U-Boat Aces: Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock

 

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Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock (December 11, 1911—April 18, 1986) was the sixth highest scoring U-boat ace in World War Two and is probably the most famous because he is the model for the Kommandant in the novel and the movie, Das Boot. (Boot in German is pronounced “boat.”).

War correspondent and later artist and writer Lothar-Gunther Bucheim sailed aboard U-96, under the command of Kplt. Lehmann-Willenbrock, on two separate war patrols and his novel, Das Boot, is based on those experiences. His portrayal of the Kommandant in the novel is based so closely on Lehmann-Willenbrock, the IMDB (International Movie Data Base), lists Jürgen Prochnow as playing not the “old man,” but Lehmann-Willenbrock. In what must have been a surreal experience, Lehmann-Willenbrock, served as technical advisor during the filming of Das Boot, thirty-five years after the war was over.

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Like most of the early U-Boat Kommandants, Lehmann-Willenbrock was a professional naval officer having joined the German Navy as an officer cadet in 1931. He survived ten war patrols, itself a feat, during which he sank over 170,000 tons of Allied merchant shipping. In March 1942 he was ordered ashore and served in various higher echelon command positions. By the time of Germany’s surrender, he had reached the rank of Fregattenkapitän, or Commander in the US Navy, and held the Knights Cross with Oak Leaves, one of only 53 men of the Kriegsmarine to hold the award.

On 25 February 1942 Lehmann-Willenbrock was mentioned in the official daily Wehrmacht communique or, in German: Wehrmachtsbericht. This was considered a high honor.

“Kapitänleutnant Lehmann-Willenbrock’s boat has contributed to the great success of the U-boat force with 55,600 tons sunk. Kapitänleutnant Lehmann-Willenbrock within a short span of time has sunk a total of 125,580 tons of enemy shipping.”

After Germany’s surrender and a year in Allied captivity, he returned to his original occupation as a merchant sailor and followed that for the rest of his life. In 1969 he became captain of the German nuclear research ship Otto Hahn, a post which he held for more than ten years.

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Curiously, I’ve never been able to discover any personal information on Lehmann-Willenbrock such as was he married? Did he have children? Did he ever write or comment on his experiences during the war? I’ve looked though my extensive collection of U-Boat books and have found nothing. He died in Bremen in 1986 at age 74.

One of my readers emailed me a number of years ago with this information:

H. Lehmann-Willenbrock was married with 2 children (sons). His wife was the daughter of a german shipping company owner. She accompanied him from time to time on his ships, especially during his service on the Otto Hahn.

 

 

Published by

Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

5 thoughts on “U-Boat Aces: Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock”

  1. thank you. I hope someone, perhaps one of his children or grandchildren will at least gather all of his papers together. It would also be interesting to know if he took any action against the Nazi regime during the Third Reich. I have read that he was strongly opposed to the Nazis.

  2. H. Lehmann-Willenbrock was married with 2 children (sons). His wife was the daughter of a german shipping company owner. She accompanied him from time to time on his ships, especially during his service on the Otto Hahn.

  3. Thank you! Very interesting. LW remains a slightly mysterious figure which makes him all the more interesting. I’m surprised no one wrote his biography. Do you think he had any idea how famous he would become? The International Movie Database in its listing for DAS BOOT lists Jurgen Prochnow not as playing “the kommandant” but as playing “Lehmann-Willenbrock” although the other actors are listed as the fictional characters they portray.

  4. Interesting read indeed. I understand that LW was not very keen on revaling all of his life. He and Lothar-Günter Buchheim, the author of Das Boot, agreed on what could be revealed and what not. Actually, Die Festung (1995) and especially Der Abschied (2000, both written after Das Boot) cover the relationship between the two men and gives away some of LW’s background. Der Abschied is basically a diary of Buchheim when he joined LW on his last trip with the NS Otto Hahn and he and LW discusses most of the events that took place after the defeat of Germany in this book. Although the book is sometimes vague about this, it seems that LW had a relationship with a widow of a Luftwaffe officer (if I remember correctly) and later also fancied a French woman who worked for the French resistance. It is the same woman that Buchheim himself had a relationship with and married with after the war. Whether she was really in the French resistance or a spy is not fully revealed but she had been detained for a while. She is portrayed in the opening scene of the Das Boot movie as the lady behind the bar. Der Abschied doesn’t mention any children and it is my assumption that LW hasn’t got any because he spent most of his life at see. That’s all I know. I read the two books in German, which is not my native language so I may have missed some crucial points. Hopefully others can add.

  5. Interesting read, the U-Boat life (submarines, captains, the action itself) captivates me so much. Stumbled upon your blog (link was to Luth’s “bio”) from subsim.com, where they mentioned you. Also, congratulations on your victorious fight against cancer, wish you best of luck and everything. :)

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