Even today, Das Boot is seen as one of the defining films to showcase what World War II was like for German submariners. But was it true? That’s what we’ll aim to find out in this episode.
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About Das Boot
Located between Berlin to the northeast and Nuremburg to the south, Weimar, Germany has been around for a while. In fact, archaeologists have found items indicating the area in and around Weimar has been inhabited by humans for thousands of years.
Over those years—admittedly, mostly in the modern history of the city—there’s been a lot of famous people who have made Weimar their home.
Names such as the monk Martin Luther, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, a whole slew of composers…Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt, Johann Sebastian Bach…even Carl Zeiss, the founder and namesake of the company famous today for amazing camera lenses and more.
Our story today comes from someone else who called Weimar home. His name was Lothar-Günther Buchheim, and he was born into a family of artists on February 6th, 1918.
Well, maybe artist, not artists—his mother was an artist, but she was also a single parent.
When he was in his early 20s, Buchheim volunteered for the Kriegsmarine—the German Navy. That was in 1940.
While in the Kriegsmarine, Buchheim put his writing skills to work in the role of a Sonderführer. Basically, he was a part of the propaganda team within the Kriegsmarine and reported on the goings on for papers back home.
It was in this role when Buchheim was assigned to a German submarine called U-96. Although he certainly provided reports back to his superiors in Germany, it took decades for Lothar-Günther to publish anything publicly on his war experiences. For the most part, he spent those decades focusing on art.
But then, in 1973, Buchheim wrote a book on his experiences in the war that he simply called Das Boot—The Boat.
It took less than a decade for that book to get turned into the major feature film that we’re going to look at today.
The movie Das Boot was adapted for the screen by Wolfgang Petersen, the same man who directed the film, and was released in 1981. Although being nominated for six Oscars, it failed to secure one. Despite this, it’s gone on to become a classic film showing what life was like on board a German submarine during World War II.
But are the things it’s showing true to history?
Comparing Das Boot with History
The movie opens with a few facts that we can compare against history right away. The year is 1941 and we’re in La Rochelle, France. According to the movie, during World War II, the German Navy ramped up their U-boat production significantly and there were 40,000 German soldiers who served in the U-boats during World War II and 30,000 of them never returned.
While those numbers are obviously rounded, they’re pretty accurate. But they’re only a part of the picture of the German Navy’s U-boat campaign during World War II.
To get a better sense of what happened, we have to go back to World War I. For years during the first Great War, the German Navy wreaked havoc on allied boats using their U-boats—a shortened term for Unterseeboot, or “undersea boat.”
By the time World War I came to an end in 1918, Germany had about 350 U-boats that had sunk thousands of allied ships.
As part of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the war, there were restrictions put on the German military. In addition to having caps on the size of their military, Germany was required to either turn over or actively decommission a lot of their armaments.
After Hitler came to power in Germany, he secretly began building up their military in direct disobedience to the Treaty of Versailles, but for the purposes of our story today, by the time World War II broke out the German Navy only had 56 U-boats. Of those 56, only 24 of them were ready for operations in the open ocean.
But, of course, after the war broke out, the Treaty of Versailles was thrown out the window and over the course of World War II there were 1,156 U-boats built by the German military machine. Manning those submarines over the course of the war were about 40,900 men.
So the movie is pretty accurate there with a bit of rounding.
Of those 1,156 subs, 784 of them were lost throughout the course of the war. That’s about 70% of the entire fleet, along with 28,000 lives lost.
So again, the movie is pretty accurate with a bit of rounding.
What the movie doesn’t mention, though, is that about 5,000 of the U-boat personnel were captured as prisoners of war and 221 of the subs were scuttled by their own crews to avoid enemy capture.
By the end of the war, the Germany Navy that had 56 U-boats to begin the war and had risen to over a thousand subs at the height of the war surrendered 156 U-boats at the end of the war.
I don’t know what the deal is with the number 56 showing up in all of those stats, and thanks to the fall of the Third Reich I’m sure there’s still going to be some wiggle room in the specifics there, but those are the stats from the official historical society of the Australian Navy.
Oh, and we know of at least two U-boats that escaped capture by fleeing to Argentina.
