Neal Stevens, from Subsim.com, the largest website for submarine gamers in the world, asked me to write the introduction to their annual submarine almanac, which they will be releasing soon. Here is the introduction that I wrote.
by Charles McCain
Many German sailors joined the Ubootwaffe to watch American films. Officers joined to go to swanky places such as Taboo, a restaurant and lounge on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach–there to enjoy an evening of dinner, drinks, dancing—perhaps more. I’m sure the young women present must have been charmed. Who wouldn’t want to dance with a gallant German U-Boat officer looking so handsome in his dress uniform? And the U-Boat itself? It bobbed in the water a few hundred yards off the beach.
These happy times occurred in the first years of World War Two when the United States was neutral and the British stood alone against Hitler. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the war, Churchill was relieved– Britannia was saved. But Hitler wasn’t relieved—he was ecstatic. Germany and Japan had a military alliance. They haven’t lost war in 5,000 years, he told his cronies. Thus emboldened, Hitler went before the Reichstag four days later and declared war on the United States.
And the U-Boat men? They moved their socializing to Mexico—or so a cousin told me at a family reunion two years ago. In the mid 1970s, she and her husband spent their honeymoon in Vera Cruz. In the very dining room where they took their meals, said the maitre’d, German U-Boat officers and American submarine officers would come ashore and have dinner. Since they were antagonists, the two groups were seated at opposite ends of the dining room. All conducted themselves as gentlemen.
True, my cousin asked me? Nein….
Except for brief periods American submarines were all deployed in the Pacific. One hears these stories from Galveston to Maine. They comprise the oldest urban legend in America. The one about the Germans coming ashore in Palm Beach was told to me by an older colleague years ago when we both worked for a bank in Palm Beach. Seems his grandfather, a regular at Taboo, got to know these German officers quite well. Saw them all the time when they came ashore for dinner, drinks and dancing…
“It never happened,” I told my colleague.
“My grandfather told me all about it. He lived in Palm Beach his entire life and knew everyone and everything that happened.”
“Never,” I said, “completely impossible.”
My colleague pointed at himself. “My grandfather told me this. How do you know it didn’t happen? Were you here? My grandfather saw them all the time. Everyone did.”
They even exchanged addresses according to my colleague. Perhaps they sent postcards to one another.
“I’m sure your grandfather was right,” I said. Who wants to insult someone’s grandfather? “I hardly know everything about U-Boats.” And I don’t. But I do know enough to know that U-Boats landed men in America on only three occasions. That’s it. Three occasions. Besides, as most of us on SubSim know, no German U-Boats were even deployed off the East Coast of the United States prior to the German declaration of war.
Further, on a practical level, it would have been impossible for U-Boat offiziers to visit American theaters and restaurants. U-Boats had only one, very unstable, rubber dinghy. How would several officers have squeezed into it– then made their way through the surf to the shore without getting wet? Dress uniform? That’s hilarious. The dress uniform of a German naval officer consisted of a frock coat that went below one’s knees, a sword, and a starched wing tipped shirt with silk bow tie.
This fascination with U-boats is widespread. In 2008, NOAA (U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) announced a program to map all historical shipwrecks from World War Two, including U-Boat wrecks, off the East Coast and Gulf Coast of the US. The first expedition commenced in July of 2008 and specifically studied the wrecks of U-352, U-85 and U-701, all sunk by the U.S. Navy off the coast of North Carolina in 1942. All of these U-Boats lie in less than one hundred thirty feet of water, easily accessible to recreational divers, who have plundered all three. Is that an issue? Yes. Under international law these wrecks are war graves.
Another example of our long fascination with U-Boats is the movie Das Boot, based on the novel by Lothar-Gunther Bucheim, which has become a cult film. Old or young, educated or not, anyone I ask has seen the movie. And it was filmed over 30 years ago. After the director’s cut was released in the U.S. in 1997, the film received six Oscar nominations, “unheard of for a foreign film,” according to film critic Roger Ebert.
On U-Boat forums participants argue vociferously about the accuracy of the film and many continue to denounce Bucheim as a liar and a fool. I don’t want to start a firestorm here, but the movie is a brilliant work of art depicting the horror of war. If every little detail isn’t correct, so what? You can’t write a novel without taking some poetic license. Novelists aren’t trying to create reality. That’s impossible. We’re trying to create the illusion of reality.
Bucheim sailed as a war correspondent aboard U-96 on two separate war patrols and his novel is based on those experiences. His portrayal of the Kommandant in the novel is based so closely on its actual commander, Kplt. Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock, the IMDB (International Movie Data Base), lists Jürgen Prochnow as playing not the “old man,” but Lehmann-Willenbrock.
