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.
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.
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.
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.