Operation Hannibal was a German naval operation involving the evacuation by sea of German troops and civilians from Courland, East Prussia, and the Polish Corridor from mid-January to May, 1945 as the Red Army advanced during the East Prussian and East Pomeranian Offensives and subsidiary operations.
The Soviet East Prussian Offensive by the 3rd Belarusian Front under Army General Ivan Chernyakhovsky commenced on January 13, 1945 and, with Marshal of the Soviet Union Rokossovsky's 2nd Belorussian Front, subsequently cut off East Prussia between January 23 and February 10, 1945.
The Wilhelm Gustloff was part of the largest evacuation exercise in modern times. An evacuation which surpassed the Dunkirk exercise, both in regards to its tactical operation and in the sheer number of lives saved. Yet it, like the sinking of the Gustloff, is one of the least known major successful operations of World War II.
By early January 1945, Gross Admiral Karl Doenitz had realized that Germany was soon to be defeated and, wishing to save his submariners, had radioed a coded message on January 23rd, 1945 to Gydnia (Gotenhafen) to flee to the West! Code name: Hannibal. Submariners were then schooled and housed in big ships laying in Baltic ports, with the bulk of them at Gotenhafen. They were the Deutschland, the Hamburg, the Hansa and the Wilhelm Gustloff.
The stage was set!
Indeed, notwithstanding the huge losses suffered during the operation, the fact remains that over two million people were saved from the onslaught of the Russian Army's advance into the Danzig sector.
Even as late as April 1945, Hitler believed the war had to go on and that even the wounded soldiers were to be called upon to fight again as soon as they had been restored to a fighting condition. This view, held by Hitler, would explain why, whenever Doenitz reported the loss of a large transport ship such as the Gustloff and the Steuben always stressed the fact that they had carried mostly wounded soldiers as Hitler would not have heard of 'able' fighting men fleeing 'the front'.
But all along, Admiral Doenitz's avowed aim had been to evacuate as many abled people as possible away from the Russian's grab.
In early March, a task force comprised of the battleship Admiral Scheer accompanied by three destroyers and the T-36 torpedo boat (the same which had played asuch a great part in the rescue of the Gustloff's survivors) were giving cover to a German bridgehead near Wollin. During that operation, naval landing crafts managed to evacuate over 75,000 refugees who had been isolated in that area. They were taken to larger warships and other transports laying offshore. While a number of big transports were sunk, one must remember that big liners such as the Deutschland managed to break through and carry up to 11,000 souls each.