Voyage of the Gray Wolves
Author: Steven Wilson
Publisher: Kensington Publishing Corp.
Year: 2004
Reviewer: Neal Stevens

By the time the Allies had retaken Paris in 1944 the Battle of the Atlantic was no longer a battle, it was a killing ground. U-boats were being cut down faster than Germany could launch replacements. With the Soviet Army bearing down from the East and the British and Americans advancing from the West, the Reich was on the verge of collapse. Yet, even in the face of utter destruction the German armed forces followed orders and did their duty. This machine-like devotion to duty serves as the theme of Steven Wilson’s novel Voyage of the Gray Wolves.

Famed U-boat commander Kapitänleutnant Guenter "the Silent" Kern is called on by Admiral Doenitz to undertake a mission so vital to the Reich’s survival that he is allocated a small flotilla of 15 Type XXI U-boats. As any naval enthusiast knows, the Type XXI Elektroboot was a phenomenal machine for its time, able to cross long stretches of ocean submerged at great speed, with a snorkel for recharging batteries and replenishing the air supply. Alas, these new super-U-boats were developed too late to make an impact of the war. Only two Type XXI U-boats made it to the war front and one, U-2511, made contact with enemy ships (it is said the captain was in the process of setting up an attack when the radio message came calling for a cease to hostilities).

A flotilla of these dynamic submarines in a fictional setting would portend some serious havoc among the smug convoys of 1944—just the kind of reading one would hope for. It is not to be. For one thing, just as occurred in the latter stages of the war, completion and delivery of these boats is severely disrupted by continual Allied bombing raids. Kern races off to his secret Norwegian base to prepare his 15 subs—he’s fortunate to see less than half that number sail into the fjord and tie up to the tender. And these are vessels rife with defects, commanded by unskilled officers with last-ditch conscript crews. Finally, the U-boats aren’t even to be used for convoy attacks—they are merely transport vehicles for some new German rockets to give the British islanders a nasty late-war surprise.

Kern is not deterred and launches a flurry of drills and repairs. By avoiding tact and browbeating his officers he aims to discharge his duty to the Reich. Enter SS Obererst. Erich Langsdorff (no connection to Hans Langsdorff of the Admiral Graf Spee is mentioned), operating directly under Reichsfueher Heinrich Himmler’s orders. Kern strongly resents the intrusion, Langsdorff maneuvers for control of the project. What follows is mostly bickering and rank pulling between Kern and SS officer, each determined to countermand the others orders into submission.

Meanwhile, a squadron of Allied destroyers led by Captain George Hardy dutifully trudge the waves in the North Channel between England and Northern Ireland far from the action, far from the glory. The reader is led to surmise that because Ol’ Captain George is a few blimeys short of a full deck the High Command have shelved his career. Even the crew has their doubts about serving under a bowler-topped relic who paints badly in his spare time and tells anecdotes even more badly. What they fail to see if a stalwart, wily old fox who scoffs at convention and considers himself a "last of the Old Guard" type.

Since the U-boats are engaged in a Kriegsmarine version of Monster Garage and the British are tossing about alone in the fog, there is a noticeable lack of conflict and an abundance of inconsequential dialogue and character reflection through much of the book. Periodically the exchanges are sharp and well-written and Wilson knows his way around a U-boat. His ample descriptions of the boats and their equipment is pleasing and once they put to sea, the pace picks up. But why burden a Type XXI with a pair of rockets and launching assemblies, don’t the Germans have something called a V2? Ah, yes, but then again, these rockets have special warheads that no German in his right mind would want to have exposed to enemy bombers within a hundred miles of the Reich.

Ultimately, as the novel reaches the third act and the U-boats go forth on their deadly mission and joust with the escorts in the gray seas off the coast of England, Kern questions his duty. He reflects: "Could not dignity be one of the few things that survive this war?". Kern’s dilemma draws a taut line between duty and honor. Voyage of the Gray Wolves concludes as a voyage to the solution of that dilemma.

Author Steven M. Wilson is Curator and Assistant Director of the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum in Harrogate, Tennessee.

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