Das Boot, Das Leica

Stock Photo

Stock Photo

Toronto. I saw the film Das Boot in the Kingsway Theatre on Bloor in the west end of Toronto. Kingsway was by then a revival theatre. The building was musty and damp, fitting for this movie.  In March of 1983, I bought a large size Bantam paperback called “U-Boat War“. Written by Lothar-Gunther Buchheim, author of Das Boot (1975), and translated into English by Gudie Lawaetz.  This video on Youtube gives the Allies’ point of view on the U-Boats.

Buchheim was an artist in his early 20s when he went to sea in a WW2 U-Boat. Designated U-96, it first saw service in September 1940 and survived the war until the end of March 1945 when it was sunk by aircraft bombardment, just weeks before the war ended. 

Although he was an artist commissioned to paint war scenes, Buchheim brought along his own Leica. The book I have contains a narrative and 225 photos culled from 5,000 Leica photographs taken by Buchheim over the course of the war. The narrative counters many of the myths of the U-Boats. The U-Boats ran mainly on the surface using diesel power. Only under attack would the commander order a dive and conversion to battery powered electric motors. A tiny ship bobbing on or just below the surface in the 1940s without  radar had a difficult time finding anyone on the ocean.

On one trip, the author dropped his Leica damaging it. The U-Boat engineer volunteered to try his hand at repairs although he had no experience with the miniature mechanical  marvel. The next morning, it was at Buchheim’s place at the breakfast table, in working order.

The thousands of negatives Buchheim took were never developed and he lost track of the cassettes after the war ended. Some 35 years later, the cassettes were found by him and processed. To his delight, many of the photos were usable and a selection became the illustrations in this book.

His view from the German side of the war and the U-Boats in particular makes for very interesting reading. Near the end of the book, Buchheim tells how they rescued the crew of another U-Boat. With far too little room below deck, the rescued sailors had to ride home on the top deck all too aware that if attacked the ship would have to dive and all those above deck would perish. They survived the trip back to France.

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