The best books about U-boats that aren't Das Boot

Lawrence Paterson Author Of Schnellboote: A Complete Operational History
By Lawrence Paterson

Who am I?

I have been writing non-fiction Second World War history books since 2000 and just recently had my twenty-first published by Osprey. Most deal with aspects of the history of Germany’s U-boats. Though I have had a lifelong interest in military history, the desire to write about this topic began while living near Brest in Brittany, France. I am a scuba diving instructor and spent a great deal of time diving on wrecks left behind by the Kriegsmarine, all in the shadow of the huge U-boat bunkers created in Brest’s military harbour. Encouraged by authors Jon Gawne and Robert Strauss I submitted the proposal for the First U-Boat Flotilla to Pen & Sword in 2000…and it went from there. 


I wrote...

Schnellboote: A Complete Operational History

By Lawrence Paterson,

Book cover of Schnellboote: A Complete Operational History

What is my book about?

The Kreigsmarine’s S-boat service mirrors that of most naval components of Germany’s Third Reich. Involved in an unexpected war at a time when their service was barely beginning to recover from the previous conflict, it is a story of often startling military achievement against superior enemy forces before the long inexorable decline toward defeat six years later. While explaining their development from the ashes of the First World War, this book concentrates on their operational activities during the Second. 

It has never been fully covered in the English language, and S-boats and their importance to the Kriegsmarine continue to be grievously overlooked. This was my second book that deviates from my normal subject of the U-boat service. 

The books I picked & why

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Sharks and Little Fish: A Novel of German Submarine Warfare

By Wolfgang Ott, Ralph Manheim (translator),

Book cover of Sharks and Little Fish: A Novel of German Submarine Warfare

Why this book?

 This novel was first published in Germany in 1954, based on the author’s actual experience as a U-boat man during the Second World War. Told through the eyes of the fictional Teichmann, it is a visceral tour-de-force of German naval life beginning on minesweepers and gravitating toward U-boats. A brilliant portrayal of a grim reality.

I read this book during my teenage years and it was one of the first times I can remember reading a book that is grittily realistic; devoid of the 'boy's own' adventure style of many Second World War novels, but nor did it preach an obvious repentance by the German protagonist that also became quite common. In that sense, it’s virtually a dramatized documentary story of the author’s war.


The U-boat War

By Lothar-Gunther Buchheim,

Book cover of The U-boat War

Why this book?

Related to Das Boot this may be (same author, same boat as within the novel) but this is a factual photographic essay of photos taken by Buchheim, predominantly aboard U96 during August-September 1941 as a member of the Propaganda Company. The photographs show life as it actually was in the North Atlantic on patrol, and end with shots taken aboard U309 as it escaped Brest in August 1944 and was involved in the rescue of crew from U981 which sank after hitting a mine with twelve crewmen killed.

This is, quite simply, a brilliant and evocative set of photographs. Buchheim was part of the propaganda machine that he so vocally lambasted in his later years, and, talking to U-boat veterans, opinions of him as a human being were extremely polarised. However, there can be no doubt about his mastery of the visual medium.


Count Not the Dead: The Popular Image of the German Submarine

By Michael L. Hadley,

Book cover of Count Not the Dead: The Popular Image of the German Submarine

Why this book?

Hadley’s book examines the popular image of the U-boats and their crews through an examination of their portrayal in film and books as well as any other applicable medium. A brilliantly written analysis of how perceptions towards the subject have been manipulated both positively and negatively, dependent on the period or any intended bias of the creator.

Written examinations of elements of the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS can frequently be coloured by either an intrinsic dislike of the subject or, by contrast, an almost messianic apologist's belief in the infallibility of the German military. Hadley deftly and dispassionately separates fact from fiction and highlights the pitfalls of believing too much in the popular portrayal of a complex subject.  


Iron Coffins: A Personal Account of the German U-Boat Battles of World War II

By Herbert A. Werner,

Book cover of Iron Coffins: A Personal Account of the German U-Boat Battles of World War II

Why this book?

No such list could be complete without the inclusion of this book written by a U-boat commander of the later war years. Werner’s autobiographical story gives a genuine taste of what it was like, though it is not without its controversies. There is criticism of his factual inaccuracies, but people must understand that this book paints a picture, it is not a textbook. Werner’s opinions may not always completely chime with my own, but he was there. I was not. I have the benefit of hindsight, historical distance, and conversations with some of the men that he did not see eye to eye with at the time. A fascinating book.


No Ordinary War: The Eventful Career of U-604

By Christian Prag,

Book cover of No Ordinary War: The Eventful Career of U-604

Why this book?

I have a personal attachment to this book, as I knew radio man Georg Seitz from whom this history of U604 originates. It is an incredible story and Christian has diligently woven together the history of what, on the surface, seems a relatively unremarkable U-boat career. It nonetheless carries an engrossing human tale of triumph and tragedy, ending with the boat’s loss in action and the commander’s suicide. Georg then went on to crew aboard U873 which surrendered to the US Navy at the end of hostilities and which carries the terrible distinction of a second commander’s suicide. Many previously unpublished photos from Herr Seitz’s personal albums vividly illustrate the history of U604 and its crew.        


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