Going back to the movie, after this setting of the German Navy’s history of sorts, we’re introduced to some officers in the German Navy as they’re driving down a countryside road. Along the way, they meet up with some very drunk sailors who promptly initiate the men in the car by urinating on the vehicle as it passes by. After this, there’s a party of sorts where we find out one of the officers in the car is the captain.
While this particular scene was highly dramatized for the film, Captain Henrich Lehmann-Willenbrock was a real person. He is portrayed by Jürgen Prochnow in the film.
Although, while Jürgen was almost 40 years old when he portrayed Henrich in Das Boot, the real Henrich was only 30 years old when 1941 came around. Coincidentally, 1941 was also the same year Jürgen was born.
Although it’s worth pointing out that Jürgen was supposed to be playing a 30-year-old Henrich. So the movie is accurate here, even if the age differences weren’t.
But while the real Henrich was younger than he seemed to be on screen at this point, that’s not to say he didn’t have plenty of experience—a decade of experience, actually. Henrich joined the Navy in 1931, then of the Weimar Republic. Between that time and 1941, Henrich rose through the ranks and held the position of captain for two U-boats, the U-8 and then the U-5.
Oh, and as a little side note, there’s a moment in the movie at the bar where Otto Sander’s version of Phillip Thomsen drunkenly mentions they’re fighting for the apprentice painter turned military genius.
While there’s no records I could find of a real Phillip Thomsen—the closest I could find was Rolf Thomsen, who commanded the U-1202 from January of 1944 to May of 1945—the points that the movie version of Thomsen makes were true.
Before his rise to power in Germany, Adolf Hitler was an aspiring artist who lived in Vienna, Austria from 1908 to 1913 selling paintings and postcards. Obviously, we know now that Hitler abandoned his artistic career. According to the author and historian Brigitte Hamann in her book Hitler’s Vienna: A Portrait of the Tyrant as a Young Man, Hitler’s most loyal patron of his paintings was a man named Samuel Morgenstern. Samuel was a glazier, or someone who fits glass into windows and doors, but Samuel ended up letting Hitler sell his paintings in Samuel’s store. In fact, it’s only thanks to Samuel’s diligent record-taking of who purchased Hitler’s paintings that we’ve been able to track many of them down over time.
While in Hitler’s own words in Mein Kampf would state that his anti-Semitism began during his days in Vienna, his friendly working relationship with Samuel would suggest otherwise because, in addition to being one of Hitler’s most loyal buyers and a business partner, he was also Jewish.
But that’s a story for another day.
Going back to the movie, after the scene at the bar, we find Jürgen Prochnow’s version of Captain Henrich Lehmann-Willenbrock heading to the docks where there are U-boats under construction. Then, he sees it—U-96.
As you can probably guess, U-96 was indeed a real U-boat. Now, maybe it’s just me, but the implication in the movie seems to be that when Captain Lehmann-Willenbrock takes command, U-96 is a new boat. And we also found out with the text at the beginning of the movie that the date is 1941.
So that’d mean the movie’s timeline is a bit off because the real U-96 launched for her first patrol on December 1st, 1940.
In fact, this patrol was the seventh patrol for U-96, and was one that she embarked on after six weeks in the shipyards doing the typical repairs after months at sea from her last patrol.
But we can get a sense of the timeline in the film based on another character the movie mentions here. That’s the war correspondent, Lieutenant Werner, who Captain Lehmann-Willenbrock introduces to the rest of the crew, saying he’ll be a guest on the boat.
The character of Lieutenant Werner is based on the man who wrote the book that the film is based on, also called Das Boot. That’d be the man we learned about in the intro, Lothar-Günther Buchheim.
Just like the fictional Werner in the film, the real Lothar-Günther Buchheim was on board the U-96 as a war correspondent. He was, as the movie shows Werner doing, there to document the patrol for the propaganda office back in Berlin.
You’ll notice I said “patrol”—singular. That’s because Lothar-Günther Buchheim was only on board U-96 for one patrol. That might seem to be right in line with the film since there’s only one patrol shown in the film, and to some degree it is.
It was in 1941, like the movie shows. October 27th, 1941, to be precise. And Buchheim was assigned to U-96 on the same day they were set to leave for their seventh patrol.
