An Honorable German

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[wpex more=”▼ About” less=”▲ About“]

In the tradition of Das Boot and The Hunt for Red October comes the greatest submarine novel in a generation, An Honorable German, featuring a heroic and conflicted German U-Boat Commander. When World War Two begins, Max Brekendorf, a proud, young German naval officer, fights for his country with honor and courage. With the unstoppable German war machine overrunning Europe, he looks ahead to a bright future with his fiancée, Mareth. But as the war progresses, their future together becomes less and less certain.

German victories begin to fade. In the North Atlantic, Max must face the increasing strength of the Allies on ever more harrowing missions. Berlin itself is savaged by bombing, making life for Mareth increasingly dangerous and desperate. And as the Third Reich begins to crumble, Nazi loyalists begin to infiltrate Max’s crew and turn their terror on Germany’s own armed forces.

Recognizing what his nation has become, Max is forced to make a choice between his own sense of morality and his duty to the Reich. With its stirring, rarely seen glimpse of the German home front during World War Two, vivid characters, and evocation of the drama and terror of war at sea, An Honorable German is a suspense-filled story of adventure, of love and loss, and of honor and redemption.
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[wpex more=”▼ The Reason” less=”▲ The Reason“]

Studying for finals during my last semester in college involved a trip to the library. As I was wont to do at this time in my life, I procrastinated, and noticing a stack of Time Magazines from 1944 on a nearby re-shelving cart, I began to flip through one. Little did I know that the story I found inside would affect my life for over the next thirty years.

The article detailed the actions of a group of German Navy POWs who had tunneled out of a POW camp near Phoenix, AZ. Being a history buff, my interest was piqued. German POWs in the US? German Navy POWs in Phoenix, ArizonaNavy prisoners in the middle of the desert? How did that happen and who knew Arizona could be so interesting?

Prior to reading that article, I had no idea that German POWs were held in the U.S. during WWII and that some travelled quite a ways to get there. Several of the officers who led the escape had been aboard the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, had served in U-Boats, been captured, and then sent to a POW Camp in the U.S. The mystique factor alone was worth the effort of researching the topic further. Thirty years of research, writing, and rumination have led me to where I am today.

From the first drafts written in the early 1980’s, I knew that I wanted to construct a setting that both fascinated and fulfilled the audience in its own right. One flushed out by an adventure that I wanted to read and a story I wanted to tell. From that fateful day in the library until now, this story has fascinated me and I regularly have said to myself, “this would make a great novel.”

Ironically, despite the action and drama experienced by the German Navy in the war, this subject has rarely been explored by novelists. An Honorable German is only the fourth novel ever written with the German Navy in either of the World Wars as a backdrop and the only one originally written in English. I hope that you enjoy reading it and find that I constructed the narrative with great care so that it moves very quickly, never gets bogged down, and tells you just enough to keep the story in context. This is historical action/adventure naval fiction—it’s not a textbook. Readers tell me all the time they never even noticed the history, which I take as a great compliment because you’re not supposed to notice it.

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[wpex more=”▼ The Facts” less=”▲ The Facts“]

The story of An Honorable German takes place in five unique settings, each one based on actual events and locations. The five settings are: the German ‘pocket battleship’ Admiral Graf Spee, the German auxiliary merchant raider Meteor, German occupied Europe, the German U-Boat U-114, and in WWII POW camps in the continental United States. My desire was to create a seamless tapestry which blended these five settings to serve as the backdrop of the story about the main character, Max Brekendorff. This isn’t a novel about the German Navy in World War Two. An Honorable German is about Max, who is in the German Navy in World War Two. As in any well researched work of historical fiction, the drama and action of the novel are built atop the framework supplied by the actual historical events. The task of the historical novelist is to create realistic characters from the era then paint them into the story of the actual events in a seamless way.

