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Iron Coffins: A Personal Account Of The German U-boat Battles Of World War II Paperback – June 1, 2002
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You can almost smell the bilges, reeking with diesel fuel and rotten things and urine. On one occasion the crew goes ashore and bathes and dines and relaxes, and then Oberleutnant Werner comes back to the boat and opens the hatch and almost gags himself on the stench of body odor and piss and decay and oil emanating from his boat below. The boats were continually falling apart and threatening the lives of their crews in so doing. It is a nightmare from which Werner scarcely dreams of waking up from. Even when the war is over, his war continues in the form of his varied modes of incarceration as a POW. I always had the vision of POW camps as no-nonsense but reasonably humane prisons: maybe that was the American ones, but the French ones did not appear to be so. They slept in the open, in mud pits, and had a canned dishwater-like substance as their food. To add humiliation to their defeat, they were played the Marseilles every morning at wake-up.
One thing that surprised me was the degree to which I found myself rooting for Werner towards the end of the book. Initially I felt he was a shallow nationalistic warrior with no comprehension of or compassion for those he was learning to deal death to. Germany was at war, that was all he needed to know. He was a man of bordellos and torpedoes. The fact that German's leaders were insane and that they started a war that cost millions of lives and created one of the greatest genocides in history did not seem relevant to him. He might not have been an ardent Nazi, but he certainly was ardent about serving the Kriegsmarine. It was only when the truth that they were losing the war practically slapped him in the face that he could begin to admit to himself that the deaths of all his friends and all those he sent to the bottom were in vain. It's not that he didn't know the facts of the German situation late in the war, it was that he had a fanatical belief that somehow Hitler and Doenitz would turn it all around. In other words, I did not find him a sympathetic character at all. And yet as his war drew to a close, I found myself rooting for his survival (even though I knew of course he did survive.) The idea that he might be shot for escaping from a POW camp after all he went through seemed terribly tragic. Even when the war was over, his struggle to survive was not over. I found myself rooting for the survival of a (to me) most unlikable man, but a man of skill and a man who had lost everything by war's end. Who had nothing left but a will to continue. It goes to show that even relatively bad men (and certainly even he understood he had blood on his hands) are still human.
If you have even the slightest interest in the Battle of the Atlantic and U-boats, I'll bet you won't be able to put it down. True, it took a few chapters for the book to really sink the hook in me (that is how much I didn't care for Werner's shallow militarism and thoughtless womanizing,) but once it did I read the last third of the book almost in one sitting.
I have to admit that as a Brit I was curious as to what my own reaction to reading "Iron Coffins" would be. Sure, I've read lots of WWII history, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account,The Nuremberg Trial,Reach for the Sky,The Colditz Story, plus many, many more too numerous to mention, over the years. But as you can tell from the short list above, these were tales told invariably from the perspective of the Allies, because as always, it's the victors who write the history!
So I didn't really know what I would make of the story of a young WWII Offiziersanwärter (Officer Cadet), who rose to command his own U-Boats by wars end, especially as he started his career not long after the phase of the War in the Atlantic known to the U-Boat crews as "Die Glückliche Zeit" ("The Happy Time"), when, for seven long months during 1940 - 1941, German U-Boat Wolf Packs roamed the Atlantic practically at will, decimating Allied shipping.
The book is split into three main parts, "Years of Glory," "Above Us, Hell," and finally, "Disaster and Defeat." So even though the ultimate outcome of the story is never in doubt, it is clear from the chapter headings that the author is going to spare us nothing of the pride, elation, disquiet, fear, terror, and despair that he and his colleagues felt as the War progressed to its inevitable, and bitter end.
We first meet Werner as a fresh faced graduate from the German Naval Academy in Flensburg; he was 21yrs old, and had taken the first fateful steps in, hopefully, fulfilling the dreams of his father, who longed to see his son wearing an Admiral's Stripes! Much to his own surprise, he and many of his friends are assigned to the U-Boats, and as a young, and inexperienced ensign, he had something of a "baptism of fire." On the way to be refitted for its next patrol, his boat was almost lost with all hands due to mechanical failure - or could it have been sabotage? - then once on patrol he experiences his first "kills," and survives the first of the countless depth-charging's he would suffer at the hands of Allied warships.