By the way, I know earlier I mentioned that the movie seemed to imply, at least to me, that this was the first patrol for U-96, there’s really no mention of that. That was just my interpretation—but the movie doesn’t ever really mention how many patrols the U-96 had been a part of before the events in the film.
As a quick little recap of what we’ve learned from history, though, Buchheim, who would go on to write the book that the movie Das Boot was based on many decades later, was on board for the seventh patrol of U-96. That patrol took place between October 27th and December 6th, 1941.
Oh, and while the movie mentions La Rochelle, France, the truth is that U-96 left for her seventh patrol from Saint-Nazaire, France. That’s about 120 miles, or 190 kilometers, to the north of La Rochelle.
It’s worth mentioning that in his book, Buchheim mentions U-96 leaving from Lorient, France. While it’s true that Lorient had submarine pens used by the Nazis during World War II, the filmmakers changed this to La Rochelle.
They did that because the submarine pens we see in the film actually are in La Rochelle, and those pens have survived a lot better than those in Lorient. Basically, it was changed from Lorient to La Rochelle because they looked a lot better on screen. I’ll make sure to include a photo of those over on the Based on a True Story Instagram feed.
As a little side note, while U-96’s seventh patrol departed from Saint-Nazaire, she left from Lorient for her second and third patrols back on January 9th and then January 30th, 1941, respectively. Oh, and her first patrol was out of Kiel along the northern coast of Germany.
Back in the movie, once the submarine leaves port, we get introduced to more of the crew. While many of these characters are fictionalized, many of them are also based on real people. Even some of the characters without names were real people.
For example, in the movie there’s a character simply cast as the First Watch Officer. He’s not even given a name in the movie. He’s just the First Watch Officer. But if you remember the clean-cut Nazi who hailed from Mexico City and traveled back to Germany because he believed it was his duty to fight for his country, that’s the First Watch Officer. He’s played by Hubertus Bengsch in the film, and he was based on a man named Gerhard Groth, who was the First Watch Officer on the real U-96.
Or there’s the actor Klaus Wennemann’s portrayal of the Chief Engineer. He’s usually referred to as just Chief, and there’s actually some conflicting reports among historians about him.
As far as we can tell, there was a real person named Fritz Grade who was the Chief Engineer on U-96 like the movie indicates. But others suggest that the character of Fritz Grade was based on a man named Hans Peter Dengel.
Unfortunately, there’s just not a lot of documentation on either of them to help clarify things better.
A few of the other characters were the Second Watch Officer. Like the First Watch Officer, there’s no real name given to him. But he’s played by Martin Semmelrogge, and his character was based on the real person in the same role. That’d be Werner Herrmann, who served as the Second Watch Officer on U-96.
Continuing on there’s a character named Chief Helmsman. He’s played by Bernd Tauber and is based on the Navigator of U-96, Alfred Radermacher.
Or there’s the character of Ullmann. He’s portrayed in the movie by Martin May. You’d probably remember him from the movie as the guy who had a pregnant girlfriend named François. The real person’s name was Hans Heinrich Hass and while I looked, I couldn’t find any sort of proof that he actually had a pregnant girlfriend like the movie indicates.
Finally, of the main characters in the film we have the character of Johann—or “The Ghost” as the other crew members call him in the movie. The real person Johann is based on was Hans Johannsen.
Of course, that’s not all of the crew members. In all, there were 42 men assigned to the real U-96 on her patrols. Granted, sometimes that number fluctuated…for example, as we learned when Lothar-Günther Buchheim joined for the seventh patrol.
Other than the ones we’ve talked about, most of the others we see in the movie, though, were, as far as my research indicates, either fictional or played enough of a background role to have their real names hidden to history.
One of my personal speculations as to why we don’t know some of the names is simply because many of those characters were created by Buchheim in his book that the movie is based on. Remember that book is a novel, so some things have been fictionalized—like we learned, the names changing. Another thing to keep in mind is what we learned, that while there were cramped quarters on the sub, it’s very likely that he didn’t really connect with a lot of the men on board for the one and only patrol he joined them on. So perhaps when he wrote the book, which didn’t get published until 1973, he’d forgotten some of the names.
