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An Operational Necessity Paperback – September, 1999
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From Library Journal
Griffin's World War II novel follows the trial of a German submarine commander who violated the rules of war by ordering the crew of a French freighter killed after torpedoing their ship. One man survives to tell the tale and bring the U-boat skipper to justice. This book originally appeared in 1968.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
"A Griffin novel . . . like a punch on the nose, holds one's complete attention." -- Orville Prescott, The New York Times
"Every novel Gwyn Griffin has written is strikingly original, but this beats them all...Masterful." -- Gilbert Highet
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Here are the questions, almost unanswerable - (1) whether, in order to protect his ship and crew from deadly peril, a combat commander in wartime is justified in ordering the killing of enemy civilians who have deliberately put themselves in harm's way, (2) whether a junior officer ordered to kill the civilians by his superior is protected from prosecution if he obeys those orders and (3) whether the enemy (in this case the British) have any justification in seizing a German crew in neutral waters and whether the British as eventual victors are morally authorized after the war to decide what is and is not a war crime and shoot two officers who participated in the killings after a trial which is basically the window dressing for another "Operational Necessity".
This book was first published in 1967 at which time I read it and thought it was a great novel. I was a busy, practicing trial lawyer at the time and was particularly interested in the trial of the two defendants; but the whole story stuck in my memory to the point where I found a copy on Amazon a month or so ago (it had been republished in paperback in 1969 and good copies are still available) and read it again - and came away from it with the opinion I have mentioned at the start of this review. I'm just sorry this review is so late in the game after publication that probably nobody will ever see it.
Here's the story : It is January 1945. Everyone knows the war is ending; and U996, one of the big new long-range boats capable of operating months without refueling, is on her first war patrol. She's under the command of Kapitanleutenant Eugen Kielbasa, a regular in the German Navy with four previous war patrols under his belt. The crew is young and inexperienced, and his Gunnery Officer - sub-Lieutenant Emil Kummeral (barely 20) - is just out of cadet school and has no experience.
They are on their way to the Indian Ocean to intercept the British trade from Aden, and they are in the critical leg of their journey - through the narrowest part of the South Atlantic, between Freetown and Ascension Island, where the Allies have continuous air patrols and where four boats have been lost within the last few months.
Cruising submerged by day and surfaced only at night they sight and torpedo the French freighter Marechel Oudinot travelling in the darkness under the British Flag with a British captain and l a deck cargo of hardwood. It's a mess. The ship sinks immediately but there are survivors, rafts, debris and the deck cargo floating in the ocean at the scene. It's a made to order sinking scene for the next day's air patrol which will be quick to realize that a U boat has just passed through going South and to call out the posse to hunt it down. (At her best speed of 16 knots U 995 would still be less than 130 miles away before she has to submerge at dawn - and that distance is no problem for an air search.)
The first of two "operational Necessities": Kielbassa is responsible for his boat, his mission and his 60-crew members. He orders the boat to scatter the wreckage, sink the life rafts and do as much as possible to eliminate the evidence - and yes, that means inevitably shooting survivors. Dead men tell no tales. The orders to shoot are given directly to Sub-Lt Kummeral; and he obeys them as he has been trained to do. Some survivors are shot. Some survive to attempt to get to the coast of Brazil, but only one makes it to report what has happened.
Days pass While the sole survivor has been drifting and finally rescued, U996 has escaped, rounded the Cape of Good Hope and is transiting .the Mozambique Channel when she is spotted, depth charged and, badly damaged, manages to ground herself within the three mile limit of what was then Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique) - neutral waters from which officers and crew should be interned, not otherwise. But the status of the crew as neutrals to be detained by the Portuguese authorities and not otherwise is ignored by the British - an other "operational necessity" - who illegally and in contravention of International Law make them prisoners and sequester them in what was then Tanganyika (now Tanzania) from which point they can transported as POWs to England.
At this point in the novel there's a lot of action -romance, the good British Colonial life in Tanganyika - even during the war - and suspense in finding the 996's logbook that eventually clinches the case against those executed. (Without the logbook there would have been no connection between the action of U996 and this partiular sinking.)
After the two officers have been transported to the cold, cold prison in Germany for their "trial" the book becomes a blistering, angry, denunciation of the irony of the trial. It's a great trial story, one of the best - told straight up without tongue in cheek.
A wonderful read. The author takes the reader all over the place - South Atlantic sea warfare action, trapped in a sunken submarine on the Indian Ocean floor, colonial Tanganyikan Africa, an ancient courtroom in bombed out Germany and a WWII war crimes trial, death-row, the execution field on a bleak windswept moor. The myriad characters are cleverly constructed and consistently true. The action and suspense is sometimes white-knuckle level (be prepared for "keep you up" reading sessions). Love, revenge, suicide, sefishness, selflessness, sacrifice, starvation . . . Griffin examins everything. A long read - the writer did not hurry the tale.
And, as my title alluded to - very intelligently written. Besides being entertained, expanding your vocabulary, receiving a bit of education about WWII history and things maritime, etc. -- expect to sharpen your thoughtfulness on the matters of war, militaries, crime and punishment, and the motivations of governments and those in power. Griffin even manages to improbably squeeze a passable love story into the tale. The description of the death row/execution experience was overwhelming and like may aspects of this book, will stay with one over the years.
Intricate, highly detailed, and well populated with real characters. A superb work and one of the very best in this genre'. This was my first read from the late Gwyn Griffin. There will certainly be more.