Best submarine novel? Das Boot: The Boat, by Lothar-Günther Buchheim

by admin on June 27, 2010

Perhaps The Boat is the best historical fiction novel about submarines ever written. It is hard to say – there are several that are excellent. Run Silent, Run Deep is excellent, and so is The Hunt for Red October. Personally, I also like Bacalao by J. T. McDaniel and Kilo Class by Patrick Robinson a lot. And U-859 by Arthur Baudzus, Crimson Tide by Richard P. Henrick, and Attack of the Seawolf by Michael DiMercurio are very good too. And I am sure there are many more that I don’t know about. Even so, it is probably fair to say that Das Boot, which is the name this novel and the movie is mostly known under, a k a The Boat (in English), is a at least one of the very best in this genre.

Das Boot was written by an Das Boot, The Boat, by Lothar Buchheim actual survivor of Germany’s U-boat fleet. Lothar-Gunther Buchheim was born in 1918 and grew up in Saxony. When the war broke out he joined the navy and served on mine-sweepers, destroyers and submarines, and on the last as an official navy correspondent. Das Boot is a fictionalized autobiographical account, narrated by a “Leutnant Werner”. It is the best-selling German account of the Second World War, and was quickly translated into English.

The tale in Das Boot is amazing. It is the story of a patrol mission by a German submarine, U-96, into the Atlantic Ocean to attack Allied convoys.

Lothar-Günther BuchheimLother-Günter Buchheim

It is a tale full of nerve-wracking tension and suspense, where the difficult conditions and pressures of life in a submarine are described is great detail. During the missions the boat patrolled without finding anything for a long time. When they finally did, it was a well-protected convoy. Very soon the hunter – the submarine – became the target, and a long lasting, complicated game of cat and mouse began. Time over and time again the submarine was nearly wrecked by depth charges. The submarine tries everything – runs, hides at depths far beyond what it is constructed for, twists and turns. But always the destroyers – using ASDIC -finds them, and more charges follow.

The German submarine manages to get away. They even manage to find another convoy and sink a few ships, but again have to pay by suffering though hours of nightmarish depth charges down in the deep, dark ocean. The authors describes the fears of the crew, the effects of the depth charges, their hopes when they think the bombardment is over, and their disappointment when the ASDIC pings again and a new attack starts on the surface.

However, instead of returning to France after a Das Boot DVD very tough patrol, the U-96 received new orders to go through Gibraltar to the new submarine base at La Spezia in Italy. Thus starts an even more nerve-wrecking journey for an already battered ship and crew. In the straight the ship is damaged and they start to sink. As the depth indicator shows them descending far deeper than they have ever been, the Captain miraculously manages to set the ship down on the sand bottom deep down. But the submarine is severely damaged; it is leaking, most of the vital systems are damaged, the batteries are leaking fluid, and their oxygen is running low. Can they somehow bring the battered hull up to the surface? And if they can – what will meet them there?

The story in Das Boot, about U-96 is supremely gripping – it is a mercilessly intense story, written in a way that makes you feel and almost sense the claustrophobic and scary conditions inside the boat. The depiction of what it’s like to be locked away in the stinky metal tube they live in for weeks on end is extremely vivid and realistic. So too are the author’s descriptions of the boredom during the long intervals when nothing happens during the patrol – when the crew talk about sex, their tempers flare and morale starts to slump.

Das Boot (The Boat) is a rough and grueling read, but also very fascinating. It is excellently written, at times very suspenseful, and is without doubt one of the very finest submarine novels ever written. It is a classic of nautical fiction. (See also review of the Oscar winning movie based on this novel – Das Boot (DVD).)

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