Published in 1973, Das Boot (The Boat) is a fictionalized autobiographical account of Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s experiences as a war correspondent aboard the German U-boat, U-96, on her seventh war patrol. Buchheim’s job was to document and photograph life aboard the U-96 for propaganda purposes, so he was basically more akin to a modern-day Public Affairs Officer. It’s worth noting that the narrative is “mostly” accurate to history, but the names of the crew members are changed and the ending is completely fictional.
The book is divided into 11 chapters and is written in first-person, present-tense language from the perspective of the narrator.
The story begins in late 1941 at a bar where the war correspondent (the narrator) is introduced to the officers of the U-96 and meets a number of other U-boat captains. Departing from St. Nazaire, the first third of the book is spent describing the crew, the life, and the overall workings of the boat. Eventually, the boat runs afoul of a destroyer and is forced to submerge and escape a depth charge attack. Later it surfaces and is tossed around in a storm before getting orders to join a wolf pack to attack a convoy. Upon intercepting the convoy, U-96 torpedoes several vessels before being forced down by Allied destroyers, continuously depth-charged, and hunted by their new active sonar equipment (ASDIC).
After escaping the destroyers, U-96 receives secret orders to break into the Mediterranean and report to the port of La Spezia. First, the boat enters Vigo in neutral Spain and resupplies at the interned German merchant ship, Weser. At night, while attempting to enter the Mediterranean through the Strait of Gibraltar, U-96 is badly damaged by bombs from an Allied plane and forced to dive. Unable to level out, the boat sinks and approaches crush depth, but lands on a rocky sea shelf some 900 feet down. Working feverishly over 15 hours to control the flooding and repair the damage before their oxygen runs out, the crew is successful, and the boat barely manages to surface and limp back to St. Nazaire. On the way back, U-96 stops a Spanish liner, and later, meets another U-boat which strikes a mine and sinks, forcing it to rescue the crew.
Pulling into St. Nazaire, the port is raided by Allied bombers which damage the port facilities and kill many of the crew. The narrator finds the captain dying of his wounds as U-96 sinks in her berth.
Like many sea adventure stories, this book depicts sailors being sailors. Supposedly, Buchheim based the characters off of the actual crew members. Thus, the captain would be based on the real-life Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock, who commanded U-96 at the time. The officers are depicted as somewhat more erudite, but the enlisted men constantly act bawdy and keep to their respective duties. The interesting thing is that none of the officers are given any names, but are instead referred to by their positions such as The Commander (AKA The Old Man), Chief Engineer, First Watch Officer, Second Watch Officer, etc. Only the enlisted crew are given names. While a good amount of time is spent describing the idiosyncrasies of the crew, there are no major character arcs or development. This is not to say that the characters are boring or lifeless. You do learn some basic facts about them, such as one character has a sick and pregnant wife, another misses his French girlfriend, and so on. However, you don’t learn a tremendous amount about who they are outside of the U-boat.
If anything, the story is less about the characters and more about the overall life aboard the boat. A significant portion of the narrative is devoted to describing the dirty, smelly, sweaty, wet, miserable, and claustrophobic conditions that the crew live in, day in and day out. A lot of time is also spent literally describing the water and the weather. It makes sense given the constant monotony and fruitless searching. There’s only so much to do aboard the boat. The U-boat, the ocean, the weather, and the endless boredom become characters, instead. In many ways, this book is probably the most realistic account of life aboard a WWII German U-boat. It must have really sucked!
As I mentioned in my review of The Cruel Sea, this book is something of a counterpart since it depicts the war from the perspective of a German U-boat. The difference is that Das Boot only covers a single patrol and not the entire war. Much like Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea, Buchheim’s Das Boot is yet another story of life aboard a naval vessel during wartime. Tremendous amounts of detail are devoted to the environment and painting a picture of a group of men trapped aboard a steel tube in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
The story is not 100% accurate to the historical war patrol. For example, apart from the changed character and vessel names, the real U-96 was not sunk by an air raid at the end of her 7th patrol. She actually did 11 patrols and was decommissioned to serve as a training vessel, but she was sunk by the Eighth Air Force on 30 March 1945 while in Wilhelmshaven, and the real captain survived the war.