German ‘Pocket Battleship” Admiral Graf Spee and the Battle of the Rio Plata

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The first five chapters of An Honorable German take place aboard the German “pocket battleship” Admiral Graf Spee. I think I could find my way around that ship blindfolded. The other day I was reading a book about naval battles in World War II and I was struck by how many shells would be fired off during a maritime engagement and yet how few hit the enemy ship. I looked up the figures for the Battle of the Rio Plata, which is recounted in the novel, and found these numbers, which I had forgotten and were so unusual: the Graf Spee fired 414 rounds from her main batteries–almost two-thirds of her main battery ammunition supply. She hit HMS Exeter eight times, HMS Ajax twice, and never hit HMS Achilles. She fired 457 rounds from her secondary batteries and didn’t hit anything. Even worse were the British ships. Taken together, the three Royal Navy ships fired a total of 2,257 rounds at the Graf Spee and hit her 20 times.

This is not unusual. In fact this is better than many other engagements. Every nation-state of the time measured its naval power in terms of big ships but in battle these ships had a very hard time scoring hits on their opponents. The technology to balance out all the factors and adjust for them instantly simply did not exist.

German Auxiliary Raider Meteor in the Indian Ocean

The main character, Max, spends time on the auxiliary raider Meteor, which patrols the Indian Ocean seeking easy prey – lightly armed Allied merchantmen transporting much needed war goods. Based upon stories from actual merchant raiders such as the Atlantis, the Kormorant, Thor and others, ships like the Meteor would often disguise their true purpose through false deckhouses, funnels, masts, and paint jobs. To top it off, they would fly the flags of their enemy, their enemy’s allies, or neutral countries to lull the target in close enough for capture. As long as they disclosed their true nationality before opening fire, they fulfilled the requirements of international law. Utilizing floatplanes, various types of naval cannons, torpedoes, and mines, German merchant raiders are believed to have sunk or captured over 800,000 tons of Allied shipping. While used in An Honorable German during WWII, the real Meteor was sunk by the British in 1915 after its crew and prisoners escaped to a neutral Swedish ship.

German Occupied France and Germany

Most German U-Boats fighting in the Battle of the North Atlantic were based in French ports. This gave easier and more immediate access to the North Atlantic and the vital shipping lanes of the Allied war effort. The OKM, Oberkommando der Kriegsmarine, the German Navy High Command ordered the construction of 4 submarine bases in occupied France. At first Allied air forces were not strong enough to mount sustained attacks on these U-boat bases. Eventually, massive U-Boat bunkers, most with roofs 20 feet thick, were built to protect the moored submarines from aerial attack. These structures are so massive almost all of them remain intact today; several were used for decades as the mooring shelters for French nuclear submarines. details-the-facts-2Of all the unknown challenges the U-Bootwaffe had to meet in the Second World War, the ferocity and success of Allied air attacks on U-boats was never anticipated. Those of us who have watched a lot of World War Two movies know that it’s always the very gallant and very small Allied escort ships dropping depth charges which sank all the U-boats. Like many things we believe about World War Two, this isn’t true at all. Over half of all German U-Boats sunk were sent to the bottom by Allied aircraft.

German U-Boats were almost obsolete by the third year of the war. It was less their ability, and more our inability to protect conveys, that allowed for so much Allied shipping to be sunk. Once all the countermeasures we had been working on came together, the Allies decimated the U-Bootwaffe, killing over 80% of all those who served in the U-Boat force.

Another part of the U-Boat myth is this: the men were a highly trained elite. Not exactly. The crewmen who had entered the Ubootwaffe 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. details-the-facts-3Mareth, Max’s love interest from An Honorable German, lives in Berlin, capital of the Greater German Reich. It is a terrible irony of history that Berliners were the most opposed to the Nazis and in the last free election in Germany the Nazi Party received less then 22% of the vote in Berlin. As the capital of the Reich, the largest manufacturing city in the Reich, the central locus of finance in the Reich, of entertainment, really of everything, Berlin was a key target of the Anglo-American bombing campaign and during the course of the war over 80% of the city was destroyed.

