Naval Warfare Books

Book reviews

Battle Beneath the Waves

The U-Boat War

Stern, Robert C.

1999, Arms & Armour
ISBN 1854092006
Hardcover, 272 pages, 46 b&w photos

Type. General History
Pros. Very well researched
Cons. None

This excellent book presents some of the most exciting, unusual, tragic, or simply strange occurrences in U-boat warfare, both famous incidents and those not so well-known, of both world wars (see the main entry for this book for a complete listing of boats and men covered).

The author begins by pointing out that the stories he is about to relate are examples of unusual, rather than usual, events in U-boat warfare. This is because, first of all, U-boat cruises were characterized by long stretches of boredom and inactivity, only occasionally punctuated by incidents of the type described in this book. Also, since the large majority of U-boat men in World War II and a substantial percentage in World War I never returned from their missions, those who survived to tell their stories are obviously in a minority - the exception rather than the rule.

That said, the author does a marvelous job of placing these adventures into historical context. The chapters are arranged to provide an overall chronology of each war, and each chapter begins with a few paragraphs bringing the reader up to speed on the current state of the conflict.

The technological particulars of weapons and defenses are explained in clear language, so that even a non-technically oriented reader comes away with a good understanding of how, for example, torpedoes, mines, Bold, depth charges, and the Schnorchel worked.

The author presents a balanced view, placing some of the more controversial incidents into historical perspective. For example, he follows a transcript of the "Laconia order" (which forbade U-boats from rescuing survivors) with a brief summary of the Wahoo incident (a case in which a US submarine deliberately gunned down a large number of Japanese survivors in the water) and of the Peleus affair. He also points out that the situation of D-Day, 1944, when U-boats were ordered to disrupt the invasion by any means possible when it was clear that to do so might be suicidal, had a recent historical precedent in a World War I "death ride" led by Admiral Scheer during the Battle of Jutland.

The author's sources were mainly primary documents - interrogation reports, war diaries from both sides, radio transmissions and official records, and various personal accounts. Thus there are included many small details from incidents not often described which bring vividly to life the experience of the war at sea. For instance, after one U-boat recovered the bodies of two airmen from a plane they had just downed, they searched the bodies for intelligence purposes - standard practice on both sides - and then took advantage of the chance to bolster their own short supplies by dividing up the money, jewelry, and usable clothing among the officers. The pathetic details (we learn that the money was divided equally among the officers, the captain locked away the jewelry, the IWO got a watch, and the IIWO gained some leather clothing) bring home the grim yet mundane necessities of war that are often overlooked in accounts of naval warfare that focus only on the more dramatic aspects.

We also get a glimpse of the snafus that plagued the German forces just as surely as they did the Allies, when we learn that most of one crew came down with scurvy during a long mission because they were mistakenly supplied with a much smaller quantity of vitamin tablets than their health required. Finally, we learn of an instance where an extremely young and inexperienced commander committed odd errors of judgment that eventually led to the loss of his boat. We then follow his progress in the water as he waits for rescue, eventually fetching up on a life raft next to the pilot of one of the planes who had bombed his boat and been shot down, and engaging in a slightly surreal dialogue with his former opponent.

It may seem as if I've given everything away, but in fact these are just a few of the many fascinating incidents described in this very readable, well-researched and objective book. Highly recommended.

Review written by Tonya Allen.

Published on 18 Jan 2000.

This title is highly recommended.

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