Going back to the movie, soon after setting out, the Captain decides to run a test. There’s a few moments of tension as we see U-96 dive underwater and go down, down…deeper. 150 meters. 160 meters. They have to know the submarine will be able to survive pushing the limits.
Oh, and 150 meters is 490 feet and 160 meters is about 525 feet.
Soon after this, Jürgen Prochnow’s version of Captain Lehmann-Willenbrock orders them to surface. The test was a success.
While this particular scene is one of those that’s nearly impossible to verify, it’s very plausible. Leaving Saint-Nazaire, it took a couple days to cross the Bay of Biscay, which is that body of water to the west of France and just north of Spain.
So it’s possible, and it’d make sense knowing that she’d just spent the past six weeks in the shipyards, that they’d want to run some tests in the calm waters before facing combat situations.
As a Type VIIC submarine, U-96 was rated with a maximum operating depth at 230 meters, or about 750 feet. But with a crush depth of somewhere between 250 and 295 meters, or about 820 to 968 feet, it’s not like they operated that far down—it was just supposed to be able to go that deep and still work.
For some comparison here, the average depth in the ocean is almost 3,700 meters, or about 12,100 feet while deepest part of the ocean is the Mariana Trench, and at its deepest point is around 11,034 meters, or about 36,200 feet.
So while 250 meters is plenty deep, there’s a lot of water beneath them.
And, of course, it’s not like they operate at 250 meters. Like the movie shows, the average depth for U-96 was much more on the shallow end.
Something else the movie shows throughout is a lot of waiting around. There’s a lot of shots of the sailors chatting around the Captain’s table or with Werner in the bunks. While the movie never shows where they’re at during these sort of shots, I think it’s helpful to know not only how deep U-96 could go, but how far it could go.
U-96 had a range of about 15,700 kilometers, or about 9,800 miles. For some context, from the port she left in Saint-Nazaire, France to New York City in the United States is about 5,600 kilometers, or about 3,475 miles.
Of course, they weren’t headed to New York City, but you get the point—they had quite a range as they operated in the Atlantic Ocean.
But what plays more into so much time in the film being dedicated to conversations around the Captain’s table probably has to do with the speed of U-96. On the surface, she could go about 10 knots. That’s 19 km/h or about 12 mph. Underwater, she could only go about 4 knots or 7.4 km/h and 4.6 mph.
That’d mean if she did make the trip from Saint-Nazaire to New York City at full speed on the surface the entire way, it’d take 291 hours or about 12 full days.
So, again, those numbers are just for some context but it’d make sense that there’s a lot of waiting around time.
If I might add a little personal anecdote to the story, years ago I used to work as a defense contractor for the United States Air Force. During that time, I had the chance to chat with a pilot of a B-2 Bomber—planes that have been used to fly 30+ hours from their base at Whitman Air Force Base in Missouri all the way to the Middle-East without stopping to drop a payload of bombs and head right back.
My point in mentioning this is that I asked the pilot what it was like being a bomber pilot. It was the only question I could think to ask as we stood there waiting for others to join the group we were a part of.
I’m paraphrasing his reply, but it was something to the effect of, “Long periods of boredom followed by a few insane moments of action with more boredom afterward.”
While I’ve never been a bomber pilot or part of a submarine’s crew, as I was watching Das Boot, and all of these moments of the crew chatting, I couldn’t help but think of that pilot’s response and the similarities that must be true.
Back in the movie, there’s a brief moment where we see a message come in from another U-boat, U-37, and Jürgen Prochnow’s version of Captain Henrich Lehmann-Willenbrock mentions that’s Martin’s boat. Ultimately, they decide they’re too far away to take part in a battle against the convoy spotted by U-37, but it’s also worth pointing out that this was all made up.
You see, while U-37 was indeed a real U-boat…I mean, they’re numbered sequentially, so if there was a U-96, of course there would’ve been a U-37. If you recall, U-96 left for its seventh patrol on October 27th, 1941, and because the movie doesn’t really show how much time is passing it’s a little tough to know exactly who the captain of U-37 was. But what we do know is that it wasn’t anyone named Martin.