After ten war patrols, during which he sank 180,000 tons of Allied merchant shipping, Lehmann-Willenbrock became the 6th highest scoring U-Boat “ace” in the U-bootwaffe and was ordered ashore to command the 9th U-Boat Flotilla. Over thirty five years later he served as technical advisor during the filming of Das Boot, joined by the third highest scoring ace, Erich Topp, famous or infamous, for torpedoing the USS Reuben James on 31 October 1941.
Both former U-Boat commanders vigorously defended the film after it was released and Topp wrote at some length about the film in his haunting memoir, The Odyssey of a U-Boat Commander, one of the best of all U-Boat memoirs. And that’s what the novel Das Boot actually is: a memoir written in the form of a novel which gives an author far greater flexibility to tell his story. It’s opposite, The Cruel Sea, by Nicholas Montserrat, which depicts life aboard Royal Navy convoy escorts in the North Atlantic, is likewise a novelized memoir. Montserrat served throughout the war as an officer on convoy escorts. Both novels are true works of art which brilliantly portray the Battle of the Atlantic.
Curiously, while almost unknown, the actions of two U-Boats are at the center of one of the most passionate legal and political arguments of our time: the President’s power to (or not to) declare someone, including an American citizen, an “enemy combatant”.
We can trace this entire debate about “enemy combatants” to U-202 when she landed four saboteurs on the shore of Long Island on 13 June 1942, one a German named R. Quirin, and U-584 when she landed four more agents on Ponte Vedra Beach, near Jacksonville, on 17 June 1942. These eight men, of whom two were American citizens, were quickly rounded up. President Roosevelt declared all eight, including the two American citizens, to be “enemy combatants” and ordered all eight to be tried before a secret military tribunal which subsequently sentenced all eight to death.
They appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. On 31 July 1942, the court issued a unanimous opinion known as Ex parte Quirin upholding the President’s power to designate a person an “enemy combatant”. A week later, on 8 August 1942, six of the men, including one of the American citizens, were electrocuted in Washington, DC. Two of the men had their death sentences commuted to life in prison by FDR because they had turned themselves in upon landing and assisted the government in capturing the others.
Ex parte Quirin is the legal basis upon which President George W. Bush designated suspected terrorists, most confined in Guantanamo Bay, to be “enemy combatants”, and ordered them tried before secret military tribunals. Then why the debate? The 1942 decision of the Supreme Court says the President only has this power when the Congress has declared a “state of war”. But the Congress did not declare a “state of war” after 9/11. Instead, it passed a “Joint Resolution” giving the President the authorization to undertake certain military actions. Are those two actions by Congress the same thing? No one seems to know– or agree.
In our fascination with U-Boats and the men who crewed them, it is well to remember they served a régime unsurpassed in evil. The myths about German U-Boat men: none of them were Nazis, they were all volunteers and they sailed to their deaths without complaint are flat out untrue. Many of these myths were fostered after the war by surviving veterans and refuted in the memoirs of other surviving veterans.
Another part of the U-Boat myth is this: the men were a highly trained elite. Not exactly. The crewmen who had entered the U-bootwaffe in the years before the war were a highly trained elite. But as the war went on, those men were killed or brought ashore. Their replacements did not have the dash and training of the prewar men. Performance deteriorated. According to U-boat historian, Jak Mallman-Showell, the Kriegsmarine commissioned 1,171 U-Boats. Of that number, 850 U-Boats—three quarters of the U-Boat fleet– neither attacked, nor sank, nor damaged an Allied ship. This is not the performance of a highly trained elite. An extraordinarily small number of U-boats sank most Allied shipping.
We can admire the bravery of men who served aboard U-Boats. But the Germans had no monopoly on bravery in World War Two. So we should not make heroes out of these U-Boat men. Like my Confederate ancestors, none of these men can be separated from the cause for which they fought.
It is well to remember the U-bootwaffe of the Third Reich came very close to cutting the supply line between America and Great Britain with consequences unimaginable to human liberty and freedom. To beat back this threat, the Allies paid a terrible price. Over seventy-five thousand Allied sailors died in the Battle of the Atlantic, including thousands of sailors from neutral countries who chose to fight—and die– for the Allied cause.
As the Duke of Wellington said of Waterloo, the Allied victory in the Battle of the Atlantic was, “… the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.”
Charles McCain is a lifelong student of German maritime and military history. His first novel, An Honorable German, a World War Two naval epic told through the eyes of a German U-Boat commander, was published by Grand Central Publishing in May and is available online worldwide.