Gotenhafen, German-Occupied Poland January 23, 1945

On this date in 1945 German Grand Adm. Karl Doenitz launched Oper­a­tion Han­ni­bal, a sea­borne evac­u­a­tion or, as Germans called it, a rescue oper­a­tion (Rettungs­aktion) of well over a mil­lion people trapped by war in Latvia, East Prussia, and German-occupied Poland. Mounted by naval, mer­chant marine, and civil­ian ves­sels, Oper­a­tion Han­ni­bal dwarfed the better-known British-coor­di­nated Oper­a­tion Dynamo (May 26 to June 4, 1940) that evac­u­ated more than 338,000 British, French, and Bel­gian sol­diers trapped by the German Wehr­macht (mili­tary) on beaches in North­western France. By con­trast, the num­ber of German evac­uees trans­ported west across the Baltic Sea to rela­tive safety in occu­pied Poland, Germany, and German-occu­pied Den­mark in 1945 runs from 800,000 to 900,000 civil­ians and 350,000 com­bat­ants or even more. Doenitz placed the total evac­uees—he called them “com­pa­triots” (Lands­maenner)—at over 2 mil­lion. Sadly, an unknown num­ber of the esti­mated 200,000 Baltic Germans who attempted to flee over­land ahead of the advancing legions of the Red Army were lost to win­tery ele­ments and sub­zero tem­per­a­tures, enemy artil­lery and air attacks, star­va­tion, and ill­ness. Adding to these losses were hun­dreds of Kriegs­marine, passen­ger, mer­chant marine, and civil­ian ves­sels and their passen­gers and crews during the 15‑week rescue oper­a­tion, which offi­cially ended on the date of Germany’s uncon­di­tional surren­der to the Allies on May 8, 1945, but ran days past. The rescue oper­a­tion was set in motion by Doenitz alone, not Adolf Hitler, whom Doenitz and the Kriegs­marine kept in the dark, defying the arro­gant Fuehrer’s explicit order for Germans in the Baltic to stand fast and fight.

The Red Army’s Oper­a­tion Bagra­tion (June 22 to August 19, 1944) in Bela­rus, the Baltic States, and Eastern Poland preceded the Soviets’ East Prus­sian Offen­sive by 5 months. The latter offen­sive (Janu­ary 13 to April 25, 1945) played a cru­cial role in the col­lapse of Germany’s East­ern Front. At the start date of Doenitz’s Oper­a­tion Han­ni­bal on Janu­ary 23, 1945, the upper sector of the East­ern Front stretched south from the Cour­land Penin­sula in Latvia, recently cap­tured by the Red Army, along an ever-narrowing sliver of Baltic coast through Koenigs­berg, capi­tal of German East Prussia (see map below). From Koenigs­berg (today Russia’s Kali­nin­grad) the front swung west­ward along the sea­coast of East Prussia, West Prussia, and East­ern Pom­er­a­nia (all three terri­tories now Polish) to northern Mecklen­burg-West­ern Pom­er­a­nia in present-day Germany.

On April 30, 1945, the polit­ical and mili­tary reins of the crum­bling Third Reich were sud­denly thrust into Doenitz’s hands by Hitler’s sui­cide. Months ear­lier Adm. Doenitz had begun visu­al­izing the apoc­a­lyp­tic end of his country. He started planning ways to limit the awful conse­quences of its down­fall. Ergo, Doenitz’s radio mes­sage of Janu­ary 23, 1945, to his top lieu­ten­ants at Goten­hafen (Polish, Gdynia) naval base in occu­pied Poland, ordering them to exe­cute Oper­a­tion Han­ni­bal with its two objec­tives: One, evac­u­ate badly injured mili­tary casual­ties, high-ranking offi­cers, and Nazi offi­cials and family to tem­po­rary safety to the rear. And, two, do every­thing humanly pos­si­ble to remove civil­ian men, women, and chil­dren from harm’s way. The twin human­i­tar­ian objec­tives required finding, crewing, and launching just about every sea­worthy ves­sel of every type within arm’s reach. It proved no small feat. Fuel and ammu­ni­tion short­ages, mechan­i­cal prob­lems, and depleted crews made imple­menting the rescue all the harder.

It is to Doenitz’s personal credit and his brilliant plan­ning of Oper­a­tion Han­ni­bal and to his senior com­man­ders’ tac­ti­cal exe­cu­tion, so ably assisted by thou­sands of major and minor actors, that so many of the Wehr­macht’s sick and wounded and so many des­per­ate, trau­ma­tized, and fright­ened German resi­dents of the East­ern Baltic were rescued. Equally amazing was that so few, com­para­tively speaking, were lost in the flight to safety.

Operation Hannibal: Flight Over Fight in the Last Days of the Third Reich

Map of Baltic area showing western and eastern fronts, 1944

Above: War in Europe 1944. The gray-blue area in the right half of the map shows the extent of the Soviets’ Oper­a­tion Bagra­tion. Between June and August 1944, the Soviet Army drove the German Wehr­macht (armed forces) out of parts of Poland, Latvia, Lithu­ania, and Belarus while in West­ern Europe the Allied armies drove the Wehr­macht east­ward toward the Franco-German border (Oper­a­tion Over­lord). The coastal area in North­west Latvia (site of the Cour­land defen­sive pocket defined by a dia­gonal red line on the map) south­ward to East Prussia and from there west­ward along the Baltic coast to Den­mark was the loca­tion of the last great German mili­tary oper­a­tion of World War II, Operation Hannibal.