As controversial as this tactic of area bombing or carpet bombing became after the war, the Anglo-American bombing campaign on Germany and its allies was a brilliant success. For much of this, including the best way to firebomb a city, the Allies had an excellent instructor: the German Luftwaffe– which firebombed numerous cities throughout Europe, London being the most well known. When the Germans began the nighttime bombing of British cities, known as “the Blitz”, which lasted from September of 1940 to May of 1941, they came up with a new tactic: dropping incendiaries mixed in with bombs. This combination set English cities aflame but the RAF took careful note and when they began heavy night bombing of German cities in mid 1942, they used this tactic, the reality of which is recounted in An Honorable German. “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”

During “the Blitz”, German aircraft flying only at night, bombed British cities with London the most common target, at one point hit being hit fifty-seven nights in a row. Over 43,000 British civilians were killed during “the Blitz”, half of them Londoners.

The photograph below shows St. Paul’s Cathedral, still intact, rising above the smoke and flame of London after a night of heavy bombing by the Luftwaffe on 29 December 1940. This iconic photograph became one of the most famous of the war and came to symbolize Great Britain’s defiance of Nazi Germany. Only strong efforts by volunteer members of the parish, who stood guard both within and without the dome, and who threw hundreds of flaming incendiary bombs off the dome, and heroic efforts by the London Fire Brigade, saved the Cathedral. Although it wasn’t particularly bombproof and hadn’t the facilities to serve as a shelter, people nearby streamed into the cathedral for protection as they would have done in the Middle Ages.

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Like St. Paul’s Cathedral, London survived. Berlin did not. And so the sound so familiar to Londoners, the warbling, ear splitting blast of the air raid siren, became a sound Berliners came to know well.

German U-Boat 114

The actual German submarine U-114 was designed as a Type XIB, a very large ‘cruiser’ submarine meant to carry an Arado AR 231, a lightweight seaplane. Construction had only just started on U-114 when the war broke out and the project was cancelled in favor of building more submarines of the Type VII, the workhorse of the U-Bootwaffe. As depicted in An Honorable German, U-114 is a Type VIIC. I used the number 114 to avoid confusion because it was assigned to a U-Boat that was never built.

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“Nasty, brutish and short,” would best describe daily life on a German U-Boat. There were no bathing facilities on either Type VII or Type IX, which made up the majority of the German U-Boat Fleet. There were no showers. Each man was given one small cup of water a day for personal use such as brushing his teeth. Because fresh water was rationed, most of the men were thirsty. So they just took the water and drank it. A crewman could only bring one change of uniform and there were no laundry facilities except for a bucket of sea water and some salt water soap.

Without the ability to bathe or launder one’s uniform, most U-Boat men suffered from skin rashes, boils, constant itching and skin irritation. No one shaved. Everyone stank. Take 46 men and lock them in a metal tube the length of two subway cars for a few months and you create a special stink. Add to that the contents of the cans the men used to relieve themselves when they couldn’t use the one toilet on the boat, the rotting food, the smell of diesel fuel and an almost tangible fog of stink was created.

Flotilla engineers who went aboard U-Boats which had just returned to port often threw up. There was little fresh air on a U-Boat and almost no ventilation. The only way to get a stream of fresh air into the boat was to open the interior hatch to the diesel room, open the main hatch way which led to the bridge, close the outboard diesel air intakes and the diesels would draw air from the main hatch, thus creating some movement of air in the boat. For various reasons, this could not be done often and even when it was done, the small bit of fresh air did little to reduce the putrid smell. At sea, the boats constantly rolled a few degrees side to side which made many of the sailors slightly dizzy. Because of the limited amount of fresh water each man was allowed to drink, the constant rocking of the boat, and the canned food, constipation became wide spread and left the men listless. details-the-facts-5There was absolutely no privacy for anyone except the kommandant of the boat who could draw a green curtain across his small sleeping space. Only officers and chief petty officers had their own bunks – everyone else “hotbunked”. As soon as one man came off duty, he took the just vacated bed of a man who had gone on duty. Since the sheets and blankets could not be washed, even the bunk one slept in was filthy.

