Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff by Cathryn J Prince

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Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff by Cathryn J Prince

Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A definitive, gripping yet flawed look at one of the lesser known but major stories to come from WWII.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: April 2013
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
ISBN: 9780230341562

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There is no pun intended when I describe the ship Wilhelm Gustloff as stern. It just seems from looking at her hard and rigid lines that if you were to design a ship that the Nazi party would use as an ideological tool, to take their favoured workers on pleasure cruises around the Mediterranean, you would naturally end up with something that looked like her. However fate had it that within years she became a hospital ship, and it wasn't much longer after that that she was stationed in the northern Polish port now known as Gdynia, ready to help in a major evacuation of thousands of desperate, starving and fevered people fleeing the advancing Soviet army. All they wanted to do was to avoid the perilous snowy overland route to get a few miles along the coast, but they weren't to know that within hours of sailing the Wilhelm Gustloff would be torpedoed, and many thousands would perish in the near-frozen Baltic waters.

We at the Bookbag are great fans of the superlative. We had certainly heard of the sinking of the Gustloff and knew it was the single worst loss of life in naval history, in peace or wartime. But like many we didn't know much more than that. And that's the point – this is practically the only book to concentrate on the tragedy and address it in a popular, yet authoritative, manner for the common reader. As such we can hardly mark it down with a bad rating, for there isn't exactly much of an alternative. But while it's still heartily welcome, it doesn't come with the satisfaction the rarest non-fiction provides, that this was a story that just had to be told, and told by the only person able to tell it.

That's not to say that Prince has offered a poor tribute to the survivors and the many thousands who died. She is very good at the background to the story, describing the plight of the refugees and what and how they were trying to escape, and in the circumstances of the naval battles in the Baltic at the time. Everything meshes together with the actual drama of the torpedoing and sinking, and some of the detail of the testimony is quite heart-rending. These are the pieces of the book that are essential to it, and are essentially brilliant.

But before and after those are chapters that introduce us to the personal stories of the contacts Prince made among the survivors, and for me these pieces are less satisfactory. Shout me down, but I could not get a handle on who was whom from the way we meet them here. Prince also circles around the story, thrusting these people at us initially, backing off for background, then getting them all to get to the ship a second time. It's a strange, journalistic approach, and not vital. It does two things for me, neither of which seem wanted – it makes it possible to suggest that despite all the diligent research and historical information presented here, there might perhaps not have been a two-hundred page non-fiction book to be had out of the story; and it makes the one person you get to know the best, through a more concentrated look, the Soviet submariner who ordered the kill.

All that aside, there is a very good book at the core of this. The fact this is such a little-known story, finally getting the due respect and coverage, is more than welcome. It certainly brings home to you all that happened before, during and since – just what were the Soviets doing with the wreck while everyone's backs were turned, and while none of the survivors were willing or able to make their life stories public? You can see why all the survivors baulk at the attention the Titanic tragedy has had over the intervening decades. Despite my issues this is the best and currently the only book to honour the tragedy, and I'm grateful to have had a review copy of it.

Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder is outstanding in looking at that corner of the world and bringing home the entirety of WWII there to the reader.

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Buy Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff by Cathryn J Prince at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff by Cathryn J Prince at Amazon.com.


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