was responsible for organizing tours, concerts and holidays for workers. There were no first class and economy cabins. Vacationing workers could be housed in any of the 616 cabins. There were only two designs, two-bed cabins, and 4-bed ones. All passengers had equal access to the seven bars, two restaurants, a library, and a swimming pool. Workers in Germany, the newly annexed Austria, and even German expatriates living in England had chances to book holidays on the Gustloff. Activities were scheduled according to the strict schedules that are stereotypical German.
As a hospital ship, the Gustloff was refitted so that she was able to treat 3,000 wounded, carry out 12,000 clinical examinations, do 1,700 x-rays, and provide facilities for doctors to carry out 347 operations.
Following this, the Gustloff became a floating barracks for 1,000 submarine cadets and teaching staff.
In her final role as a refugee transport vessel, she carried over 10,000 refugees from Gotenhafen, departing on 30 January 1945 on a trip that would end at the bottom of the sea along with 9,000 of its passengers.
The sinking of the Gustloff invites comparison with the Titanic as far as loss of life. The Titanic sank due to structural ruptures caused by an iceberg. The Gustloff was torpedoed as an act of war. Owners and responsible parties tried to minimize publicity about the Titanic sinking. Governments were responsible for the secrecy and lack of publicity about the Gustloff sinking. Government secrecy was successful in obscuring the fact that the wartime losses were six times larger than the Titanic; this made the Gustloff loss the worst maritime disaster in history.
There are many interviews of the survivors offered that humanizes this horrible event for the reader. While it was not a war crime for the Soviet submarine to sink the Gustloff, the loss of more than 8,000 non-combatant women, children, and senior citizens was a high price to pay for the destruction of such a small number of enemy combatants.
This well-researched book will be highly interesting for readers of military history.