U-Boat War

Author: Lothar-Gunther Buchheim
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Year: 1978
Genre: Non-Fiction
Reviewer: Daryl Carpenter

It's one of the most iconic and oft-reproduced photographs of the Second World War. A German submarine, enveloped in white foam, maybe 50 yards from one of her sister boats. The submarine in question, U-572, is little more than a stark black phantom, the sea a roiling tempest, the sky a grey blur. Someone on the bridge is waving a signal flag. The name of the photographer should ring a bell - Lothar-Gunther Buchheim, best known as the author of Das Boot. Amazingly enough, this isn't the most remarkable photograph he'd ever taken - it's not even the most remarkable in it's series.

Lothar-Gunther Buchheim, an artist before the war, enlisted in the Kriegsmarine in 1940. As a war correspondent, he wrote about his experiences onboard minesweepers and destroyers for the propaganda magazine Signal. In the Autumn of 1941, he joined the crew of U-96, commanded by Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock, for a single patrol. Armed with a camera and dozens of rolls of film, he sought out to record the U-boat experience in exhausting detail. As he states in the introduction "every aspect, every detail, counted, bore witness to the reality of war, for unless I captured it on film it was irretrievably gone."

U-Boot Krieg, originally published in 1978, was the first in a trilogy of Buchheim photo-essays, the others being Die U-boot Fahrer (The U-boat Sailors) and Zu Tode gesiegt (Victoried To Death). Of them, only U-boat War was ever published in English - a loss for many of us, no doubt. Buchheim grew to resent his U-boat connection in his later years. After the war, he began collecting artwork banned by the Nazis as "degenerate," created an art publishing house, and did everything in his power to cement his position as a respected artist. A controversial figure among U-boat survivors and naval historians, the publication of Das Boot in 1973 cemented him as the most influential and controversial chronicler of the U-boat war - something he probably wanted to avoid. Written in his trademark cynical, existentialist style, U-boat War is unique in not having numbered pages, enhancing it's stream-of-consciousness approach but making it hard to cross-reference.

U-boat War opens with a remarkable set of images that sets the tone for the rest of the book. Somewhere in France, a city lies in ruins after an air raid by the Royal Air Force, whole buildings reduced to pulverized bricks and twisted steel beams. Buchheim camera captures the body of a British pilot baking in the sun, munitions trains blasted into steel skeletons, the shattered remains of German patrol boats and bombers, and soldiers carrying away a badly wounded Allied bomber pilot from the burning wreckage of his plane. Even as "the Tommies" bomb U-boat bases in France, The Guards Regiment, resplendent in their starched uniforms and polished jackboots, marches to "humiliate the French," while U-boat officers hold a backyard pig roast in St. Nazaire. In all this chaos, normality somehow prevails - but as Buchheim shows us, this "normality" simply served to enhance the absurdity of the situation.

Although he took "more than 5,000" photographs during the war, this book narrows Buchheim's massive output down to around 200 photos. Contained within this narrow selection are images of every scope and scale imaginable, ranging from two-page spreads showing the boat gripped in a massive Atlantic storm, to intimate details of the crew at work and rest. Perhaps the most fascinating are the ones focusing on faces: there's Lehmann-Willenbrock, a craggy, swarthy old man of 30, with his deep crow's feet, and messy hair, the immature baby faces of the helmsman and control room mate, neither of which look older than 19, and the pasty, weary faces of the torpedo room gang, who'd rather be somewhere else. Buchheim was literally everywhere onboard U-96. He captures the action inside the diesel room the moment a crash dive was ordered, hangs from the bridge railing at precarious angles to capture that "perfect shot," risks life and limb to get good exterior shots of the boat (a couple of these photographs are sure to provoke a "was this guy nuts?" reaction), and even manages to take photos inside the control room while depth charges are exploding outside!

The most comparable book to U-boat War is probably Lawrence Paterson's U-Boat War Patrol. While Paterson's devotion to historical accuracy is more studious than Buchheim's and Meimes Haring's photographs provide an invaluable historical record, the images can't hold a candle to the dramatic power of those in U-boat War. The reason why Buchheim's photographs resonate so strongly is probably because he wasn't a professional photographer, or even a submariner for that matter. In some of his photos of the storm, saltwater has seeped into the camera and left white splotches all over the image. In his photographs taken during the depth charge attack, there's a large gash through the middle of the image, a result of the lens being damaged during one of the barrages. Instead of taking way from the photos, these "flaws" simply add to their immediacy.

Every now and then I'll stumble across a book that fascinates me to a distracting level. U-boat War is one of those rare books. Even after reading the entire book, studying every detail of every photograph, I keep coming back and getting entranced all over again. In 218 grainy, high-contrast black and white photographs, Buchheim created an indelible study of life and death in the North Atlantic. The last few chapters include photographs taken while he was onboard U-309, one of the last U-boats to escape from occupied France (one of the others was commanded by Iron Coffins author Herbert Werner), depicting the rescue of the crew of U-981 after it struck a magnetic mine and was sunk by an RAF Halifax.

These photographs, and Buchheim's stinging condemnation of the German naval leadership which sent thousands of young men to needless deaths for an evil and ultimately doomed cause, simply drive home the book's anti-war message. It's a shame that Buchheim was, at least partially, on Joseph Goebell's payroll when he took these photographs, because U-boat War is simply a stunning book. Whatever you might feel about the man, this is one book that anyone who seriously considers themself a "submarine buff" needs to own.

Want to see some of the more interesting photos from this book? It's here.


2009 SUBSIM Review