After the war, veterans of the U-Boatwaffe insisted that all of the men who served in the U-Boat force were volunteers. Yet that is completely untrue. Many men were “volunteered” or just ordered to the U-boat fleet as some make clear in their memoirs.

POW Camps in the Continental United States

The Provost Marshal General of the US Army had official custody of all prisoners of war in the United States. By the end of World War Two, the Provost Marshal General operated over seven hundred camps of varying size with camps in every state except for Nevada, North Dakota, and Vermont. The majority were located in the south because this reduced the fuel needed to heat the prisoner’s barracks and because there was a huge shortage of farm labor in the heavily agricultural southern states.  Germans and Italians were confined in separate camps and when the Royal Italian Government switched sides in the middle of the war, the Italians were no longer technically prisoners of war.

There were two Geneva Conventions in effect at the time and they specifically governed the treatment of sick or wounded soldiers and Prisoners of War. (The ‘rules of war’ at that time were embodied in the Hague Convention of 1907 – not the Geneva Conventions). Any nation which held of prisoners of war was legally obligated to treat those men exactly the same as it would treat is own men of similar rank. Thus German POWs in the US were fed as if they were US soldiers stationed in the US. This meant that American frontline combat troops in France and later Germany, ate a far worse diet with smaller amounts of food than German POWs in the US. The reason? Getting the requisite amount of food to frontline soldiers was difficult and the supply services in the US Army were indifferent to the frontline troops in World War Two.

Regarding Continuity

The scenes in An Honorable German, which are based on actual events such as the Admiral Graf Spee, mirror those events to a fault. For example, I spent a significant amount of time plotting out the entire Battle of the Rio Plata on charts with all the times and distances marked and reviewed those charts at length with several naval officers to ensure the narrative was correct and that all helm and engine orders given at specific times were correct. I corresponded with Jürgen Wattenburg, the former Senior Navigation Officer of the Graf Spee and he answered several questions. One of the reasons cited in the narrative for scuttling the Graf Spee were the cracked motor mounts on the auxiliary engines and some on the main engines. Historians have missed this detail but the former Senior Navigation Officer told me this himself, in writing. That’s an example how detailed the research was.

All the ships mentioned in the narrative as being seized by the Graf Spee are the actual ships. If the cargo of a ship were mentioned, that was the actual cargo that ship was carrying. Certain characters in the narrative, such as Captain Patrick Dove of the Africa Shell, are taken from life. Fortunately, Captain Dove wrote a book immediately after the Battle of the River Plate and the subsequent events. His book, I Was Graf Spee’s Prisoner, is the source for some excellent detail about the ship and about Captain Langsdorff, whom Captain Dove came to greatly like and admire. Dove said so many positive things to the press in Uruguay about the excellent way he had been treated aboard the Graf Spee that the British military attaché summoned him to tea and politely told him to shut up.
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[wpex more=”▼ The Characters” less=”▲ The Characters“]

The main character, Max, follows a conventional path to becoming a German naval officer. While he is brave and professionally competent, he does the kinds of annoying things we all do: he says things he wished he hadn’t, he argues with his fiancée, he trips over his sword while dressing and hits his head which puts him in a foul mood. I wanted the characters to be real, not cardboard cut-outs of stereotypes. And doing that takes a while.

One of things I did was write an essay on each character. Then I developed a family tree back two or three generations even though I didn’t use those facts in the narrative. That gave me a very good sense of the characters and what the major influences were on their lives and the lives of their parents, etc., since those are the things that make us who we are. There were also characters that I created who never made it into the narrative because their scenes got cut.

Characters grow and change over time, and as they do they hijack the novel and take it places you never thought about. The reason is, as I write about the characters and I learn more about them, there come times in the narrative where some action I had planned for them is “out of character.” So I had to change the character or change the scene. It’s one of the reasons I don’t write from a detailed outline. I know where I’m trying to go and I let the characters take me there in their own way.

