Naval Warfare Books

Book reviews

U-Boat Commander

Prien, Günther

2000, Tempus Publishing Ltd.
ISBN 0752420259
Paperback, 128 pages, 11 b&w photographs

Type. Biography
Pros. Provides an interesting overview of Prien's career.
Cons. As a product of the ministry of propaganda, must be taken with a grain of salt.

Note: This review refers to the 1969 paperback edition of the work originally issued in 1940 as Mein Weg nach Scapa Flow.

Written in the first person from the U-boat ace's point of view, but actually ghostwritten by the Ministry of Propaganda, this book covers Günther Prien's naval experiences from his first enlistment in the merchant navy at age 15 in 1923, to his bold attack on Scapa Flow in 1939.

The book is an interesting catalog of Prien's adventures, starting with his decision to go to sea against his mother's will and his introduction to naval matters in a three-month crash course at a Seaman's College referred to as the "matelot sausage machine" of Finkenwarder. His first berth was as ship's boy on the training sailing ship Hamburg, where he experienced not only typical shipboard conditions and life at the bottom of the totem pole, but more hair-raising adventures such as the desertion of a portion of the crew, a devastating fire in the hold, and a storm which led to loss of the ship. He even acted as cook for a time, taking over these duties jointly with the other "Moses" on board after the ship's cook was injured in the fire; their inventiveness earned them great popularity among the crew, until their career was suddenly cut short after their scheme to turn white cabbage to red cabbage using red lead paint caused havoc among the digestive systems of the ship's complement, including the captain.

Having survived the wreck of his first ship, Prien was disillusioned to learn that he owed the ship's company money - the amount he had spent on small necessary items from ship's stores during the voyage exceeded his pay. Swallowing his disappointment, Prien persisted in his pursuit of a master's certificate and joined a freighter, and by age 21 he had worked his way up to 4th officer on a passenger ship. This ship suffered a collision which led to an enquiry he feared would cost him his license, even though he was not at fault. Although he was fully exonerated, when he did obtain his master's certificate in 1932 at age 24, he was unable to find work.

Here opens a bitter chapter in Prien's story, describing his own unemployment and sad tales of his acquaintances who were ruined or driven to commit suicide during those hard times. His bitterness toward the government and his despair at the prospect of unemployment without end ring true, but the actual phrases used smack of propaganda - e.g., "this harsh world of shopkeepers and profiteers" and "those miserable shopkeepers, servility for those above them and kicks for those below". Interestingly, Prien (or the propaganda ministry writing for Prien) is also free with uncomplimentary descriptions of other professions and groups - clerical paper pushers are "office corpses", salvage ships are "vultures of the sea", and of his first moments as 4th officer of the passenger ship he notes that the passengers "pressed around me like blowflies round a sweating horse and plied me with stupid questions".

Frustrated with the inactivity of the current government, Prien joined the National Socialist Party and volunteered for labor camp even though he was older than the usual recruit. After a short time in camp, during which he rose quickly in rank and faced some tough leadership problems, he joined the Reichsmarine as ordinary seaman, preferring to start over at the bottom rather than spend his life away from the sea.

The book then skips a few years and takes up the thread again with Prien's U-boat training on U-3. Subsequent chapters cover his first assignment, to U-26 in 1938; his first command; the first days of the war; and of course his famous raid on Scapa Flow. The final chapter relates his meeting with the Führer and finishes with what amounts to a recruiting speech - an expected element of such wartime biographies as this is.

Jordan Vause in Wolf states that Prien was "aghast at his autobiography, […] which was written for him by the Ministry of Propaganda". Whether it was the content or the simple fact that it increased the notoriety which was already beginning to weigh on him, Vause does not say. In any case, to today's reader the propaganda element comes across as muted, rather than strident, and forms a relatively minor part of the book.

As noted, this review refers to a 1969 English-language paperback reprint of the original. This edition contains no photos, and includes Churchill's comment on the Scapa Flow raid to serve as preface, and the official announcement of Prien's loss as postscript.

Review written by Tonya Allen.

Published on 17 Jul 2001.

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