Arguably it started with the brilliant film Das Boot by Wolfgang Petersen, which I loved. But that was a long time ago.
I really got into U-boats after a couple months playing a PC video game. See my Notes on Playing Silent Hunter III page for more about that.
Eager to soak up more about these machines, I turned to books and model-making.
I believe I got all of these books used from abebooks.com except for Steel Boat, Iron Hearts, which I read in e-book form.
I’ll be quoting or paraphrasing from my own reviews of the books on Goodreads (in case the phrasing seems eerily familiar).
Iron Coffins: A Personal Account of the German U-boat Battles of World War II by Herbert A. Werner is excellent non-fiction.
What an incredible book! While this is told over the entire span of Werner’s career in the Kriegsmarine and beyond, it never becomes dry and factual. In fact, it’s an absolute page-turner. While the subject is sobering and unpleasant in many ways, it reads like good fiction. The tension runs high from start to finish and I truly had a hard time putting it down.
It’s not just an endless series of battles, either. It’s the complete arc of a young soldier and idealist becoming a hardened veteran "ace" captain against truly insane odds. It’s also the story of the downfall and madness of German command at the tail end of WWII.
There’s just enough detail about U-Boat operations to make the action comprehensible, but it’s not a highly technical account. I came to this book from an interest sparked by a video game, of all things, but I got way more than U-Boat tactics out of this. Werner’s story is amazing and important.
Das Boot (the book)
Das Boat by Lothar-Gunther Buchheim is the perfect companion fiction to Werner’s non-fiction above.
Another incredible book. Long and heavy on detail in a way that completely immerses the reader in the daily life of a U-Boat crew. It’s fiction, but it’s also based on Buchheim’s actual experience aboard U-96 and the experience certainly shows.
Das Boot is about a single long patrol, while Iron Coffins encompasses nearly the entire war. Both give complementary accounts that overlap surprisingly little (though both drive home the point that a U-Boat is smelly, loud, boring, and terrifying).
Like the patrol itself, Das Boot is boring, thrilling, and vile. The writing (and that of my English translation) is excellent. The ending, wow. What a final sentence.
Steel Boat, Iron Hearts
Of my personal "trilogy" of U-boat books, this was the weakest by far.
Iron Hearts is an enthusiastic (sometimes even blithe) telling of the same basic narrative as the other two books. The writing is artless, and that’s fine, not everybody is a poet; but Goebeler’s gung-ho attitude comes across as, well, a little questionable!
Nevertheless, even the least great telling of a U-boat’s sailor’s life is still going to be pretty fascinating and this often was. I recommend this only if you’ve already read better books and still need more (or a different point of view).
Type VII Model
In addition to life aboard these craft and the terrible thrill of submarine battle, I find that the machines themselves are intrinsicly interesting to me. I’ve always found drawing and model-making to be brilliant ways to really absorb the dimensions and details of a thing.
So I found a reasonably-priced (and not too large - since I would need to store it after building it!) model kit: Revell of Germany’s 1:144 U-Boat Type VIIC/41 Plastic Model Kit "Atlantic Version".
Revell lists this as a Skill Level 4 model ("These kits are for more experienced modellers, they have up to 150 parts and will need gluing and painting"). I built a lot of model cars when I was a kid which would probably have been Level 3.
I new the parts on this would be small, but wow, those were some small parts! Proper modelling cement actually melts the plastic pieces to fuse them together. At this size, there was a real risk of melting the entire part with the cement.
And so it begins.
This tiny deck has a working (moving) snorkel mast!
This model gave me a much-needed excuse to dust off my poor, neglected airbrush. This is the first coat after the primer. This is the first time I ever mixed my own acrylic airbrush colors.
Funny how it doesn’t look blue in this image, but the masking tape here is over the coat shown above. I took an entire night to apply these two strips of tape just right, using the model instructions and reference photos of some actual u-boats with similar color schemes. It’s really cool to work on a model now that I’m armed with adult levels of patience!
After the masking tape came off, it really started to look like a u-boat! But it’s much too clean to be believable.
Model makers on YouTube were very helpful for providing weathering tips. I was surprised at how difficult this was to get right.
And now some glamour shots…
This model now sits above my desk in my work-from-home office. It’s a physical reminder of the time I became obsessed with these machines and it looks pretty cool.