While every character has something of me in them, and how could it be otherwise, I’m not the main character or any of the other characters.

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[wpex more=”▼ Reviews” less=”▲ Reviews“]

From Authors

Two bestselling authors, neither of whom I know, read my book and said some wonderful things about it. For these two bestselling authors to make the comments they did, was a very, very good feeling for a first time novelist.

A truly epic and stirring tale of war, love, and the sea. An Honorable German is a remarkable debut novel by a writer who has done his homework so well that it seems he was an eyewitness to the history he portrays in such vivid detail. An original and surprising look at World War II from the other side.

Nelson DeMille, bestselling author of The Charm School, The Gold Coast, Plum Island, and The General’s Daughter

A first class tale that aficionados’ of the Second World War will find especially satisfying. I enjoyed it immensely!

Christopher Reich, New York Times best-selling author of Numbered Account, The First Billion, and The Patriots’ Club

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From Readers

VII such as U-114 in heavy seasFor an unknown author, positive reviews in the trade press are critical because public libraries only buy books which have been given a favorable review in the industry press. Favorable reviews by the professionals also establish an author’s credibility within the industry and with their publisher. I’m pleased that An Honorable German received outstanding reviews from all of the industry press and from all of the newspapers, magazine and bloggers who reviewed the book.

But it’s the ‘five star’ reviews from actual readers whom I do not know, which mean the most, by far. There have been many days, believe me, when I have been down about the novel or my writing career and all of a sudden I get an email from a complete stranger who read my book and emailed me to tell me how much they liked it and have urged me to please keep writing. These are genuine compliments which money can’t buy and therefore I treasure more than any others. Here are some excerpts from some of my favorite emails from readers.

Dear Mr. McCain, What’s the big idea? Don’t you realize I have work to do? I have a wife and two small children to support and you go and write a novel that is almost impossible to put down. Thank God I’ve finished reading now, so I can get back to work.

–R.I.

An author who can write a story incorporating accurate and detailed military history along with a compelling fictional plot line is to be treasured—and the newest treasure of this genre is Charles McCain….a naval tale this good about modern war is unique…A great piece of military fiction and not to be missed

–J.S.

I just finished reading An Honorable German. Awesome book – I couldn’t put it down.

–D.D.

I’m 61 years old and a Purple Heart veteran of the Vietnam War…I have just finished reading An Honorable German and it is one of finest I have ever read. It ranks withThe Young Lions, The Caine Mutiny, and From Here to Eternity. In my opinion, Das Boot is a distant second for realistic action and detail.

–J.P.

I found myself reading it constantly for two days.

–K.W.

I found your book by chance in Barnes and Noble on the new fiction table…. I have seldom read a book like it, one that keeps your interest and you can’t put it down till you finish it. I can hardly wait for you to write another great one like this one, but don’t take that many years as I am 78 and really can’t wait.

–T.L.

Thank you for the extraordinary book. I can’t remember when a book satisfied both my hunger for a good plot and historical accuracy.

–R.E.

Finished the book yesterday. Savored every sentence.

–W.M.

Mr. McCain, I’ve never written an author before, but I enjoyed An Honorable German so much that I felt I had to take advantage of this technology of ours and applaud you. A wonderful read and haunting.

–D.B.

I’m a lieutenant on active duty in the U.S. Navy assigned to a nuclear-powered fast-attack submarine… As a professional submarine officer and a naval historian, I couldn’t read the book fast enough.

–J.H.

Call it a sea story, a love story, or a war story. By any description, An Honorable German is a thriller. The action is relentless and the characters unforgettable. Charles McCain’s account of life on the high seas is absolutely riveting. As a young naval officer who went to sea for four years fresh out of college, I guarantee it’s 100% authentic.

–J.G., former Lieutenant, USN

I just finished your magnificent novel and I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed it. This is much more than a good story that you are sharing with the reader. This is an experience.

–P.S.

