Naval Warfare Books

Book reviews

The Odyssey of a U-Boat Commander

Topp, Erich. Translated by Eric C. Rust

1992, Greenwood Publishing Group
ISBN 0275938980
Hardcover, 258 pages

Type. Biography
Pros. Excellent personal narrative
Cons. None to speak of

Erich Topp, a confessed lover of poetry, is himself an excellent writer and brings a richly poetic style to his memoirs, which is evident even in translation. Throughout his years of pre-war naval training, through World War II, and into the postwar years, Topp kept a detailed diary, which he quotes extensively in this autobiography. Letting the diary and his letters speak for themselves, with an occasional clarifying comment, he conveys events, attitudes and feelings from an epoch which is both historically near and, in his words, so remote as to seem "a different world."

Having arrived at a reflective time in a life which was divided into two distinct halves by the German defeat, Topp takes the opportunity to consider both his own and his nation's deeds in historical context. The note of regret and disillusion sounds in the first chapter, where Topp describes the sinking of the Reuben James, the apprehension he felt as to its political consequences on learning that it was a United States vessel, and the personal wretchedness which has haunted him since the day years later when he read an American account of the sinking and later met a friend of an officer who had gone down with that ship. This pattern of presenting immediate personal impressions (usually provided by diary entries), followed by placing events into historical context and then analyzing them from the distance of years, is repeated throughout the book.

The result is a fascinating insight into not only the U-boat commander, but the postwar struggler, and the aged veteran. Unlike some other autobiographies of U-boat commanders (e.g., Iron Coffins), which leave the reader wondering what happened after 1945, the end of World War II coincides with the midpoint of this book. The rest of the memoir tells of the harrowing first postwar years, when Topp, released from prison camp, was forced to turn to whatever work was at hand, starting out as an ordinary seaman on a fishing boat; his short career as an architect; and his eventual second naval career.

Topp also describes familiar figures of the era, ranging from fond recollection of his close friend Engelbert Endrass, to a more measured consideration of his former commander, Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz. Additionally, he gives his opinions on controversial postwar depictions of the U-boat war, including Buchheim's Das Boot and Ott's Haie und kleine Fische.

Overall, an informative and moving memoir from a veteran of the U-boat war.

Review written by Tonya Allen.

Published on 23 Nov 1999.

This title is highly recommended.

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