Operation Hannibal: East Prussian civilians flee homeland, 1944 or 1945Operation Hannibal: East Prussians queue to board ships, Pillau 1944 or 1945

Left: Pushing bicycles, horse-drawn wagons piled high with house­hold items, German civil­ians flee in an orderly line to a place of hoped-for safety in the west.

Right: After having driven carts and wagons loaded to the gills with their prized pos­ses­sions, including a goat tied to a wagon (center of photo), des­per­ate Baltic Germans queue to board evac­u­a­tion ships at the port of Pillau, a U‑boat training base. Pillau, today’s Bal­tiysk in Russia’s Kali­nin­grad Oblast, was linked by road and canal to East Prussia’s capi­tal of Koenigs­berg. By mid-January 1945, days after the start of the Red Army’s East Prus­sian Offen­sive, Pillau bulged with 100,000 panicky civil­ians. East Prussia became a ver­i­ta­ble death trap for tens of thou­sands of civil­ians and shat­tered, weapons-poor mili­tary units fleeing the on­rushing Red Army armed to the teeth. Hitler’s “invin­ci­ble bas­tion” of Koenigs­berg, completely cut off by the Red Army in Octo­ber 1944 and under siege in late Janu­ary 1945, finally fell to the enemy on April 9, followed by Pillau on April 25, bringing the Soviets’ East Prussian Offensive to a close.

Operation Hannibal: Wehrmacht units in Courland Pocket evacuate via barge, 1945Operation Hannibal: German soldiers in East Prussia surrender to Soviets, 1945

Left: Grand Admiral Doenitz defied Hitler’s “no retreat, no sur­ren­der” orders and pulled much of Army Group Cour­land (shown here piling into over­crowded boats) out of their defen­sive pocket to be repo­si­tioned further south per Oper­a­tion Han­ni­bal. Some of the rescued sol­diers lost their lives when Soviet sub­marines tor­pe­doed pas­sen­ger liners and mer­chant ships that had been inducted into the Baltic rescue oper­a­tions. On the night of Janu­ary 30, 1945, as many as 9,500 out of more than 10,000 mili­tary and civil­ian pas­sen­gers, of which 4,000–5,000 were chil­dren, went down in the jam-packed Wil­helm Gust­loff bound for Kiel, Germany, making his­tory as the largest loss of life in a single-ship sinking, a loss four times greater than Titanic’s. Next to the tragic fate of Wil­helm Gust­loff’s pas­sen­gers was the fate of 6,000-plus sol­diers and Baltic evac­uees who perished when the liner Goya was tor­pe­doed on April 15, 1945, 3 weeks before hos­til­i­ties ended; only 183 survived.

Right: Unlucky German soldiers, including several wounded, sur­ren­der to Soviet rifle­men in East Prussia. Approx­i­mately 3 mil­lion German POWs were employed as force labor in the Soviet war­time econ­omy and post­war recon­struc­tion. A total of 2.8 mil­lion German POWs were held by the Soviet Union at the end of the war. According to Soviet and German records 356,700 German nationals died in Soviet cap­tiv­ity, and it is plau­si­ble that 700,000 German POWs listed as missing in action also died in Soviet cus­tody. It is gen­er­ally believed by West­ern his­to­ri­ans that the Soviets took 3 mil­lion Germans pri­soner of which 1 mil­lion died. By 1950 almost all sur­vi­ving German POWs had been released, with the last pri­soners—those con­victed of war crimes (Kriegs­verurteilte)—repatriated in 1956.

Operation Hannibal: East Prussia evacuees escape Koenigsberg in seaplane tender, 1945Operation Hannibal: East Prussia evacuees arrive by ship in Germany, 1945

Left: German civilians fleeing the besieged city of Koenigs­berg in early 1945 pack them­selves into the sea­plane tender Hans Albrecht Wedel. By April the city was hun­dreds of miles behind enemy lines, sur­vi­ving solely due to Doenitz’s life­line. A source says 494 mer­chant ves­sels took part in Oper­a­tion Han­ni­bal out of 790 vessels of all types, from one battle­ship, multi­ple heavy and light cruisers to landing craft, barges, and small boats.

Right: Evacuees arrive at a German harbor already occu­pied by British troops. Baltic German evac­uees (aka “expel­lees” or new­comers) swelled the ranks of dis­placed “home­born” Germans who had been bombed or burned out of their homes or places of employ­ment, etc. Most vil­lages, towns, and cities on the receiving end were ill-pre­pared to house or feed the new­comers. In 1950 West Germany (Bundes­republik) close to 20 per­cent of the coun­try’s resi­dents (9 mi­llion out of 50 mil­lion) were expel­lees from the “lost” German terri­tories of East and West Prussia, Pomer­a­nia, Sile­sia, and Sude­ten­land. In East Germany (German Demo­cra­tic Repub­lic) expel­lees approached 30 per­cent of the popu­la­tion (4 million to 14 million).

The Chaotic Evacuation of German East Prussia, 1944–1945

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