As a former naval person (to borrow from Winston Churchill), I was impressed by the authenticity of the seagoing narrative and the actions described. Historical fiction is a favorite genre of mine, and I thought the blending of fictionalized characters into the real events of those times was flawless. But the story line itself was compelling all on its own. One can’t help but be carried along with the principal character as he confronts challenges to his ideals of duty/loyalty and his troubles grow from service-related dilemmas into existential conflict. The author tackled a challenging subject from a rare point of view and created a fascinating, exiting, and fast moving saga. It holds your interest right to the end, when a major issue is finally resolved in the last two pages. This is a magnificent effort, obviously well researched, filled with accurate detail, and best of all, a gripping tale.

–A.S.W., former Lt. USN

I just spent the weekend reading your book. I couldn’t put it down. Thanks for the incredible novel.

–P.M.

So very well written. I wait, and wait, for your next effort.

–P.H.

As a person with a deep interest in the World War Two period, I read your novel, An Honorable German, with deep interest. I found it compelling and absorbing to the point that I could hardly put it down.

–P.S.

Just finished An Honorable German today. Picked it up in Borders on a chance. It’s a great read and I thoroughly enjoyed your work! Sort of like Herman Wouk’s Winds of War and War and Remembrance—only from the other side. Great characters and great suspense.

–M.W.

Wow! I really enjoyed An Honorable German! Will there be a sequel? When will it be out?

–L.T.

From Reviewers

3756147089_b3c4e0584f_oI can’t recommend this book enough. I was so into it that I insisted on reading it while sitting in my ophthalmologist’s office with my eyes so dilated they were like black holes drawing in every stray light ray in the room. Really. … Few debut novels ever achieve so much with such grace and elegance.

–Excerpts from review in Examiner.com
by Michelle Kerns

As a hard-core history buff, I have read many outstanding accounts of World War II, both fiction and non-fiction, but this is the first one that I have read from the viewpoint of a German naval officer, and it is mesmerizing from the first to the last page.… The military action sequences are riveting and feel authentic, and the bombing scenes of Berlin by the Allies are terrifying. …The vignettes of Max’s personal life and his love for his fiancée, Mareth, and their hopes and dreams for the future throughout the novel showcase Max’s humanity. … In his debut novel, Charles McCain has created a character and a story that will certainly stand the test of time and Max will be classified as one of the great patriotic and honorable heroes in modern fiction.

–Excerpts from review by Beverly J. Rowe
of MyShelf.com

Truly superb storytelling, crisp prose and an amazing knowledge of German naval customs, history and traditions make this an outstanding read.

–MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE 24 August 2009

I have never read a book that so vividly took me into the heart of Germany and into the shoes of a German military member as he served his nation… The descriptions that the author used and his wording of the same were beyond imagination. You were there on the ship in the shoes of each sailor and each survivor of any ship sunk.

–Bestsellersworld.com Review written by Cy Hilterman of a book supplied by http://www.bestsellersworld.com July 4, 2009

And now emerges a first-time author, Charles McCain, who has written a dazzling novel of the war—but from the perspective of a young German naval lieutenant, Max Brekendorf…. This is a fascinating story of war from a perspective few of us have ever known.

–Stephen Bank, Meritorious Mysteries Blog, Cary Library, Cary, NC News

The American Charles McCain here relates the adventures of the young German naval officer Max Brekendorf in the turbulent times of the Second World War. The title alone reveals that this tale is not told from the customary Allied perspective, which immediately sees all German military as Nazis. To the contrary: On the basis of his impressive research the author easily gains a differentiated view of the condition of the German Navy. This is for certain the eminent strength of the book, but at the same time also its weakness. The author loses himself in the minutiae of daily life on board, while he neglects to develop potential conflicts among the described personnel. That, unfortunately, takes away somewhat from the suspense of the book.

Altogether, however, the author presents an interesting and authentic looking story of the fate of an almost typical German naval officer who himself did not experience the First World War but knows only too well the disaster suffered by the Imperial fleet from the descriptions of his father and his contemporaries.

