Das Boot

Patrick O’Brian

  • The U-Boat War in the Atlantic 1939-1945 by Günter Hessler and introduced by Andrew Withers
    HMSO, 396 pp, £30.00, October 1989, ISBN 0 11 772603 6
  • Business in Great Waters: The U-Boat Wars, 1916-1945 by John Terraine
    Leo Cooper, 841 pp, £19.50, September 1989, ISBN 0 85052 760 0

The first of these books is of a kind that rarely comes into the hands of a general reader: it is a highly-detailed account of the submarine war seen from the German side and it was written by a Kriegsmarine officer after the war at the request of the Admiralty and the United States Navy Department. Fregatenkapitän Hessler commanded a U-boat in 1940 and 1941; he then served on the staff of the Flag Officer, Submarines; and for the purpose of writing this book he and the German naval officers who helped him were given access to the War Diaries and the primary sources of the Kriegsmarine. Hessler was also Dönitz’s son-in-law. Few men could have been better-informed; and as he was methodical, conscientious, untiring, he and his assistants produced a work in three volumes, abundantly illustrated with charts and diagrams, of the first importance for anyone interested not only in the strategy, tactics and technology of submarine war as it was then fought and the impact of intelligence upon it, but also in the day-to-day running of a U-boat and life aboard.

The three volumes, now somewhat shortened though still amounting to about 200,000 words, were for many years a classified document. But now that the 1945 U-boat is, in comparison with the nuclear-powered monster of today, as archaic as a stage-coach, and now that the secrets of Ultra and so many other sides of intelligence have been given away, the work has been published in this facsimile text with additional notes from Allied sources.

It is a handsome, well-printed book, and although it is written in an austere official English, which no doubt faithfully reflects the original German, it reads more easily than its general appearance and numbered paragraphs might lead one to suppose.

Who will read the book now that it is offered to the public? Former submariners, no doubt; naval historians concerned with the last war (though they will have to put up with a wholly inadequate index); and those who like to give their general ideas a skeleton of statistics: for example, Germany began the war with 57 U-boats and built 1153 more in the course of it. They sank 2603 Allied merchant ships amounting to 13,500,000 tons and 175 men-of-war and auxiliaries. Six hundred and ninety-nine of these U-boats were sunk by direct enemy action, 85 by collision, German mines or internal explosion; 154 surrendered after the capitulation, 218 scuttled themselves, and two were interned.

There are other potential readers, however: like all highly-specialised publications, this book opens a window on to another world, in this case a world of shocking discomfort (submarines spent most of their time on the surface, where they pitched and rolled horribly), confinement and continual danger. It does so better than most, and its extracts from captains’ logs, brief, cool and objective, give a remarkably direct access to their experience. For example, the commander of U 218 wrote:

0400. Bomb or depth-charge concussion has apparently fractured a tappet lever on the port diesel. Starboard diesel started; but owing to in-sufficient exhaust pressure the safety valve lifts and the exhaust gases escape into the boat, filling all compartments and necessitating the wearing of escape apparatus.

0500. Surfaced to ventilate the boat.

0503. Naxos [radar-receiver] gives three separate warnings, amplitude 4 to 5. Dived to 50 metres.

1200. Several men taken ill in the forenoon. By noon two-thirds of the crew are suffering from severe headache and stomach-ache, nausea and retching and are no longer fit for duty. The remainder, also complaining of bad headache, keep things going. There are several cases of fainting through over-exertion and carbon monoxide poisoning ...

1400. Surfaced to change the air in the boat. I cannot wait until dusk.

1406. Dived. The boat is thoroughly ventilated. By evening there is only a slight improvement in the state of the crew. Milk is issued to counteract the effects of the poisoning. Six men, in a state of collapse, given injections of lobelyn to stimulate heart action.

The writer of course escaped, but most of the captains and crews of the U-boats sunk did not, and of the 40,000 officers and men who served in this branch of the German Navy 28,000 were killed. The book ends with a moving tribute to them; and nowhere does it appear that the author has the least notion that they were fighting anything but a just and honourable war.

John Terraine’s book is much more ambitious in scope, embracing the submarine aspects of both world wars and giving a general view of the whole struggle in which they were a part; it is intended for the general reader; and it is written for the most part in a highly personal tone. Business in Great Waters did not benefit from the publication of Hessler’s book, but judging from the bibliography and the 86 pages of notes it took advantage of almost everything else. The book is a valuable, comprehensive account, written from a wealth of knowledge.

Yet this reviewer at least finds it less moving than the comparatively stark German work and perhaps the reason for this may be a certain dissatisfaction with Terraine’s approach. Hessler, addressing specialists, cannot be too close to his subject. Terraine, addressing the general public, can. When one has spent years of one’s life reading about U-boats it is no doubt hard to imagine that any sentient being is ignorant of their basic principles. Yet such is the case. Although most people have a general idea of a cigar-shaped object awash on the surface, few have ever been aboard a submarine and fewer still know enough about its workings for anything like a full appreciation of the manoeuvres and actions described in the book. Business in Great Waters does have a few photographs of U-boats, but they tell one nothing about the ABC of the matter; and if the first few pages had clear diagrams or a cut-away drawing the remaining 670 pages of text would have been much easier to read and more profitable: diagrams, and answers to elementary questions. Why do submarines travel slower under water than on the surface? Can they fire torpedoes or send radio messages when they are submerged? How do they set about diving? What is their fuel consumption?

Then there is the question of dates. A historian, wholly absorbed in his period, will write ‘and on the 17th he was beheaded,’ leaving the reader to search back for the month, even for the year. Boswell, aware of human failings, went a more compendious way about it, with running heads giving the year and Johnson’s age. Terraine and many others might consider adopting a similar plan.

Terraine’s style varies from the familiar and journalistic ‘this was, indeed, the $64,000 question of both wars’ and ‘the hot seat’ of American disapproval, on the one hand, to the professorial and often-repeated ‘as we have seen’, on the other; but at either extreme and between them the author is present; and this, with the personal reflections it implies, may to some degree account for the book’s length.

The history of submarines goes back a long way, at least to the American War of Independence, when Bushnell’s boat tried to sink HMS Eagle by fastening an infernal machine to her bottom. He failed, because it did not stick: but in the American Civil War the Intelligent Whale managed to blow up a scow. Naval officers were against the craft from the beginning, looking upon them as treacherous and unfair: but presently the chief naval powers brought themselves to it, Great Britain ordering the Royal Navy’s first in 1900. The Germans did not begin building them until 1906, and it is surprising to find that even with so late a start they had an ocean-going diesel-engined U-boat with a maximum surface speed of 16.8 knots (10.2 submerged) and a range of 5200 miles; she could travel 85 miles under water at five knots, and as well as nine torpedoes she carried two 8.8 cm guns.

Germany started the war with 28 U-boats, few as powerful as that just mentioned, but still formidable weapons; and although they had nothing like the prestige of the great ships of the Hochseeflotte, they were potentially far more dangerous to an island that lived on imported food, oil and raw materials. This potentiality seems hardly to have been realised by either side at first, but the U-boats soon made it evident. The shipping losses for 1914 were 313,000 tons, many of the vessels being sunk by surface men-of-war: in 1915 they were 1,308,000 tons, almost all sunk by U-boats, 21 per cent of them without warning. Among these was the Lusitania, with the loss of 1198 lives, 124 of them American. The barbarity caused furious indignation and a hatred of all things German, and when in March 1916 another U-boat sank a cross-Channel steamer the United States threatened to break off diplomatic relations. This led to a certain moderation: even so, 2,327,000 tons of shipping were lost in 1916. But with the German admirals calling for a formal declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare (which they had been waging for some months) and with the German Army in a very bad way, the declaration was issued on 1 February 1917. The consequence was a break with the United States two days later and war on 6 April.

At this time the Germans had 111 U-boats and they were rapidly building more. The Royal Navy was not defenceless: Naval Intelligence and the famous Room 40 could read all three German codes; and interception of radio messages, which gave not only information but also the bearings of the emitter, was an everyday matter. Yet in spite of immense zeal and activity the Navy afloat could do little, and by the end of March 1917 only six U-boats had been sunk in 142 actions with destroyers. Meanwhile the losses rose to appalling figures: in 1916 2,327,000 tons; in 1917 6,236,000; of these 881,000 were in April alone, more than 60 per cent without warning. April 1917 was a terrible month by land as well as by sea, with the bloodiest fighting on the Western Front and the failure of the great Nivelle offensive, and it seemed that American intervention might have come too late. ‘We have lost command of the sea,’ said Lord Derby to Haig; and to an American admiral who asked whether there was no solution to the U-boat problem Jellicoe replied: ‘Absolutely none that we can see now.’

