On 1 April 1945, an 18-year-old German soldier named Guy Sajer boarded the troop ship Pretoria, an elegant former passenger liner which had been taken over by the German navy, the Kriegsmarine, in 1939. The ship was packed with refugees and wounded soldiers and Sajer was jammed into a corner of the bridge, the only space available. Pretoria steamed west from Hela (in modern Poland) for two days, under constant threat of air or submarine attack, until it finally dropped its anchor in Copenhagen, and the exhausted Sajer struggled ashore. “We saw things we had almost forgotten,” he recalled, “like pastry shops, which we devoured with enormous eyes, forgetting our filthy faces ravaged with misery.”


Sajer, from Alsace, had enlisted at the age of 16 and fought for years on the eastern front with the Großdeutschland division, an elite armoured infantry formation that had by now ceased to exist. Sajer’s last few months had been characterised by desperate fighting as part of various scratch units formed of stragglers. He had been subjected to a succession of retreats and evacuations, first by sea from Memel to Pillau, then a night-mare trek across a frozen lagoon to Danzig, a long walk to Gotenhafen, and another perilous sea passage to Hela. Sajer owed his life to German sailors. “Ships gutted by bombs blocked the approaches to the piers. Mutilated corpses floated in the debris. The navy was performing a prodigious task. We would have been lost without it.”

Like Hitler, and like Churchill in 1940, Dönitz wanted the army back so that it could continue to fight

Although he was unaware of the fact, Sajer – who recorded his experiences in a memoir called The Forgotten Soldier – was saved from death, or at the very least a long stretch in a Soviet gulag, by Operation Hannibal. This was the desperate effort made by Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, the Kriegsmarine’s chief and later Nazi Germany's last führer, to evacuate German soldiers and civilians from under the guns of the advancing Red Army in the east and transport them to safety in the west. It was arguably the greatest evacuation in history although, like the far smaller but much better-known evacuation at Dunkirk in 1940, this was not an exercise motivated by simple humanity, whatever Dönitz may have claimed in his self-serving memoirs after the war. Like Adolf Hitler, and like Churchill in 1940, Dönitz wanted the army back so that it could continue to fight. At his regular naval conference with Hitler on 28 January 1945, the grand admiral informed the führer that “refugees can be evacuated by sea only insofar as this operation does not affect the transfer of fighting forces”. Ludicrous as it may seem with the benefit of hindsight, the Third Reich’s leaders still believed victory, or at least a negotiated peace, was achievable.

Yet this prospect had already receded even further with the start of the Soviet East Prussian and Vistula offensives on 12 January 1945. The eastern front collapsed and vast Soviet forces swept through Poland into the heartland of the Reich. As they encountered pockets of resistance, many holding out for no better reason than Hitler’s insane orders to defend every inch of German soil to the last, they simply swept past them.


Operation Hannibal (January–May 1945)

How long did it last? 115 days

How many were evacuated? c2 million

Greatest single loss: Wilhelm Gustloff, c9,600 dead

Dunkirk (May–June 1940)

How long did it last? 9 days

How many were evacuated? c338,000

Greatest single loss: HMS Wakefield, 724 dead

By March, the Soviets had reached the Oder river and the Baltic coast, leaving hundreds of thousands of German soldiers and civilians cut off and besieged in East Prussia, on the Courland Peninsula, and around Danzig. Many were sick or starving, and all faced inevitable death or capture by Soviet soldiers with nearly four years of German atrocities inside the Soviet Union to avenge. “Now our soldiers can see how German homes burn,” one Soviet soldier wrote in a letter home, “how their families wander round dragging their viper’s brood with them… for them there is no mercy.”

Eviscerated force

On 23 January, as the Soviet advance into East Prussia gathered momentum, Dönitz ordered Rear Admiral Konrad Engelhardt, head of the Kriegsmarine’s Transport Service and an experienced former merchant marine skipper, to launch a Rettungsaktion (rescue operation) codenamed Operation Hannibal to ferry troops and refugees west.