The young lieutenant j.g. Brekendorf at first serves on the so-called pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee. His confidence that the new war will have a more favorable ending is soon damaged. After the punctilious captain, Hans Langsdorff, has haplessly maneuvered ship and crew into a hopeless situation, is the scuttling in the Rio de la Plata on December 17 1939 inevitable. To the German crew the sinking of the Admiral Graf Spee appears as a miniature repetition of the scuttling of the German fleet in Scapa Flow in 1919. From Uruguay via Argentina Brekendorf returns to Germany where commands a submarine in the Atlantic until his capture at the end of the war. In spite of additional obstacles, the novel finds a good and conciliatory end in Mexico.

All in all a story worth reading, even if this dedicated writer has not yet succeeded completely in creating the permanent suspense that professional writers like Tom Clancy manage to build up.

–Marine Forum, the magazine of the German Naval Officers Association

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Page 67-70 of An Honorable German

“Max and Langsdorff turned again to face the three warships strung out along the horizon.

“Bridge,” screeched the telephone talker, “B-Service reports transmission in the clear.”

“Read it out.”

“Signal from Exeter: ‘Immediate to Admiralty. One pocket battleship zero three four degrees south, zero four nine degrees west. Course two seven five degrees.'”

And so the Royal Navy had found them at last. Max’s stomach muscles tightened.

“Signaling again in the clear: ‘From Exeter, general broadcast merchant ships. One pocket battleship, thirty-four degrees south, forty-nine degrees west, steering two three six. Am engaging forthwith. Stand off.'”

Big brother shooing the flock out of harm’s way. Langsdorff nodded. His face was calm.

“Have gunnery begin calling down the range,” he said to Max.

“Jawohl, Herr Kapitän.”

“And Oberleutnant.”

“Herr Kapitän?”

“Run up the battle flag.”

“Yes, sir!” Max said, grinning as he passed the captain’s order. Quickly the signalman broke out the red, white, and black naval ensign of the Kriegsmarine and hoisted it above the ship. Atlantic wind caught the banner and it streamed out over Graf Spee.

On the navigating bridge stood Langsdorff, Max, a deputy watch officer, and Hollendorf. As second navigator, Hollendorf tracked Graf Spee‘s exact position as she began to twist and turn
in the coming battle. Also on the bridge stood the four signalmen who would pass Langsdorff’s fighting orders through the ship by phone and voice tube. Four additional messengers stood by to run orders manually if the phones were knocked out. Two sailors manned each of the engine telegraphs. Rolf, the bridge steward, was on hand to provide sandwiches and coffee. excerpts-1While the enlisted men waited silently at their posts, Max and the other officers trained their binoculars on the charging British cruisers. It seemed unreal to Max, like a practice shoot in the Baltic. In their two and a half months of commerce raiding, nobody had actually fired on them.

One of the bridge signalmen chanted the range as it came in over his earphones. “Twelve kilometers, eleven and three-quarters, eleven and a half . . .”

The British had the curious habit, left over from the days when all wooden warships looked alike, of flying gigantic battle ensigns. As Exeter drove toward the Spee, Max watched the huge red-and-white flags break over the cruiser—two up the radio aerials, two more up the signal masts. If they were hauled down before the end of the battle, it could have but one meaning: H.M.S. Exeter had surrendered. Unlikely, Max knew. A Royal Navy warship had not surrendered in a sea battle for a hundred and fifty years.

Above one of the ensigns flew a yellow signal flag—the classic signal of the Royal Navy: Enemy in sight.

At ten kilometers, Exeter changed course ninety degrees to her left and ran perpendicular to Graf Spee. Now all of Exeter‘s guns bore on Spee, while only Spee‘s forward guns bore on Exeter.