That’s because on November 15th, 1941, U-37 was commanded by Captain Ulrich Folkers. That was his last day after six months and 12 days as commander of the boat. Then, on November 16th, Gustav-Adolf Janssen took over. His command of U-37 lasted until June 30th, 1942.
In fact, throughout U-37’s 11 patrols and 11 different commanders during World War II, none of them had the name Martin.
Then again, even the names of the crew on U-96 were changed for the film, so maybe other names were changed as well.
Oh, and the movie also incorrectly shows the Germans using a four-rotor Engima machine. Those didn’t come about until early 1942, which is after the timeline in the movie. They only had three rotors in late 1941, when the story in the film is set.
In the movie, while taking photos of the crew there’s a moment where Herbert Grönemeyer’s version of Lieutenant Werner gets an oily rag thrown in his face. No one owns up to doing it, but despite this it’s still something that the author behind the book, Lothar-Günther Buchheim, took the time to criticize about the film.
As he explained after the movie was released, because Lieutenant Werner was an officer, he would’ve commanded a certain level of respect from the sailors. Even though, in the movie, the crew is given a verbal lashing, Lothar-Günther insisted that rag incident wouldn’t have ever been allowed to happen.
Oh, and as a fun fact, remember that scene soon after the rag incident where we see some of the officers around the Captain’s table eating a bunch of lemons?
That’s something that submarine crews actually did. Not just submarine crews, actually, but sailors of all sorts.
In 1753, a surgeon in the British Royal Navy named James Lind became the first to prove that citrus fruits could combat the disease known as scurvy.
If you’re not familiar with scurvy, it’s essentially a disease that comes from a lack of vitamin C in your diet. So it’s not really that common, but it was common among sailors who were on a very strict diet of foods on board the ship—often meaning they didn’t get enough vitamin C.
It took a few decades, but soon citrus became a common thing to carry on ships. So by the time World War II rolled around, a lot of ships cast off loaded with plenty of lemons and limes to help the crews combat scurvy.
In fact, if you’ve ever heard the nickname “Limey”, that’s something coming from the British Royal Navy’s Merchant Shipping Act of 1867 which required all ships in the Royal Navy to provide a daily lime ration for sailors.
So while there’s no way to really prove that exact scene happened in the movie, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to find submariners chowing down on lemons or limes.
After this scene with the lemons, there’s another message. According to the movie it’s from U-32, who’s discovered another convoy. This one with over 30 freighters and is within range! U-96 decides to join the hunt.
While the pack mentality was something that the U-boats definitely did during World War II, I’m inclined to think this particular scene was less than true.
You see, U-32 was commissioned on April 15th, 1937 and then, on October 30th, 1940, it was sunk by the British destroyers HMS Harvester and HMS Highlander just northwest of Ireland.
So there’s no way U-32 could’ve send a message to U-96 in 1941 when the movie happens.
But it is true that U-96 ran across a convoy…but we’ll learn about that here in a little bit.
Back in the movie, there’s a couple scenes after this where we see U-96 run into, as the movie says, Thomsen’s boat. If you remember, he was the drunken sailor at the beginning of the movie talking about Adolf Hitler the painter-turned-military strategist.
And if you remember, there wasn’t anyone named Phillip Thomsen who was a U-boat commander during World War II that we know of, but that doesn’t mean this meet-up didn’t happen. In fact, it did.
I couldn’t find an exact date, but most historians suggest it was sometime during November of 1941 when U-96 randomly happened to meet up with U-572 during a storm.
So if Phillip Thomsen wasn’t the commander of U-572, who was? That would be a man named Heinz Hirsacker. Sadly, Heinz would go on to commit suicide just days after being court-martialed and sentenced to death by a firing squad for falsifying his ship’s log. Instead of patrolling regions, officers on his ship reported that they spent most of their patrol in late 1942 submerged and essentially hiding for the entire time.
We don’t have a lot of information about him or his court-martialing, but it’d seem this was enough reason for him to be sentenced to death. Instead, he asked for a pistol, which he was granted. He died on April 24th, 1943.
Three months and 10 days later, Heinz Hirsacker’s former crew aboard U-572 met their own fate when the ship, now under a new commander named Heinz Kummetat, was sunk by depth charges at a position near South America, northeast of Guyana.
