REVIEW: Screams of the Drowning: From the Eastern Front to the Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff (2021)

A Book by Klaus Willmann

NOTE: I received a free preliminary, and likely unedited copy of this book from Netgalley for the purposes of providing an honest, unbiased review of the material. Thank you to all involved.

The RMS Titanic is known as one of the worst (or perhaps the most popular) maritime disasters in History, resulting in over 1500 deaths. Now, imagine if you will, a wartime sinking that resulted in 9400 deaths that many do not know anything about? That is the story of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, our topic for today’s review of Screams of The Drowning by Klaus Willmann. For the first time, this book has been translated into English by Pen and Sword Publishing, originally being released in Germany a few years ago. This is a remarkable account of that very disaster, as told by former Wehrmacht soldier Hans Fackler. After being injured in battle, Hans was to be discharged from the Eastern Front in a medical ward en route to Germany. Unfortunately for him, and 10,000 other passengers, Russian Submarines had other ideas.

This is the true story of how one soldier experienced the horrors and bloodshed of World War II — and lived to tell the tale. Hans Fackler, like many boys his age, was conscripted into the Wehrmacht at the age of seventeen and sent to the Eastern Front. A pioneer in the infantry, he barely survived the carnage of the front lines and lost comrades to the Russian forces. Eventually, Hans suffered a grievous injury from a grenade explosion. No longer able to fight, he found himself drugged on morphine and ob board the controversial Wilhelm Gustloff, an armed military transport ship for SS, Gestapo and Wehrmacht personnel, which operated under the guise of transporting civilians.

The Gustloff was attacked and sunk by Russian torpedoes, drowning more than 9,000 passengers. Rescued by a German freighter, Hans recuperated in a military hospital near Erfurt in the Harz, which subsequently fell into the Russian zone. He escaped and undertook the arduous task of walking almost 200 miles back home to Bavaria. The extraordinary first-person account of one of the few soldier-survivors of the sinking of the Gustloff, it also includes Hans’ experiences of taking part in the Kiev and the Vercors mountains massacres in 1941 and 1944 respectively.

As the introduction states, Hans has the benefit of some 60+ years for introspection and hindsight with his account; who really knows what he may have said or what he was really thinking back then. That isn’t to say that the book really goes into 1940s politics or anything, but it’s something to keep in mind when reading the narrative. That said, his accounts of battles and the eventual sinking, as told from a perspective we rarely get in the US (That of a former German soldier) is rarely told. For me, it’s refreshing to see accounts like this and very important. Learning about how the political climate at the time was was somewhat jarring. He tells of one instance when his mother said something bad about Hitler at a grocery store, and soon had gestapo trying to “scare some sense” into her soon after. I can’t imagine the terror of constantly walking on eggshells in that climate, and accounts like this show why most citizens simply went with the flow no matter what atrocities The Reich was doing.

I enjoyed this book for the unique perspective and the harrowing account of a terrible sea disaster. The book is well-done and you really get a feeling for how a normal everyday soldier must have felt during the war, especially one as young as Hans. Being indoctrinated into believing that the one true way to be a man was to join the military seems like a crazy mindset to have, but war will do that to people. Hopefully this book brings awareness of the events themselves and will help show that bad things happen on every side of a conflict.

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