When the Hunters Become the Hunted: Das Boot

by Michael Smith

"...the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-Boat peril."

Sir Winston Churchill 

After the costly stalemate in the Battle of Britain during the summer of 1940, the Germans decided to defeat the last surviving enemy of Nazism in Western Europe by starving Britain into submission. The Battle of the Atlantic became an all out effort by Germany to force Britain to surrender for lack of food. The film, Das Boot, filmed in 1982, and directed by Wolfgang Petersen, focused on this struggle by fictionalizing and dramatizing the crew of the U-96 and their effort to survive not only the enemy but also their own "Iron Coffin."

During the early 1930's the German Navy or Kriegsmarine was the ignored third child in the German military family. In an effort to give Germany a fleet that could compete with the Royal Navy following Adolf HItler's repudiation of the Treaty of Versailles terms, Commander and Chief of the Kriegsmarine, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder embarked on an ambitious building program. On Saturday, March 16, 1953, Hitler announced Germany's rearmament. This included army conscription, the establishment of the Luftwaffe, and the building of a new German Navy. Formally abandoning the Treaty of Versailles and renaming the Reichmarine the Kreigsmarine, Germany initiated an overt offensive rebuilding of its armed forces.

In 1938, the government announced to the nation the German Plan Z. In this program the German Navy would build six 50,000 ton battleships, eight heavy cruisers, seventeen light cruisers, two aircraft carriers, and one hundred and thirty-three submarines by 1948. Grand Admiral Raeder, believing that he had Hitler's reassurance that the war was not expected before 1944 at the earliest, thought that the time frame would allow the majority of this rebuilding to be completed.

Thus when World War Two began in 1939, it arrived far too soon for the Kriegsmarine. Nevertheless, early in the war, Grand Admiral Raeder envisioned his fast, heavily-armed raiders as preying on British shipping like ferocious sharks. Raeder wanted a navy capable of striking at the sea lanes upon which the British so heavily relied. Raeder also recognized that the Kriegsmarine could not stand and fight on equal terms with the Royal Navy, the most powerful naval force in the world and hope to survive. A strong submarine would be essential.

On September 27, 1935 the German Government established the First Submarine Flotilla at Kiel. Admiral Raeder turned to Kommodore Karl Donitz, a U-Boat commander during the First World War, to encircle Britain and starve the nation into submission by attacking its merchant fleet with the small but growing German U-Boat forces. Although at the start of the war Donitz maintained 57 operational submarines based at Kiel, Germany actually operated at any one time fewer than two dozen submarines in the Atlantic. Right from the start Donitz began teaching his young wolves how to stalk prey.

Between the wars, Britain had tried to get the U-Boat banned under international law. To appease the British, the German Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop signed a protocol in 1935 proposing the outlawing of the submaine as a weapon of war, both nations pledging never again to resort to unrestricted submarine warfare. Yet, when war broke out the Kriegmarine's battle orders contained the following instructions: "fighting methods will never fail to be employed merely because some international regulations are opposed to them."

The British, thanks to the protocol, were not prepared for all-out U-boat warfare. Britain had placed great trust, in fact clearly too much trust, in Germany's treaty obligations and world opinion. Germany's growing surface fleet concerned the Admiralty more than any potential problems U-boats might present. The onset of war forced the Admiralty to recognize how wrong their perceptions were.

The first casualty among British capital ships was the sinking of the aircraft carrier Courageous with the loss of 518 lives on September 17, 1939 by a U-boat. Less than a month later, the U-47 under the command of Commander Gunther Prien sailed into the British naval base at Scapa Flow on the surface and sank the battleship Royal Oak as she lay at her moorings. This action resulted in the deaths of a further 833 British sailors. Prien received the Knights Cross from Hitler and Donitz was promoted to Rear Admiral for planning the operation. To the British, as well as for the Germans, the Scapa Flow Operation proved a shocking eye opener.

By June of 1940 a series of lightning victories in Western Europe left only Britain standing against the German onslaught. After the surrender of France, Hitler attempted to bomb Britain into submission. Military experts on both sides believed that invasion was only weeks away. Three months later an embarrassed and disgraced Hermann Goering pulled his badly mauled air units back and suspended air operations against Britain in daylight. The Kriegsmarine and Karl Donitz's U-boats would be used to bring Britain to her knees. As a result, the Royal Navy determined to protect its convoys at any cost, and the Battle of the Atlantic turned into a grim struggle between the hunters and the hunted.

This conflict is well represented in the excellent Wolfgang Petersen film, Das Boot (The Boat). The film, starring German actor Jurgen Prochnow, was produced for German television in 1982 and was 211 minutes long when first released. It was later shortened to 145 minutes and dubbed into English. The film was based on Lothar Gunter Buchhein's autobiographical novel about a young war correspondent on his first assignment on board a U-boat during the autumn of 1941.