Engelhardt faced formidable challenges. At Dunkirk in 1940, the Royal Navy had still been the world’s most powerful navy, but the Kriegsmarine was never large to start with, and had been eviscerated by 1945. What ships remained were rusty and poorly maintained; they suffered from mechanical problems and fuel shortages, and experienced sailors had been stripped out to fight on land. Merchant shipping was in an even worse state, and many of the great liners on which the evacuation depended had not been to sea since the war began. The Allies had total control of the air, the Baltic was heavily mined, and Soviet submarines were becoming bolder, penetrating deep into the western Baltic. It was a brutally cold winter, and many voyages were plagued by ice. The risks were huge.

To carry out Hannibal, Engelhardt had 13 big liners, 25 medium-sized freighters, and hundreds of smaller merchant vessels, including coastal traders, barges and fishing boats. He also had access to most of the Kriegsmarine’s remaining warships, including the heavy cruisers Prinz Eugen and Admiral Hipper, the famous ‘pocket battleships’ Admiral Scheer and Lützow, a handful of destroyers and large torpedo boats, several flotillas of minesweepers, and countless smaller auxiliaries and patrol boats.

The first extraction took place on 23 January, when 3,000 refugees were brought safely out of Königsberg and Pillau. Generally, the procedure was to first bring in supplies and ammunition for the armies still fighting in the pockets, a sop to Hitler’s orders for everyone to fight to the last. Accompanying warships then expended their ammunition bombarding targets ashore in support of the troops before the force embarked as many refugees as possible and left for the west. This went on consistently for a staggering 115 days, the last evacuations taking place on 9/10 May when the war was technically over.

More like this

Just how fraught with danger Operation Hannibal was going to be was graphically illustrated early on, in what was perhaps, in numerical terms, history’s greatest maritime tragedy. On 30 January, the former Nazi party ‘Strength Through Joy’ holiday cruise ship Wilhelm Gustloff left Gotenhafen for Flensburg. The 26,000-ton liner was so rammed with refugees that sources rarely agree about just how many people it was carrying, but the total was possibly as high as 10,600, including 5,000 children. She was built to carry just 1,463 passengers, so the conditions aboard can barely be imagined.

Wilhelm Gustloff was steaming slowly, nursing her unreliable engines, and had just one escort, the ex-Norwegian torpedo boat Löwe. At 9.08pm, three torpedoes from the Soviet submarine S13 slammed into her side and the great liner heeled over. Although it took over an hour for her to sink, the crowded conditions aboard, the totally inadequate lifesaving gear, and the freezing water made heavy loss of life almost inevitable. There were fewer than 1,000 survivors. It's impossible to say with any accuracy even today precisely how many died, although the total included well over 4,000 children.

Sixteen-year-old Eva Luck was travelling with her family and was one of the few survivors: “The whole music room tilted, and a great cry went up from all the people there,” she recalled later. “They literally slid in a heap along the angled deck. A grand piano… rolled across the crowded room crushing women and children in its path.”

As Eva scrambled out on deck, she “saw with horror that the ship’s funnel was parallel with the sea… people were jumping in. I could hear the ship’s siren and felt the ice-cold water round my legs.”

When a Soviet sub sank the Wilhelm Gustloff, the vast majority of its 10,600 passengers were drowned

Wilhelm Gustloff was one of a staggering four sinkings during Operation Hannibal in which the loss of life greatly exceeded the estimated 1,500 who perished during the loss of the Titanic in 1912. (These terrible statistics provide a dramatic example of how the mass evacuation has been largely overlooked in popular memory.) Ten days later S13 sank a second ship, the Steuben, which went down with the loss of an estimated 4,000 crew and passengers.

Glass, dirt, excrement

By the end of February, some 250 east-west voyages had taken place, with perhaps 300,000 refugees being successfully evacuated. Conditions ashore for the refugees awaiting salvation were desperate. One teacher in Pillau recalled how she could do nothing but “stand around all day with thousands in the filth of the harbour and wait… everywhere broken glass, dirt and excrement”. In Danzig, the evacuation continued under fire from Soviet tanks, one Russian gunner remembering how “a gun would fire, then came the explosion of the shell, and another craft capsized and went to the bottom with its load of fascists”.

By now the Kriegsmarine’s weary ships were starting to fail. On 9 March half of them were reported unserviceable due to mechanical defects or lack of fuel. Despite this attrition, Hannibal continued. Over the night of 4/5 April, German warships managed to extract 8,000 men of 7 Panzer Corps from Oxhöft near Gotenhafen, remarkably bringing out a significant proportion of their equipment as well.