Alarmed, Langsdorff bypassed Max and stepped directly to the voicepipe. “Helmsman, hard port. Come to new course of one two zero!” Spee heeled sharply to port and began running parallel to ExeterExeter‘s two comrades then altered course so they too steamed parallel to Graf Spee, but in the opposite direction. Max knew the light cruisers would steer a wide arc, cross Spee‘s stern, and come up on the other side. They would try and compel Spee to divide the punishing fire of her eleven-inch guns. excerpts-2Silence again on the bridge. Max felt a tremor in his legs. Only the enclosed portion of the navigating bridge had any protection at all—an inch of steel plate to stop shell splinters. They could pull steel scuttles down over the large portholes, but then they wouldn’t be able to see anything. The open bridge wings had no protection of any kind against incoming fire, just salt air and a flawless view of the British guns taking dead aim.

“Range of Exeter?”

“Nine and a half kilometers now, Herr Kapitän.”

“Commence against Exeter,” Langsdorff ordered, his voice as soft and pleasant as if he were ordering coffee.

Max came to attention. “Jawohl, Herr Kapitän.” He seized the gunnery phone.

“Gunnery, aye.”

“Order from captain: target is Exeter. Repeat, target is Exeter. Commence main battery fire.”

The firing gong sounded through the ship. The main batteries fired. Max was nearly thrown off balance by the force of the recoil. Black gun smoke lingered briefly over the Spee, to be snatched away by the wind. Close to Exeter, geysers of white water shot into the air. “Note to log,” Langsdorff said to Hollendorf, “Graf Spee commenced firing against Exeter at zero six eighteen.”

“Over!” Max shouted.

Orange halos blossomed from Exeter‘s guns.

“He’s fired!” yelped the young telephone talker.

“Steady,” Langsdorff said, hands clasped behind his back like a squire looking over his acres.

A half kilometer from Graf Spee the incoming shells struck the ocean and sent up towers of water.

High above the bridge in their directing tower, the gunnery control team peered through their optical instruments, calculating Exeter‘s range, course, and speed, sending this data to a mechanical tabulator deep in the armored bowels of the ship. This tabulator computed the trajectory of the shells and automatically trained Graf Spee‘s main batteries. The recoil of the naval cannon comprising the main battery also had to be computed since a full broadside by both turrets heeled the ship over by five degrees or more.

In Spee‘s armored turrets, the deafened sailors, bundled up in their anti-flash overalls, frantically worked the huge naval cannons, ramming the six-hundred-seventy-pound shells hydraulically into the barrels, followed by a silk-wrapped powder charge. When the gun captain slammed home the breechblock, the ready light blinked on in the gun directing tower. The gunnery officer pressed the orange firing button and an electric current ignited the cordite, blowing the shell from the barrel. The gun crew flung open the breech, blasted the inside of the cannon with compressed air to clear any burning residue, thrust in a long-handled mop and swabbed out the barrel. In with a new shell and cordite charge and they were ready to fire.

The wind picked up and ruffled the sea. Exeter and Graf Spee plowed through the waves, spitting shells back and forth, disfiguring the water with angry spouts as the shots fell off the mark. Max kept his binoculars fixed on the British ship. His body shook each timeSpee‘s forward battery fired. Black smoke drifted up from its barrels and eddied through the bridge. Finally, a hole opened in Exeter‘s midships. “We hit her!” Max shouted.

excerpts-3

But Exeter’s broadside flamed out again, its report audible across the water. This timeGraf Spee shook. Max saw nothing. Must be aft of the bridge. The main batteries were unharmed. They had to fire faster.

Max lost all sense of time as the Krupp-built cannons fired again and again, every twenty seconds, their muzzle blasts shaking the ship. Smoke draped Spee, spray from near misses washing over her sides. Langsdorff shouted helm and engine orders over the roar of the guns. Both ships steamed at emergency full ahead, smoke pouring from their stacks. The engine room would be unbearably hot and loud, dark and claustrophobic. Below the waterline, hatches battened down, they knew little of what was going on above. The ship’s loudspeaker provided updates for many of the crew belowdecks, but these announcements could not be heard in the engine room over the terrific roar of the diesels. During battle, Dieter and his mates were the safest men aboard, but if Spee sank, they would never get out.
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