U.S. Naval Institute Press
Annapolis, MD 1997
Reviewed by Richard Boyle
This is a superb book, and Jordan Vause provides extraordinary discernment of the legendary tenacity and resilience of German U-boat commanders during World War II. The array of more than 1400 WWII skippers is a breathtaking statistic by itself. Spirit within the U-Bootwaffe has a long tradition. “[I]t survived [World War I] intact, lasted through a bitter peace, survived a second war, and is evident in U-boat veterans today.”
Vause determined early on that the “common image” of a U-boat commander was not only out of reach; it did not exist. Most of the book is devoted to an accounting of the motivations and experiences of the following individual commanders: Karl Donitz, Otto Kretschmer, Wolfgang Luth, Karl-Friedrich Merten, Victor Oehrn, Jurgen Oesten, Gilnther Prien, Erich Topp and Herbert Werner. We can recognize the prominent aces; those less familiar were, if anything, more fascinating.
The brief biographical sketch presented for each of the above reveals much about the selection pro~, early training afloat and submarine indoctrination.
Reactions to captivity involves disturbing perspectives for a few commanders (some were not repatriated until 1947). Reflection on captivity could result in barbed wire disease, characterized as a halt to mental development. Attitudes appeared to be frozen at the moment of capture. For some, readjustment to the reality of defeat took a long time.
Horst Bredow, who served as Second Watch Officer in U-288 in early 1944, has been curator of the U-Boat Archives at Cuxhaven for more than 40 years. He is the key figure in preservation of U-boat history from earliest days (circa 1906), continuing with present day activities of the Federal German Navy. The description of the archive complex is accurate and reflects the extraordinary dedication of its curator.
The reader may be surprised to learn that one of the most controversial figures in the book is Lothar-Oilnther Buchheim, author of the well known novel (film) Das Boot. Some veterans were unhappy with Buchheim because his portrayal was considered “a fairy tale, all make believe”, and they thought the story reflected badly on the U-Bootwajfe. Most members of the U-boat community were able to tolerate criticism, but there are some who respond defensively whenever the reputation of the U-Boat Command is threatened.
Admiral DOnitz was unquestionably an able leader, but bis image suffers because of the writings of Peter Padfield (DOnitz: The Last Fuhrer) and Erick Topp (The Odyssey of a U-Boat Commander). Vause lays out the chinks in DOnitz’s armor with quiet objectivity.
One of the most shocking incidents in the book, the Kusch Affair, represents what can go wrong when loyalty falls apart at any level, either up or down, compounded by service in a dictatorship. Oslcar Kusch, when he took command of U-154 in February 1943, threw “the obligatory wardroom portrait of Adolph Hitler into the trash can and announced that henceforth idol worship would not be tolerated on bis boat.” Kusch gradually became an outspoken critic of National Socialism, and in January 1944, his First Watch Officer, Ulrich Abel, charged him with sedition and cowardice. A court martial found Kusch guilty and he was sentenced to death. DOnitz approved the sentence, did not meet with Kusch, and, despite advice from other U-boat officers, “declined to commute it”. This apparent failure of DOnitz’s bond with bis skippers was considered by some to be tragically out of character.
The Battle of the Atlantic was lost in May 1943. Five hundred forty-six U-boats were lost between 1 June ’43 and 8 May ’45. The command mask of U-bootwaffe skippers had a legendary mystique which defies description. Late in the war, they were courageous and fatalistic as they sailed to almost certain death in support of a lost cause. This book is strongly recommended as a guidon for this mystique. It should serve as such for generations to come.