SS General von Steuben was a German luxury passenger liner. She was launched as the München, renamed in 1930 as the General von Steuben (after the famous German officer of the American Revolutionary War), and renamed again in 1938 as Steuben.
She was commissioned in 1939 as a Kriegsmarine accommodation ship. In 1944 she was pressed into service as an armed transport ship, taking German troops to eastern Baltic ports and returning wounded troops to Kiel. She was sunk in 1945 by the Soviet submarine S-13 with the loss of at least three thousand people.
Along with the Wilhelm Gustloff and many other vessels, she was part of the largest evacuation by sea in modern times. This evacuation surpassed the British retreat at Dunkirk in both the size of the operation and the number of people evacuated. Yet it, like the sinking of the Gustloff, because of the submarine S-13, to be mentioned later, is one of the least-known major operations of World War II.
By early January 1945, Großadmiral Karl Dönitz realized that Germany was soon to be defeated. Wishing to save his submariners, he radioed a coded message on 23 January 1945 to the Baltic Sea port Gotenhafen (the Polish city and port of Gdynia under German occupation) to evacuate to the West under the code name Operation Hannibal.
Submariners were then schooled and housed in ships lying in the Baltic ports, with most of them at Gotenhafen. Among them were the Deutschland, the Hamburg, the Hansa, and the Wilhelm Gustloff. This justified the rationale behind Dönitz's decision to mount Operation Hannibal.
Notwithstanding the losses suffered during the operation, the fact remains that over two million people were evacuated ahead of the Soviet Army's advance into East Prussia and Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland).
In the winter of 1945 East Prussian refugees headed west, away from the city of Königsberg and ahead of the Soviet Army's advance into the Baltic states and East Prussia. These refugees and thousands like them fled to the Baltic seaport at Pillau (now Baltiysk, Russia), hoping to board ships that would carry them to the relative safety of western Germany. The Steuben was in the fleet of ships sent for the purpose.
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