Reviewed by Captain James E. Collins, USN (Ret.)
Who would have thought, while watching the movie THE SOUND OF MUSIC, that Captain Georg von Trapp was not only a renowned U-Boat Commander for the Austro/Hungarian Navy, but also, in actuality, a beloved, warmhearted father?
Elizabeth M. Campbell, the translator, happens to be the granddaughter of Captain von Trapp, and daughter of Eleonore von Trapp, the youngest of the seven von Trapp children. In researching and translating this book, she spent time talking with her mother and five living siblings about their lives. In the introduction to the book written by Georg von Trapp, originally published in Austria in 1935, she paints him as “a very fatherly father,” who did everything for his seven children. Maria von Trapp, his daughter, remembered that, “Georg was the happiest when we were very young. We could tum his study upside down, turn the chairs over and put a blanket over them to make a house and totally mess up his room. He took us on trips and we’d make a fire and bake potatoes in the coals, and when we were sick, he would always be at our bedside. Every night he would come into our room and tell us a story that went on and on and on… [with] terrific imagination.” He encouraged all of his children to play instruments as music was an important part of their family life.
As depicted in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, Georg did have a bosun’s whistle, but he did not use it in the militaristic manner portrayed in the film. During the war he needed the whistle on the submarine to send orders when noise and smoke interfered. He gave each child a separate signal to call them because the grounds of his estate were so extensive. There was also a separate signal to summon all at once.
Georg Johannes Ritter von Trapp was born on April 4, 1880, in Zara, Austria, on the Dalmatian coast. The son of an Austrian Naval Officer, he graduated from the Naval Academy in Fiume. Following graduation, he and his class sailed around the world in a schooner, taking measurements for their charts. In 1908, Georg studied the design and construction of submarines and torpedoes at the Whitehead Factory in Fiume. There he met his future wife, Agathe Whitehead, who christened the U-5 in 1909, which later became Georg’s first command during the First World War.
He started his wartime Naval career in coal-fired torpedo boats. His mission was to go out every night searching for targets. This would necessitate returning through mine fields every morning. He considered the mission of the torpedo boats thankless and boring. When offered a U-Boat, he immediately took it because “U-Boats were considered Austria’s trump card.” Taking command ofU-5, he distinguished himself as a Naval hero, initially torpedoing and sinking a French cruiser. After other victories, he later commanded the U-14, the former French submarine CURIE which had been netted and sunk at the entrance of the harbor of Pola. The U-14 carried six torpedoes outside the hull which could be launched from inside while the U-5 had only one compartment and two torpedoes mounted on the hull. The U-14 had a bulkhead door separating the engine room from the one central control room, and had berths and even an officer’s mess for the two watch officers and the commander. Captain von Trapp spent the rest of the war in command of the U-14 with many victories under his belt.
On the morning of the Armistice, at 0800 the Austro/Hungarian Flag was raised for the last time with a 21-gun salute. “Slowly and solemnly I personally raised the flag, wait for the gun salute, and take her down again. For the very last time! Tears streamed down every face. A sobbing is heard all around. Tirelessly, the U-Boats have held out to the end in their sworn duty. To the last salute of our flag.”
As depicted in the movie, Captain von Trapp detested Hitler and his “muscling Austria and other European nations into submission to Germany.” Twice refusing offers to join Hitler’s Navy, and knowing the third time he would be taken, he and his family left Austria with their musical conductor and arrived in New York penniless, and immediately started touring the U.S. as a concert group, to ever increasing acclaim.
I highly recommend this book. I was struck by how much was accomplished by these primitive and miniature boats in World War I – the U-5 manned by two officers and ten men. The men often endured such hardships as passing out at their stations because of noxious gasoline vapors. The boat had to surface to resuscitate the men by laying them on the topside deck. During one attack on a cruiser, only three men and the two officers were left to operate the boat, and even Captain von Trapp was woozy and had to sit at his periscope stand between looks. Often the periscope malfunctioned, and would be left in the up position while raising and lowering the boat to take sightings. It is interesting that the Austrians were so successful in these primitive boats, and were overwhelmed by the luxuriousness of visiting German U-Boats.
This most interesting description of World War I submarine duty, and reflections on the effect of the war from the side of the Central Powers, is complete with photographs. I purchased the book, signed by Elizabeth, at the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vermont. (Editor’s Note: It is now available also through normal book sales channels. I got my copy at Barnes & Noble. Jim).
CAPT. Charles B. Bishop, USN (Ret.)
Mr. James Avramis
Mr. Conrad Parker John
CDR Raymond C. Anderson, USN (Ret.)
ETCS(SS) Alvin Wayne Powell, USN (Ret.)