Das Boot is an excellent historical war movie considered by many to be the finest movie ever made dealing with the subject of submarine warfare. It is not a technical movie like The Hunt for Red October. And the audience does not need to take a class in marine engineering to learn how to maneuver a 35,000 ton Soviet submarine around a 90 degree turn 400 feet underwater at 25 knots. The real stars of The Hunt for Red October are those magnificent Soviet and American missile boats. The crew are along literally just for the ride. Das Boot is a movie about men under the stress of boredom and the excitement of life or death combat. After watching The Hunt for Red October, a viewer has the impression that being in a Typhoon class Soviet submarine as large as a World War Two aircraft carrier would be like going to war in a submerged office building.

In Das Boot, the feeling is one of extreme claustrophobia. There are 44 men on board a Type VIIC U-boat living underwater on a ship less than 15 feet wide. These men work as a team each time the U-boat submerges. They might not like each other but they know that to make it back safely to the surface each man must do his job. The German submariners live in a world of mold and dampness in the cold North Atlantic. Everyone and everything is wet and covered in diesel oil in the submarine. The crew must share cramped living quarters with large amounts of fresh food, which quickly spoils during the long voyages. In high seas or stormy weather, the crew must be harnessed to their bunks to keep from being thrown to the deck while sleeping. As the boat is diving, the crew must rush to the bow of the submarine to give extra weight as it almost flies underwater. This rich attention to detail runs through Das Boot from beginning to end.

The film also shows the warm relationship between the captain, portrayed by Prochnow, and the crew. In a scene at the U-boat pens in the French coastal town of St. Nazaire, as the captain is addressing the crew there is a look of utmost trust in their eyes. They address him as "Herr Kalaut" through the film. No one else has this right. This term of affection is short of Kapitaenleutnant. It could be compared to "skipper" in the American Navy.

Prochnow's character is a young man of thirty when the war patrol starts but he ages quickly. He has seen too many friends sail away never to return. The captain has no time for morale building speeches. He and his crew have a job to do. He saves his hate not for the British who are trying to kill him but for the military leaders in Berlin who will send only promises of better weapons and faster ships as he watches good men die. When the submarine is almost sunk trying to cross into the Mediterranean through the Straits of Gibraltar, the captain shares the crew's fears and feeling of hopelessness. This is very different from the cool confident Sean Connery in the sterile conditions in The Hunt for Red October.

Marine fighter ace Gregory "Pappy" Boyington once said," Combat is long hours of dull boredom mixed with a few seconds on sheer horror." Boredom and loneliness are the real enemies in Das Boot. The crew is on the edge throughout the early part of the film when no enemy ships are in sight. These men are trained to do a highly dangerous job and the crew begins to react to each other as the tension intensifies. In a stormy sea another U-boat is spotted and the crew recognizes old friends. In an area as large as the Atlantic Ocean, seeing another U-boat is a rare treat. Later this boat is sunk with all hands in some nameless grave in the North Atlantic. When a report of a convoy comes into the radio room and the captain decides it is too far away to attack, many of the crew almost break down from stress.

One of the most surprising and emotional scenes concerns a British tanker which is burning from a torpedo hit. The U-96 comes in to finish it off. After the second torpedo is fired the crew discovers that there are still British sailors on board the burning tanker. As the ship sinks, some sailors swim toward the U-boat hoping to be saved, but a U-boats cannot pick up survivors, there is little enough room for the submarine crew. So, the captain begins to back the U-boat away from the men, leaving them to their fate. There is no question what will happen to them. Some of the crew in the conning tower begin to hide their faces and cry as the British sailors call out for help. The crew has changed since they have left port. All the arrogance and bravado have left them. The scene destroys forever the image of German sailors as cold hearted, steel sharks waiting to attack any helpless victim.

The film has a strong antiwar sentiment. The men are no longer Nazis fighting for the greater glory of the Third Reich. They are fighting to make it home. This change in thinking from a war movie to an antiwar movie is not surprising since Das Boot was made in the divided Germany of 1982. The film's ending is depressing. As the faithful, badly damaged U-boat pulls into port there is an air attack and many of the U-boat crew are killed including the captain. The beautiful U-boat takes a direct hit and sinks at her mooring. All the pain and suffering the crew has gone through is pointless in this final disaster.

This film is excellent particularly for students of naval history or anyone interested in the Second World War. The German version is not for younger students, although it is superior to the English version. Its content is relatively mild compared to today's R rated movies. But the language especially in the early club scenes in not appropriate for a young age group.