By January 1945, Soviet forces were beginning to cut off German civilians and military personnel in East Prussia, the Polish Corridor and the Baltic States. Adolf Hitler stubbornly refused naval units to be utilized for an evacuation, instead insisting on no retreat, even in the face of overwhelming Soviet forces. Admiral Karl Donitz, one-time U-boat captain and commander of the Kriegsmarine’s U-boat forces until January 1943, finally convinced Hitler to relent and on January 23, 1945, Operation Hannibal, the largest seaborne evacuation in history began. From January 23 until early May, German Kriegsmarine units, merchant and fishing vessels and passenger liners were pressed into service to rescue approximately 1.3 million Germans from the Soviet juggernaut.
Former Norddeutscher passenger liner turned hospital ship SS General von Steuben was among those ships pressed into service. Incidentally the General von Steuben had been named after the Polish/German Revolutionary War office who had done so much to train General Washington’s ragtag army. On the night of February 10, the Soviet submarine S-13 spied the General von Steuben steaming in the Baltic with a load of 4,267 civilians, crew and soldiers. Struck by two torpedoes fired by the S-13, the General von Steuben disappeared beneath the waves of the Baltic along with 3,608 souls.
This was not S-13‘s first taste of blood during Operation Hannibal as the sub had sunk the German liner Wilhelm Gustloff only ten nights earlier with the loss of nearly 10,000 lives. The wreck of the General von Steuben was located in 2004 by a Polish naval vessel and lies in waters reachable by technical divers.