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Operation Hannibal Ports & Ships, 1944 & 1945

Eastern Front

Coverage of Baltic port facilities at Gotenhafen, Pillau and Königsberg in August 1944 revealed the presence of ships that participated in Operation Hannibal, the 1945 evacuation of East Prussia. Between January and May 1945, at least 800,000 German civilians and 350,000 soldiers were transported from East Prussian ports to Germany by approximately 1000 vessels of all types. During the transport, several ships were sunk resulting in great loss of life.

In April 1945, Operation Hannibal, related activity was observed along Germany’s Baltic coast.

Gotenhafen in August 1944

Gotenhafen --now Gdynia, Poland-- was a major shipyard and navy base and figured prominently in Operation Hannibal. Among the vessels pressed into service from Gotenhafen were the former cruise ships Wilhelm Gustloff, Cap Arcona, Antonio Delfino, Deutschland and the freighter Goya that were all sunk with great loss of life between January and May. The sinking of the Gustloff on 30 January 1945 remains the single greatest sea disaster in history, with more that 9000 lost on the overcrowded ship.

Gotenhafen was covered on 6 and 20 August 1944 (map). On 6 August the Gustloff, which since 1941 had served as a floating barracks for the 22nd U-Boat Training Flotilla, was being refurbished in one of the port’s large floating dry docks, indicating it (Graphic). By 23 August, the Gustloff had been refloated and moved at a quay near the U-Boat school, while another accommodation ship, possibly the Hansa (previously the Albert Ballin) remained at an adjacent quay. The Cap Arcona, along with the Deutschland, freighter Goya and possible General von Steuben (seen at Pillau on 6 August), were docked elsewhere in port (Graphic).

A number of other surface combatants were in port, including: the cruiser Admiral Hipper, two light cruisers, Köln (Graphic) and Emden, two pre-dreadnought battleships, Schilessen and Schleswig-Holstein and two 1936A destroyers. By 20 August either the Schilessen or Schleswig-Holstein had replaced the Gustloff in the floating dry dock.

Another ship, the battle crusier Gneisenau, was brought to Gotenhafen for repair after suffering heavy damage to her bow in February 1942. In 1944 the ship remained in disrepair, with her bow and gun turrets removed (Graphic). About 15 submarines were at the port on 6 August; four were at the naval base and the rest were in the shipyard.

Identifiable ifacilities in the vicinity of the port (map). The headquarters of the 22nd U-Boat Training Flotilla was located in the naval base near the quays where the Gustloff and possible Hansa were docked on 20 August. A subcamp of the Stutthof concentration camp was south of the port.

Pillau and Königsberg in August 1944

On 6 August more Operation Hannibal ships could be seen at Pillau and Königsberg – now Baltiysk and Kaliningrad, Russia.

At Pillau, the cruise ship General von Steuben –another accommodation ship sunk in 1945-- was berthed at the south mole. At least three other Operation Hannibal ships could be identified, including another liner, the Potsdam, the former Merchant Raider Orion and the probable sub tender Saar (Graphics). Two unidentified sub tenders and a smaller liner would likely have been used in the evacuation. Military vessels included an unidentified cruiser and 42 submarines belonging to the 21st, 22nd, 23rd and 26th U-Boat training flotillas.

Identifiable facilities at Pillau included a small barracks and school for one of the flotillas, two large permanent barracks and storage areas at two old forts. Fort Stiehle, north of the naval base, exploded on 26 January, destroying part of the town. A possible labor camp was near the fort. Several large groups of temporary barracks were north and east of the base and at least one appeared to be associated with construction of a possible rail ferry.

Two more Operation Hannibal ships, the Thuringia and Der Deutsche, were berthed at the Königsberg naval base (Map, Graphic). The ships served as accommodation vessels for the 32nd U-boat training flotilla. Twenty-one submarines were in port.

The only other major naval vessel was the cruiser Seydlitz, which was in the adjacent civilian port facility (Graphic). Seydlitz, part of a group of vessels selected for conversion to aircraft carriers, had its superstructure removed before the project was abandoned.

Operation Hannibal Ships near German Ports, April 1945

Coverage along the Baltic coast of Germany on 13 April 1945 revealed probable Operation Hannibal activity near the ports of Sassnitz and Kiel (Map). The Kriegsmarine heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen was imaged off Sassnitz along with a support ship and a possible submarine (Graphic). The warship, which had been providing fire support for retreating German forces, was probably being resupplied before returning to East Prussian waters. Further east, near Kiel, a destroyer with a formation of small escorts was heading east from the port (Graphic), while a tanker and destroyer were anchored immediately to the north (Graphic).

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