Thursday, October 24, 2019

81. U-Boat 977 by Heinz Schaeffer

Wow, great find!  I picked this up at the Rennaissance Thrift store here in Mont-Royal.  It's a nice looking paperback but it was the forward by Nicolas Monsarrat that sealed the deal for me.  He starts out quite aggressively arguing against any apology for behaviour by German officers and soldiers during World War II and being super clear that he recognizes Schaeffer's job on a U-Boat as being evil.  Nevertheless, the actual story of what it was like being on a German U-Boat and in particular their escape to Argentina at the end of the war, Monsarrat says is worth reading and knowing.

The first half of the book is disturbing.  It's a classic tale of the good German just doing his duty.  Schaeffer grows up loving sailing and joins the navy just as the war starts.  He gets routed into the submarine program and ends up joining a crew.  It's hard to know how much of it is post-facto, but he clearly identifies himself as a good German, with Nazism being some distant phenomenon that he had little if anything to do with.  We know today that this was often the case for many career men in the military and particularly the navy.  Nevertheless, even if you separate out the hateful ideology of Nazism, you still have to recognize that it was Germany invading everybody else so this "just doing my duty" narrative does not hold up well.  This is brought into strong relief the way Schaeffer describes their successful torpedoing of cargo ships, with little thought to he men who perished horribly. 

Most of the book though focuses on the life and work details of being on a submarine and this was pretty interesting and intense.  Though they were the predators at least until the tide was turned with radar, it still required a lot of brutal labour and psychological pressure.  They had to stay hidden constantly and only pop up to fire off their torpedoes.  The risk was incredible.  Of the 40,000 U-Boat sailors in WWII, 30,000 died.

U-Boat 977 really goes to another level when the war ends.  Schaeffer, who was only 23 and a new captain puts the vote to the crew as to what they want to do.  Fearing retribution from the victors (which was not unwarranted, though Goebbels' propaganda machine had amped up these fears to insane degrees where they truly feared all of Germany was going to be razed and turned into goat fields), they decided to flee to Argentina.  This triggers an incredible journey, first with 66 days submerged to avoid the Allied dragnet and get into the Atlantic where the ship starts to rot, the men grow sick with rashes, their clothes are constantly wet.  It's really bonkers and a testament to their discipline that they survived without killing each other or just giving up.  When they do sneak through, because of low fuel they spend the rest of the trip on the surface and that is also crazy, where they basically hang out on the deck getting tan, growing huge beards, fishing and surfing off the bows of the sub! 

This was a fantastic read.  As well as just being a crazy adventure, it is also a nice counterpoint to the two great narratives of the convoys of the Second World War, Monsarrat's The Cruel Sea and Alistair Maclean's HMS Ulysses.

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