U-BOATS AT WAR IN 100 OBJECTS 1939-1945

Reviewed by: SIMON BELLAMY

As the jacket of this book reminds us, Churchill commented that the U-Boat peril was the only thing which really frightened him during the war. The quotation is well-known, as is much else about the Battle of the Atlantic, which might lead some to ask whether there is anything new to say about this campaign on which so much depended. This excellent book answers that question with a resounding yes.

Gordon Williamson, who clearly has deep knowledge of his subject, has chosen an original and engaging way to tell the story. As the title indicates, he has selected 100 objects to give an overview of German submarines at war. The term ‘object’ is widely defined, with some items being a photograph of an individual, but this allows the author to tell the story of participants, from senior commanders, including of course Dönitz, to U-Boat ‘aces’ such as Prien. We therefore gain a rounded picture of the campaign, from its strategic direction to the tactics used at sea. Objects from the Allied side are also included, providing a balanced history. Sections on RAF Coastal Command, convoy escort vessels, ASDIC, and the escort commander Donald Macintyre are among many examples.

There is much coverage of weapons and platforms, from torpedoes to U-Boat types. Navigation equipment and machinery is included, explaining how the boats operated. As well as technical data, the author describes procedures, such as that for a crash dive. The photographs are well-chosen and of high quality, showing the depth of the author’s research and aiding our understanding of the objects. With a couple of pages of text accompanying each illustration, the layout is effective and informative.

As well as covering prominent aspects of the campaign, the author unearths little-known but important stories. For example, the role of Allied escort ships is recognized in many histories, but here we learn about the German vessels which escorted U-Boats out of port until they were able to dive. Also featured are a number of objects relating to awards and honours. Many appear to be rare, so the author’s research will be a valuable source for future historians. These awards also indicate the efforts made by the German navy to foster esprit de corps and to boost the morale of the elite U-Boat arm.

Among the wide range of subjects, it is those on the human side which offer a perspective and a level of insight not available from many other histories. There are sections on badges, uniforms and training, but also personnel reports and schemes of complement, with the roles of key positions explained. Life on board is also covered, with sections on accommodation, catering and hygiene. Others cover shore-based infrastructure, such as the concrete U-Boat pens built at the cost of the lives of many slave labourers. These huge structures, and various vessels preserved as museums, show that there are still visible reminders of the war at sea.

This slim volume makes an important contribution to our understanding of the U-Boat campaign and how it was fought on each side. The breadth of topics, and the way in which the illustrations bring them to life, will offer much both to the general reader and to those with more knowledge of the history. In addition to the objects which explain the strategy, tactics and weapons, perhaps the most lasting impression is of those which relate the experience of the sailors and airmen, particularly the U-Boat crews. This book is highly recommended.