Oh, and as a fun movie trivia fact for you, during this meeting there’s a moment when Lieutenant Werner and another German officer there report the sighting of the U-boat as being off the port bow, but they’re looking and pointing to the starboard side of the ship. Whoops.
Back to the movie’s timeline, after this U-96 comes across the convoy of Allied ships. They’re on the surface in calm waters, indicating that some time has passed since the previous storm. Of course, the movie doesn’t say how much time has passed. But it’s here that the movie shows U-96 firing her torpedoes from tubes one to four.
Then, all of a sudden, there’s a destroyer! Dive! Dive! U-96 slips beneath the ocean amid shots from the destroyer.
After diving, they hear explosions. Two of the torpedoes hit!
At least, that’s what the characters in the movie say. Since we’re watching everything from the perspective of U-96, who is too busy trying to dodge the destroyer’s gunfire, they didn’t really see it—and as viewers, neither do we.
And here’s where the movie seems to have altered the timeline a bit. Remember how it was in November when U-96 met with U-572?
Well, it was on October 30th, 1941, just three days after leaving port, U-96 received a message by radio from the BdU to join a pack of six U-boats patrolling a region just off the coast of the Canadian Newfoundland.
By the way, the BdU is short for Befehlshaber der U-Boote—which I can almost guarantee I butchered the pronunciation of, so no need to let know on that one.
The BdU was Germany’s commander-in-chief over the U-boats.
So after receiving their new orders, U-96 headed toward Newfoundland, but then, the next day, a convoy was spotted.
Now it’s worth pointing out that in my research I found some interesting details about exactly who spotted the convoy. According to the great biography of Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock by the author Luc Braeuer, it was a man named Erich Tropp, the commander of U-552, who spotted the convoy some 230 miles, or 370 kilometers away from U-96. Other reports suggest that Captain Tropp’s U-552 sank an American ship, USS Reuben James, on October 31st, 1941, so maybe he’d already opened fire on the convoy.
Oh, and while the movie doesn’t really mention this, U-552 was, at that time, a part of the Stosstrupp wolfpack of U-boats—the same pack as U-96 at the time. So they were hunting together. I think that’s interesting because in the movie, it really seems like U-96 is hunting alone the entire time.
Regardless of who spotted it, U-96 found out about the convoy and stopped heading toward Newfoundland after Captain Lehmann-Willenbrock made the decision to attack the convoy.
Staying a safe distance away so they couldn’t be seen by the convoy, U-96 waited until nightfall so they could launch their surprise attack under the cover of darkness.
Unfortunately, though, the weather wasn’t quite right for a night attack without being spotted. By that what I mean was it was a clear night. The moon was out, uncovered by clouds, which meant it’d be pretty easy to spot when U-96 surfaced. But it wasn’t quite clear enough to attack from periscope depth as it’d be tough to get the angle just right.
So Captain Lehmann-Willenbrock decided to simply shoot into the center of the convoy. At this point they were about 3,900 meters or about 2.42 miles away from the convoy, so it’s not like it was a well-aimed shot.
Well, shots. U-96 shot four torpedoes into the convoy.
While the movie suggests two torpedoes hit, historical records wouldn’t seem to agree. But that doesn’t mean the movie is wrong. In fact, at the time the crew of U-96 thought they’d hit two ships because they heard two explosions.
But there was only one ship who was hit. That was a Dutch freighter, a 5,998-ton ship called the Bennekom. So one of the explosions the crew heard was the torpedo hitting, then the ship’s cargo caught fire and it’s likely the other sound they heard was another explosion caused by the cargo.
Just like the movie shows, though, the explosions alerted one of the ships in the convoy which started shooting at U-96. That was a British ship, HMS Lulworth, who forced U-96 underwater by shooting at her.
After diving, the movie is correct in showing that HMS Lulworth didn’t give up on its chase of U-96. And I found some conflicting reports about the number of depth charges dropped. Some documents said there were 18 while others said 27. Still, the number is almost inconsequential for the purposes of our story, because no matter how many there were the movie’s depiction of the scene underwater had to have been chaotic, tense, and terrifying.
