HMS Echo has studied two Second World War shipwrecks in the Baltic, which were at the centre of two of history’s greatest losses of life at sea.
The Royal Navy survey ship has studied the wrecks of the vessels Wilhelm Gustloff and Goya, having been on operations in the region.
The Devonport-based ship used a specialised multibeam echo sounder to map out the features of the sea floor, seeing the destruction caused by torpedoes from Russian submarines.
The captured images show Nazi cruise ship Wilhelm Gustloff split in three parts – it had been repurposed as a hospital vessel and barracks for U-boat trainees.
The Norwegian merchant vessel Goya was taken by the Germans to provide support to the U-boats in the Baltic in 1940 – the new pictures show it is broken towards the bow.
More than 16,000 people died on vessels sunk in Germany’s Operation Hannibal in 1945, which involved the attempted escape of German soldiers and civilians from East Prussia as the Red Army approached.
Over the course of 15 weeks, about 900,000 German civilians and 350,000 soldiers were evacuated west across the Baltic to Germany and occupied Denmark.
On 30 January 1945, Wilhelm Gustloff left Danzig (latter-day Gdansk) with about 10,000 civilians and military personnel. Soon spotted by Russian submarine S-13, she was sunk by torpedoes within the hour.
It is believed up to 9,500 died in the freezing waters, making the event the single greatest loss of life in a maritime incident, the Royal Navy said.
On 16 April 1945, Goya departed Gotenhafen (now Gdynia) with about 6,700 people on board. Soviet submarine L-3 spotted her and fired four torpedoes close to midnight – two stuck Goya, sinking her in less than four minutes. Only 183 people survived.
Lieutenant Phil Boak on HMS Echo, said: “While the wrecks were fascinating to explore and image using the echo sounder, it was sobering to think that they were the final resting place for so many people caught up in the ravages of war.”
The wrecks and Operation Hannibal are of special significance to one member of HMS Echo’s company – his grandmother was a 14-year-old orphan at the time, evacuated from Danzig in early 1945.
He said: “If the events of 1945 had panned out differently, I may well not be here serving in the Royal Navy today. It just goes to show how large-scale evacuations such as Operation Hannibal can send ripples through time affecting generations of families.”
The Navy said HMS Echo is now heading to the UK to continue with her survey tasking.
Cover image: HMS Echo in the Baltic (Picture: Lithuanian Navy).