Drifting to defeat: German soldiers build rafts during their retreat from Soviet forces, East Prussia, March 1945. Few would be fit to fight once the evacuation was over. (Photo by Topfoto)
Drifting to defeat: German soldiers build rafts during their retreat from Soviet forces, East Prussia, March 1945. Few would be fit to fight once the evacuation was over. (Photo by Topfoto)

Less than two weeks later a Soviet submarine torpedoed another liner, the Goya, drowning up to 7,000 people. The great liners were slow, vulnerable and unreliable, but the situation was desperate, and they could carry huge numbers of people, so Engelhardt had little choice but to keep using them.

Perhaps the most appalling tragedy took place on 3 May 1945, when rocket-firing RAF Typhoon fighter-bombers attacked the Cap Arcona north of Lübeck, setting her on fire and eventually sinking her. Unknown to the RAF pilots, Cap Arcona was carrying 5,000 prisoners evacuated from concentration camps in the east, most of whom died. The ship was quite close to land and a few managed to struggle ashore, in some cases to be beaten to death by their SS guards, most of whom had escaped safely.

By May it was clear that Germany was finished. The northern ports were falling to Montgomery’s advancing British forces, but nevertheless the Kriegsmarine tried desperately to continue the operation with anything that would float. As leading Nazis tried to negotiate a surrender in the west, in the east, in the words of Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, “the struggle continued to rescue as many Germans as possible from bolshevisation and slavery”.

On 8 May, with the war essentially over, Kriegsmarine ships made their last run into Hela, evacuating up to 20,000 more refugees. They would undoubtedly have returned for more had the British allowed them. Under Dönitz’s leadership, the Kriegsmarine was perhaps the most politicised and loyal of all the three regular services, maintaining discipline and cohesion to the end. It is perhaps unsurprising that Hitler appointed Dönitz as his successor.

Shocking losses

In total, more than 2 million Germans were estimated to have been evacuated from the east during Operation Hannibal, around three-quarters of them civilians and the rest military personnel. The figure does not include concentration camp prisoners, for whom figures are largely absent and who were certainly not being evacuated to safety.

It was, by any measure, the largest evacuation by sea of modern times, dwarfing the c338,000 evacuated from Dunkirk during Operation Dynamo over nine days in 1940. Nearly 1,000 ships were used, of which 245 were sunk, taking 33,000 evacuees and sailors down with them, mostly on Wilhelm Gustloff, Steuben and Goya. These losses are shocking, but it is important to remember that the Nazi regime was largely responsible for them, as many refugee ships were unmarked, and the regime had ordered that military personnel be carried with civilians. Hard as it may be to accept, most of the ships were probably legitimate targets.

It is beyond ironic that Nazi officials elbowed their way on to the transport ships to escape Soviet justice

Operation Hannibal was a terrible tragedy. It is of course possible to argue, like Keitel, a man who was later executed for war crimes, that “two million Germans were saved from slavery”. But does this really excuse the suffering endured by those who took part?

It is perhaps more important to consider that the whole ghastly exercise could have been avoided had Nazi Germany’s fanatical leadership ended the war in January, when it was clear everything was lost. In fact, it can be argued that these desperate efforts to bring Germans to the west unnecessarily prolonged the war. It is beyond ironic that a sizeable, if hard to quantify, number of these ‘refugees’ were Nazi officials and functionaries, who used their privilege to elbow their way on to the transport ships and escape Soviet justice.

Certainly, the fantasy of bringing troops to the west to continue the fight was delusional: the unarmed, often wounded, ragged, starving remnants of once-proud Wehrmacht formations like Guy Sajer's Großdeutschland division were in no condition to go into action again.

Nevertheless, Hannibal remains an extraordinary achievement. One of its tragedies is perhaps that so much heroism, determination and skill was applied in such a misguided cause. And, yet, the evacuation from Dunkirk remains by far the better-known event, in Britain at least.

Perhaps the lack of interest in Hannibal is easily explained. It was carried out in the dying days of a despotic regime. Records and photographs are few and far between, and above all there is perhaps little interest among the victors in the last desperate struggles of a defeated enemy.

Nick Hewitt is an author and naval historian. He is head of collections and research at the National Museum of the Royal Navy

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This article was first published in the March 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine