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The Memoir and photographs of a U-Boat Officer in World War II

Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD 1994
281 pp. Notes, Bibi. Ind., Maps, Photos, $31.95
Reviewed by CAPT Prentice Cushing, USN(Ret.)

The dust cover of this enigmatically titled book depicts Leutnant sur See (Ensign) Otto Giese gazing to sea, camera at the ready, from the bridge of U-181 in the Indian Ocean during November 1944, with a montage background of the cigarette deck of U-405, a photo taken by then-Seaman Giese en route from Keil to Trondheim in March 1942, where the crew was royally welcomed by the Norwegian “good folks”. Both photographs are part of the collection in the book; GIESE was an ardent photographer and over 100 of his Leica results complement the readable, although sometimes peculiarly-worded narrative. As stated in the foreword by Captain Jim Wise, a naval aviator, intelligence officer and collaborator with Captain Giese (who obtained his master’s license and became a U.S. citizen after World War II), it is one man’s nautical diary. Despite the cover banner, proclaiming it to be “Memoirs of a World War D U-boat officer” Naval Submarine League readers will find that less than one-third of the book concerns U-boat service. It is the story of Giese’s progress from a 19 year old cadet in the merchant training square-rigger SCHULSCHIFF DEUTSCHLAND in 1933 to licensed junior officer in 1939 on Germany’s third-largest liner, SS COLUMBIA, as second officer of the merchanbnen ELSA ESSBERGER and ANNELIESE ESSBERGER during the latter’s year long blockade escape from Japan to occupied France, his decision to join the U-boats with eventual commissioning after unexpected enlisted service, internment by the British in Malaya and his return to the merchant service after repatriation. The epilogue briefly describes his ownership of a
small shipping line and decision in 1963 to settle in Florida, where he became a port supervisor and manager, married an American and raised two sons. one a USAF Academy graduate.

The official subtitle gives a clue to the title’s origin; from it and other usage it appears that the manuscript was written in English by the fluent but still native-German author. The verb aufnehmen is sometimes used colloquially to mean shoot a picture and the many photographs certainly justify the book name even if one might expect it to mean shooting a gun or torpedo. Other somewhat clwmy translations abound, which might have been corrected by a submarine knowledgeable editor, such as the use of Duck for the command Dive (both from tauchen) or the use of trap (die Klappe) for an engine exhaust valve. torpedo tube outer door or main ballast vent valve. When Giese reports to U-181 as gunnery officer it is as an artillery (Artillerie) officer and a picture of the Japanese-flag ASAMA MARU in Honolulu is captioned “the Japanese flagship”. These peculiarities, however, do not detract from an intriguing story.

Giese’s description of the 1939 scuttling of SS COLUMBIA between Bermuda and New York to avoid capture by HMS HYPERION in the presence of USS TUSCALOOSA, with some graphic pictures and good charts, fill in details of this little-known event. His subsequent travels through Ellis Island, across the USA and through Angel Island to Japan in the face of gathering war clouds is piquant and full of personal touches. The voyage home on a German freighter variously disguised as different Japanese and Norwegian merchantmen is likewise accompanied by excellent photos and charts. His dismay at discovering that Admiral Harry Menche’s invitation (after decorating him with an Iron Cross) to become a submarine officer bad been sabotaged by the merchant ministry and that HSO (Handelschijfsojfizier) Giese was to attend boot camp is written with grace. When he reported to U-405 (a Type VIIC 225 tanner), he soon became a good comrade and learned much during his four patrols in her. After finally attending officer school, he went to U-181 (a Type IXD2 1800 ton fleet boat) in November 1943 under Captain (Kapitlln zur See) Kurt Freiwald. who had just relieved the famed Wolfgang Liith, and headed for the Cape of Good Hope and Singapore for a drydock refit before the return home. The voyage was aborted by a main bearing failure, U-181 made her way back to Malaya to find that Germany had capitulated and she was to be turned over to the Japanese. The memoir closes with descriptions (and photos) of life as a Surrendered Person in the infamous Changi jail, the return to Britain and, finally, to his Bremen home.

Although not in the class of submarine books like U-Boat Commander (Peter Cremer), his stories of the short coastal patrols and the five month voyage and an at appendix on U-Boat Far East operations are of interest. As a marine and naval chronicle it is worth reading but do not expect a totally submarine history.

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