Buchheim wrote the novel with a distinct note of realism to hammer home an anti-war message. As if to say to young people, “You think war is all action, excitement, and adventure…think again.” There’s very little in the narrative that is glorious or pretty, and the book basically shows the reader that this was a difficult life to live, and not for the thrill seeker or the faint of heart. The narrator comes to this sobering realization while the boat is crippled and lying on the bottom of the Strait of Gibraltar:
I suddenly feel a bitter cynicism. After all, this is exactly what you wanted. You were up to your neck in easy living. You wanted to try something heroic for a change. “To stand for once before the ineluctable…” You got drunk on it all. “…where no mother cares for us, no woman crosses our path, where only reality reigns, grim in all its majesty…” Well, this is it, this is reality.p. 442
I say the same thing when I have high school students who want to be in the Army Special Forces or Navy SEALs because their only references are movies and video games. They’ll change their tune when they’re up to their necks in the freezing cold surf, or when people start dying. Reality is a harsh mistress.
The writing in Das Boot certainly isn’t bad. It’s clear, realistic, and about as well-written as Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea. However, parts of it do drag on with descriptions of the ocean and the weather. It’s worth reading for the details and to get a no-holds-barred idea of what life on a WWII U-boat was like.
Rating: 4 out of 5 (Very good/worth your time).
The Film Adaptation
I figure you can’t talk about the book without bringing up the movie. Probably more well-known than the book, the film adaptation is pretty much Wolfgang Petersen’s magnum opus. It stands as a technical masterpiece and the gold standard for all submarine films, regardless of whatever era or navy they’re portraying. You will not find a more accurate submarine film out there, period.
Much of the film’s accuracy has to do with the fact that the production used many of Buchheim’s wartime photos and technical advisors (such as the real U-96 captain, Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock) to recreate a 1:1 interior set of a Type VII-C U-boat. Although the walls of the interior set could be removed to provide more room, this was reportedly only done in one scene. The rest of the interior shots were done in the actual cramped spaces. The interior set was mounted on a hydraulic apparatus that could tilt it 45 degrees. It was shaken and rocked during depth charge attack scenes.
Another full-scale U-boat replica was built for exterior shots (which was also used in Raiders of the Lost Ark). This was basically a shell with a motor in the back. A half-sized replica was used for underwater shots and some surface shots. A conning tower mock-up was built and placed in a water tank so realistic waves and jets of water could be sprayed on the actors.
The cast was selected from various parts of Germany and Austria to reflect the different dialects and accents of German that would have been used in the Third Reich at the time. The film was shot in sequence and the actors were forced to remain out of the sunlight. This allowed the film to show realistic hair growth and increasing skin pallor. In order to film inside the cramped interior set, the cameras had to have special gyroscopes fitted to them. These produced so much noise that the film was shot silently. All of the lines were dubbed in post-production. Additionally, all of the main actors were bilingual in German and English, so both audio tracks are the real actor’s voices. A nice touch that keeps up the immersion.
There are several versions of the film. It was originally made as a TV miniseries. The theatrical version is about half the length, at roughly 150 minutes. I would recommend at least watching the Director’s Cut which is about 3.5 hours long. The “Original Uncut Version” adds about 90 minutes and is the same as the miniseries, but without the episode-opening flashbacks.
Released in 1981, the film stars Jürgen Prochnow as The Commander AKA Old Man, and Herbert Grönemeyer as the war correspondent, Lieutenant Werner. The film follows the story of the book very closely, but some minor plot points are changed or omitted. For example, the boat is homeported in La Rochelle in the film, as opposed to St. Nazaire. This was because the U-boat pens in La Rochelle still look much like they did at the time. Also, the events after their escape from Gibraltar on their way home are omitted.
Like the book, the film is extremely grim, depressing, and claustrophobic. I would argue that the film surpasses the book “in some ways” because it so accurately captures the atmosphere visually. This is definitely a film that you don’t forget.
Oddly enough, Buchheim denounced the film as an action flick that portrayed the crew members as overly gung-ho and boisterous, thereby defeating the anti-war message of his novel. If you’ve seen the film, it’s hard to see how he came to that conclusion. Although to be fair, he did experience it for real, so to him, the film probably looked very tame. If anything, the film captures the sheer misery and terror of being aboard a U-boat during the war. To that extent, I do feel that the film is actually more effective because it’s so depressing and grim.