Werner's writing style is straightforward, unfussy, and naturalistic; I found myself quickly drawn into his story, as he celebrates the skill of his Captain, the crew around him, as well as their sometimes astonishing good luck. We also get a taste of Werner's life away from the "front lines," as he partakes of many shore leaves between patrols, traveling to see his family and assorted girlfriends, as well as spending time with his crew mates in various Parisian "etablissements."
As the war progresses, changes in tactics, as well as advances in radar and sonar technology, mean the hunters become the hunted, and Werner's story becomes one of survival, at times against seemingly impossible odds. Werner's naturalistic prose brings home the mind-shredding terror of sustained depth-charge attacks, of being bombed and strafed on the surface by aircraft that appear out of the blue, crash diving before batteries and oxygen supplies have been replenished, only to be depth-charged again and again. The U-Boats were hunted remorselessly, so-much-so that towards the end of the War every patrol became the equivalent of a suicide mission, with sometimes the damaged and hastily repaired boats themselves posing as much danger to the crews as the Allied warships and planes above them.
But it is Werner's slowly dawning realization that the war is not going their way, that Germany herself is under threat, that is, for me, the most compelling part of the book. A proud and loyal member of the Kriegsmarine, Werner was desperate to believe the promises and assurances of his superiors, that the Wunderwaffen (Wonder Weapons) being produced in secret factories would deliver them from the Allies, and that his beloved Germany would be saved; there's no talk here of the Nazi's "Thousand Year Reich," just survival. In the end, Werner's pain and despair as he finally understood that their superiors had lied to them, had recklessly sacrificed the U-Boat fleet and their crews for nothing, was palpable.
After finishing "Iron Coffins" I started checking around for similar books, and discovered a lot a negative commentary online directed at the book, and the author himself, mostly based upon accusations that Werner inflated the successes of the boats he was on, and his own importance. I think it's safe to say that both sides inflated their successes and minimized their losses, either through the Fog-of-War, time, or for deliberate propaganda purposes. Did Werner portray himself in the best possible light, I don't doubt it, who wouldn't? Did I believe every detail of the book happened just as the author said it did? No; this is memoir, not "history." I'll leave it to the historians and academics out there to bicker and argue over every dotted "i" and crossed "t;" I found myself enthralled, saddened, and ultimately moved by Werner's personal odyssey, and for me that's what counts.
It's odd that a book Werner's harshest critics recommend, Steel Boat, Iron Hearts by Hans Goebeler, is similarly flawed, as the author appeared to have misrepresented himself to a quite startling degree! Mind you, that hasn't stopped me from downloading the book to my iPad! LOL!
Finally, after my initial reticence it was the two following passages that convinced me to read "Iron Coffins."
"...these were the flower of young German manhood... they were as a group unsullied by the cancer which afflicted the leading body politic. Because their leaders told them so, they believed that if they fought desperately, they might save their country from the disaster plainly grinding in from every side. They expected death, and most of them found it; but they fought hard all the same, and they carpeted the ocean floor with their bodies." Edward L. Beach, Captain, U.S. Navy (Ret.), 15th February 1969. (From the Foreword.)
"...this book belongs to my dead comrades, stricken down wholesale in the prime of youth. I hope it pays them the honor they deserve. If I have succeeded in handing down to the reader the ancient lesson that each generation seems to forget - that war is evil, that it murders men - then I consider this my most constructive deed." Herbert A. Werner, January 1969. (From the Introduction.)
Top international reviews
Though probably not as atmospheric as Das Boot it seems to give an honest account of Werner’s experiences .
A definite read for anyone who has an interest in military or social history.
Book arrived early and in good order
Hubby concurred with this view.