At this time there were virtually no convoys for merchantmen and the ships nearly always sailed independently, as indeed did the U-boats – the pack-system with tight radio control was a later development. The Royal Navy’s doctrine was hunt, find and destroy; protecting convoys was looked upon as merely defensive, and there were persuasive arguments against gathering many ships together. Yet something had to be done and on 10 May 1917 a first convoy sailed from Gibraltar, reaching England without loss.

From this time on the losses fell; and although they were still very bad, there was now hope in the air: new types of ship were coming in, new weapons, better depth-charges, better minefields, some degree of air-cover – in September 1917 a flying-boat sank UB 32. Throughout the year the number of U-boats increased – there were 132 in commission by January 1918 – but still the losses fell; and above all the U-boats were unable to prevent the American forces and their equipment from reaching France.

In April 1918 came the turning-point, when the Allies built more ships than the U-boats sank: but the Germans fought on, and even in October, when there was no hope and the sinkings could do no good, the passenger-ship Hiramo-Maru was torpedoed off the Irish coast, and then, without warning, the Irish mail-boat Leinster, losses from the two amounting to 819. ‘Brutes they were, and brutes they remain,’ said Balfour.

This sentiment remained very much alive in the Second World War, on the first day of which U 30 sank the passenger-ship Athenia 250 miles north-west of Ireland, killing 112, 28 of them American. Indeed, in many ways the Second closely resembled the First World War, from which neither side seems to have learnt much: both clung to their capital ships; both looked upon the U-boat as somewhat peripheral, certainly not the decisive weapon. Terraine draws many other parallels, but there was one very important difference, for at the beginning of the war the British were unable to read the German Enigma codes, whereas the Germans could understand many of the Royal Navy’s signals. The Germans were taken aback by England’s declaration, but were not unprepared for war. They had of course been building warships, particularly the forbidden submarines, since the early Twenties, at first secretly, then openly; and in September 1939, apart from a powerful surface fleet, they had 57 U-boats, most, like the Type VIIb, far more dangerous than their predecessors.

These were under the orders of Karl Dönitz, Führer der U-Boote, who had commanded two of the craft in 1917/18. He was removed from his POW camp to Manchester Lunatic Asylum because of conduct which he later said was feigned. Perhaps so: but Canaris thought him unbalanced in 1931, and in December 1939 he issued Standing Order 154:

Rescue no one and take no one aboard. Do not concern yourself with ship’s boats. Weather conditions and the proximity of land are of no account ... We must be hard in this war.

This resembles Jackie Fisher’s dictum, quoted and perhaps approved by Terraine: ‘the essence of war is violence, and moderation in war is imbecility.’ Dönitz was also a convinced Nazi.

Although he did not possess nearly as many submarines as he wanted (he asked Hitler for 300), those he had were outstandingly successful. In September 1939 U 29 sank the aircraft carrier Courageous in the Western Approaches; in October U 47 sank the battleship Royal Oak in the heart of Scapa Flow; and although the lesson of convoys was not forgotten, the Royal Navy had been so reduced that there were not enough ships to protect them, and the U-boats played havoc among the merchantmen. With the fall of France in 1940 Dönitz had submarine bases along the Bay of Biscay; and now began the Battle of the Atlantic, officially proclaimed only in March 1941. The enormously complex tale of how this battle was fought and won, with the breaking of Enigma by Bletchley Park, very efficient radar, new ships, long-range aircraft, high-frequency direction-finding, won in spite of rivalry between the services and ill-feeling between the Allies and in spite of reverses so severe that Churchill said ‘the only thing that really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril,’ won, so that once again the immense strength of America could cross the ocean and the Western Allies could engage the Germans in Africa and Europe while the Russians were tearing them to pieces on the Eastern Front – this is the subject of the rest of Terraine’s book. And although the main flow of the narrative is sometimes obscured by detail, those who stay the course and who have a retentive memory will come away the richer.