Written by Lothar-Günther Buchheim
Published by Phoenix (originally published 1973)
Review by Valeriya Salt
I wanted to read this book, researching for my writing project. It helped me to understand better not only how U-boats operated and why during the war they became the Allies’ worst nightmare, but also gave me great insights into the life of a crew onboard German U-boat.
Written by a survivor of the U-boat fleet, the book is a fictionalised memoir of Lieutenant Werner (Lothar-Günther Buchheim) who was assigned as a war correspondent to U-96 during her last patrol in the North Atlantic. The U-boat fleet experienced the heaviest human losses: of 40,000 men who served on submarines, 30,000 failed to return.
This book is more than just a historical drama. The author takes his reader through all circles of hell–from an endless storm in the Atlantic and pointless “frigging around” which almost destroyed the crew’s spirit to the two attacks and the crazily dangerous voyage through Gibraltar which almost smashed the U-boat.
Some readers can find the book a bit too long and monotonous, with the author’s endless descriptions of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean weather (the stormy sea, the calm sea, the sea at dawn, etc.) and wordy explanations on how the different compartments of the vessel operate, etc. However, it creates a certain atmosphere. A reader can actually feel the dripping of condensation from the ceiling of the boat, the smell of machine oil in the engine room, and hear explosions of depth charges during attacks.
The author doesn’t give names to most of the crew. We know the men only by their ranks or nicknames: The Old Man/Herr Kaleun (Herr Kapitänleutnant), the Chief, the First Watch Officer, Number One, etc. It doesn’t prevent a reader from connecting to all of them.
Although during the war we were on opposite sides of the barricade, the book made me feel compassionate towards these young men (the Old Man was actually in his mid 30s, the rest of the crew–in their late teens, early 20s) who went through all the horrors of the war, but didn’t lose their honour, bravery, kindness, and ability to help others. Clearly, these men were not evil, brainwashed Nazis. They were just men who were pushed to fight. All they wanted is just to survive and finish the war.
Despite the lack of female characters in the book, can a girl like me relate to the main characters? “Jawohl, Herr Kaleun!” Absolutely.
Valeriya Salt is a multi-genre author from the United Kingdom. Born in Belarus, she lived for many years in the Ukraine and Russia before settling down in the north of England. Apart from creative writing, she has a passion for travelling, arts, history, and foreign languages. She’s the author of a few published thriller/science fiction novellas and novels. Her short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies as well as magazines, both online and in print. Apart from creative writing, she has a passion for travelling, arts, history, and foreign languages.