There probably isn’t a person alive today that doesn’t know the story of the HMS Titanic from 1912 but even with the loss of more than 1,500 people, it is far from the world’s worst maritime disaster, in terms of loss of life. History’s deadliest shipwreck occurred in 1945, when some 9,000 people perished after a German vessel, the Wilhelm Gustloff, was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine in the Baltic Sea. Find out more about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, and four other other major shipwrecks you might not know about.
The Wilhelm Gustloff (1945): The deadliest shipwreck in history
On January 30, 1945, some 9,000 people perished aboard this German ocean liner after it was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine and sank in the frigid waters of the Baltic Sea. The Gustloff was constructed as a cruise ship for the Nazis’ “Kraft durch Freude” (“Strength through Joy”) program, which provided recreational activities for working-class Germans. Adolf Hitler launched the 684-foot-long, 25,000-ton vessel in 1937. However, its cruising career was brief; after World War II began in 1939, the German military converted the Gustloff into a hospital then later used it as a U-boat training school.
In January 1945, as the Soviet army advanced on East Prussia, the Nazis launched Operation Hannibal, a mass naval evacuation of German military personnel and civilians from the region. On January 30, as part of Operation Hannibal, the Gustloff left the East Prussian port of Gotenhafen (which today is the Polish city of Gdynia) bound for Kiel, Germany. The Soviet submarine S-13 soon spotted the Gustloff and blasted it with three torpedoes. The German liner sank within 90 minutes, about 12 nautical miles off Stolpe Bank near present-day Poland. Historians now estimate that only about 1,000 of the approximately 10,000 people aboard the Gustloff survived, making it the deadliest maritime disaster in history.
In the aftermath, the world learned little about the disaster for a variety of reasons. The Nazi regime kept news of the sinking out of the headlines and censored survivors, and some survivors kept quiet because they felt guilty about their German heritage and the atrocities Nazi Germany had inflicted on millions of people.
Mont Blanc (1917): A massive explosion devastates a city
On December 6, 1917, in Nova Scotia’s busy Halifax Harbor, the Mont Blanc, a French ship loaded with explosives and headed for Europe, where World War I raged, collided with the Imo, which was traveling to New York to pick up relief supplies for war-ravaged Belgium. After the collision, fire broke out on the Mont Blanc, which soon ran aground on the Halifax waterfront, where a crowd had gathered to watch the burning ship. About 20 minutes after the collision, the fire ignited the 2,925 tons of explosives the Mont Blanc was transporting and sparked a massive blast. (The force of the blast was so great that physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, referred to as “the father of the atomic bomb,” later studied the event in order to estimate the potential damage of the nuclear weapons he was helping to develop.)
The blast killed scores of people instantly and devastated the surrounding area, toppling buildings, setting entire blocks ablaze and triggering a tsunami. Compounding the tragedy was the fact that a blizzard struck the region that night, hampering rescue and relief efforts. More than 2,000 people died as a result of what became known as the Halifax Explosion—the largest man-made blast until the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan in 1945– while more than 6,000 others were injured and some 9,000 people were left homeless.
The Sultana (1865): Catastrophe on the Mississippi River
On April 27, 1865, some 1,700 people—many of them Union soldiers recently freed from Confederate prison camps—perished after this side-wheel steamboat exploded, burned and sank in the Mississippi River. Launched in 1863 in Cincinnati, the 260-feet-long, wooden-hulled Sultana was licensed to carry 376 passengers. During the Civil War, it made regular trips between New Orleans and St. Louis, often transporting troops and supplies for the federal government.
On April 24, 1865, the Sultana stopped at Vicksburg, Mississippi, to pick up discharged Union soldiers, many of them weak and malnourished from their time in such notorious POW camps as Andersonville and Cahaba.
The U.S. government paid steamboat companies to transport soldiers to their homes in the North: $5 for each enlisted man and $10 for each officer, and, as a result, some companies bribed military officials in order to take on as many soldiers as possible. The Sultana departed Vicksburg with an estimated 2,400 people on board—more than 2,000 soldiers, 100 civilians and 80 crew members—six times the vessel’s legal capacity. At around 2 a.m. on April 27, just north of Memphis, three of the Sultana’s four boilers suddenly exploded and the boat caught fire. Hundreds of passengers burned to death, while hundreds more were thrown into the surging Mississippi by the force of the blast or jumped into the water to escape the flames onboard–and ended up drowning.
The sinking of the Sultana was the deadliest maritime disaster in U.S. history, but it was largely overlooked because it came so soon after the end of the American Civil War (Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his Confederate force to Gen. Ulysses Grant on April 9) and the assassination of President Lincoln (April 14).
The Arctic (1854): Women and children last
The 284-foot-long, 2,856-ton Arctic, which made its maiden transatlantic voyage in 1850, was known for its speed and could cross the Atlantic in just nine days. On September 27, 1854, while sailing from Liverpool, England, to New York City, the Arctic collided with a smaller French steamship, the Vesta, in thick fog off Cape Race, Newfoundland. Initially, the French vessel appeared to have suffered greater damage, but the Arctic’s captain soon realized his own ship was rapidly taking on seawater and he made the decision to abandon the Vesta and head for land in order to save his passengers. However, after leaving the Vesta, the damaged Arctic continued to take on water, causing its furnaces to go out and its engines to stop working. The captain ordered that women and children should be put into lifeboats first, but instead a number of the crew and some male passengers made a dash for the boats, leaving hundreds of people to die when the Arctic sank.
In the end, of the estimated 400 people aboard the Arctic, only 87 survived the disaster, 22 of them passengers and the rest crew members; none were women or children. The Arctic’s captain went down with the sinking ship but managed to stay alive by clinging to some wreckage before being rescued by another vessel. Meanwhile, the Vesta did not sink and instead made it to St. John’s, Newfoundland, on September 30. The Arctic crew members who took the lifeboats and abandoned ship were criticized in the media for their behavior, which also violated laws forbidding sailors to put their own safety before that of passengers in emergencies. However, none of the men were prosecuted for their actions.
Dona Paz (1987): The deadliest peacetime shipwreck in history
On December 20, 1987, this Philippine passenger ferry, en route from the Philippine island of Leyte to Manila, the capital city of the Philippines, collided with an oil tanker, caught fire and sank, killing as many as 4,000 people. The Dona Paz, built in 1963 in Japan, collided at night in the Tablas Strait with the Vector, a tanker carrying more than 8,000 barrels of petroleum products. The Vector’s cargo burst into flames and fire quickly spread to the Dona Paz; both vessels eventually sank.
Passenger ferries are common in the Philippines, an archipelago of some 7,100 islands with a weak record of nautical safety. At the time of the collision, the Dona Paz, later referred to as “Asia’s Titanic,” was overcrowded; although the exact number of people the vessel was carrying is unknown, the total might have been more than double its legal capacity. Additionally, the Vector was said to be poorly maintained and operating without a license. Only several dozen people survived the disaster.