Lieutenant Holwitt is a submarine officer currently assigned to Naval Submarine School in Groton, CT. He served as a division officer on board USS Houston (SSN 713), based out of Apra Harbor, Guam, from 2007 to 2010. A 2003 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he earned a Ph.D. in naval and military history from Ohio State University in 2005. He is the author of “Execute Against Japan”: The U.S. Decision to Conduct Unrestricted Submarine Warfare, published by Texas A&M University Press in 2009, and reviewed in April 2010 issue of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW. His book was also named as one of the 20 most “Notable Naval Books of 2009” by the U.S. Naval institute PROCEEDINGS Naval Review issue..
After you read enough techno thrillers or nautical historical novels, you start realizing that many of these books reflect the influence of the TV show Star Trek. In these books, the same personnel are always on watch, the captain invariably has the conn, and ships are able to survive remarkable damage with minimal casualties, impact on living conditions, or warfighting abilities. I recently stopped reading one World War II novel when a U.S. destroyer captain, having taken the deck, issued helm orders, while the officer he had ordered to take the conn did so by relieving at the helm. Novels like these, which show a palpable lack of effort by the author to provide a realistic portrayal, disappoint and mislead the casual reader, who hopes to vicariously experience the past.
Charles McCain’s An Honorable German does not suffer from these problems. Every chapter reflects the author’s 30 years of research to create a credible historical setting and realistic characters. These characters take the time to initial the deck log, properly tum over the watch, endure training and monotony, and experience transitory victory and permanent defeat. The latter is only to be expected, as McCain has boldly chosen to write about a German naval officer in World War II. And despite the cover that depicts a U-boat and praise for the book that compares it to Hunt for Red October and Das Boot, McCain’s novel is not simply a U- boat novel but actually encompasses a broad range of events that a Kriegsmarine officer might have experienced in the Second World War.
Young, idealistic, and proud naval officer Max Brekendorf starts off as a watch officer on board the pocket battleship ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE, where he participates in classic cruiser warfare, has a grandstand view of the Battle of the River Plate, and bitterly dissents from his captain’s decision to scuttle GRAF SPEE rather than charge again into the overwhelming forces of the Royal Navy gathered outside the River Plate. Afterwards, Max manages to escape from South America and experience the furtive life of commerce raiding on board an armed merchant raider. After additional harrowing experiences in combat and the open sea, Max turns to the U-boat service, where he is immediately elevated to command, despite his complete lack of experience. Although his chances of survival are next to nil, Max survives a near-sinking during basic submarine training and his first war patrols to become a submarine warrior. He and his crew attack convoys and attempt to stay one step ahead of Allied anti-submarine warfare units.
McCain’s novel jumps from experience to experience, at one point skipping 14 months of Max’s life! Although this keeps the narrative flowing swiftly, it means jumping past some experiences that would have explained Max ‘s success as a U-boat commander, particularly his first war patrol on board a U-boat. But this is a small quibble.
Max’s experiences also show what life in Nazi Gennany was like as defeat became more certain. As one might expect, Max is neither a Nazi nor a racist, but he has to constantly deal with the government he is sworn to serve. He survives a near-fatal experience with the Gestapo at one point, while his father is imprisoned for a relationship with non-Aryan. And Max also has to deal with fanatical Nazis in his crew, including his own First Watch Officer.
My only reservation with McCain’s description is that he downplays the role of Nazism in the prewar Kriegsmarine. McCain correctly notes that the prewar Kriegsmarine forbade Gennan naval officers from joining political parties or voting, and he also notes that some Gennan naval officers, like GRAF SPEE’s Captain Hans Langsdorff, chose to view their service as service to Gennany and not to Adolf Hitler or his policies. But these men may very well have been in the minority. As Michael L. Hadley describes in his excellent history of U-boats and German culture, Count Not the Dead (1995), many fonner and current Ubootwaffe officers celebrated Hitler’s rise to power and correctly credited him with resurrecting the U-boat force. A startling number of First World War U-boat aces became SS officers, while many younger prewar Gennan naval officers were ardent, if not fanatical, Nazis, including some of the top U-boat aces like Gunther Prien, Joachim Schepke, and Wolfgang Lilith.
Ultimately, however, An Honorable Gennan succeeds in allowing a reader to experience the history it relates in fiction. McCain’s descriptions of life at sea are accurate, as are his scenes that display some of the more mundane details of life on board the warships he describes. Although there is an occasional error of detail, these are hidden in a sea of correct descriptions. And McCain has created a sympathetic – and honorable – protagonist who we come to identify with and care about. Although readers of naval history and naval fiction will devour An Honorable German, anyone who enjoys a gripping and enjoyable read will find this to be a rewarding book.