But U-96 managed to survive.
Oh, and during this barrage of depth charges, the movie shows more than one bolt go flying from the pipes around U-96 as she dove deeper than 200 meters—or about 650 feet—to get under the explosions.
That’s actually another thing the author of the book, Lothar-Günther Buchheim, pointed out as something he didn’t like about the movie.
He made a point to call this out, instead insisting that in the real world a single bolt loosening on the hull would be enough to worry the entire crew that the sub would get crushed. In his eyes, it’d seem this was nothing more than movie sensationalism and cheap tricks to try to increase the tension.
Of course, for that purpose, it worked…albeit while sacrificing accuracy.
According to the movie, after escaping the depth charges, U-96 surfaces to find a burning ship. She’s injured, but won’t sink. Almost mercifully, U-96 fires a single torpedo to finish her off.
Only then, Jürgen Prochnow’s version of Captain Lehmann-Willenbrock notices men on board. Engulfed in flames, the men are jumping into the ocean. This makes him upset—why hadn’t their own ships come to rescue them? They had six hours!
On screen, we see the men in the water start swimming toward U-96. But the sub isn’t prepared to take on prisoners—there’s hardly enough room for the crew on board as it is—so U-96 departs, leaving behind a damaged ship which slowly slips beneath the surface of the water.
That’s partially true, but there were quite a bit of changes from what really happened.
After diving to avoid the gunfire from HMS Lulworth and hiding from the subsequent depth charges, U-96 stayed submerged until their hydrophone operator couldn’t hear the sound of the ship’s propellers on the surface anymore.
As the early hours of November 1st ticked by, U-96 surfaced and, as the movie shows, spotted a burning ship. It was much further than the movie shows, though, at about 4,000 meters—or about 2.5 miles. Oh, and they weren’t alone. While the movie makes a point to show the Captain’s displeasure of there not being a ship to pick up the survivors, in truth U-96 saw both the burning ship and three other ships nearby picking survivors out of the water.
U-96 didn’t fire a torpedo to finish off the ship, but instead they left the area to search for the rest of the convoy.
Oh, and remember the Dutch ship that U-96 hit with their torpedo? The Bennekom? We know from historical records that it had about 54 people on board when it sank. 46 of those were rescued.
Heading back into the movie’s timeline, after managing to survive the depth charges, the crew on U-96 gets a message from U-112, a U-boat under the command of, according to the movie, someone named
While there was a U-boat commander named Wenzel, his full name was Wolfgang Wenzel, he was the commander of U-231.
So who was the real commander of U-112? Well, there wasn’t one. As far as we know U-112 was never commissioned. She was ordered on January 17th, 1939, but on September 15th of the same year that order was suspended.
There are some conspiracy theories that suggest U-112 was a part of a top secret plot to head to the United States in 1945 for some unknown mission, but there’s never been any proof of that.
So as far as we know, U-112 never existed.
That begs the question, what really happened after leaving the scene of the burning ship?
Well, as we learned U-96 left to go try to find the convoy. But they had to be careful because the convoy had guard ships who were now also knew there were U-boats in the area.
They found the convoy, but again were forced to dive after being fired on by gunships escorting the convoy. For about 11 minutes, the crew of U-96 were bombarded by 12 depth charges. Fortunately for the crew, they were dropped in the wrong place, though, and U-96 again waited for the sounds from the surface to be all clear.
At 9:52 PM, U-96 surfaced to find the gunship was about 6,000 meters, or about 3.7 miles away. Silently, using their electric motors to avoid detection, U-96 left the area.
For the next few days, U-96 searched for the convoy but to no avail. Then on Tuesday, November 4th, they got another message from the BdU. This time they were ordered to join the Störtebecker pack of U-boats. Together, they were to head toward the Spanish coast to try and intercept a convoy that German intelligence had discovered.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find out how many U-boats were a part of the Störtebecker pack, which U-96 took part in from November 5th to November 19th. Although it does seem that U-552, which we touched on a bit earlier, joined her in the pack.
For days, and without any luck, U-96 and the Störtebecker pack scoured the seas looking for a convoy that was supposed to be in their area.
After this, back in the movie, it’s time for U-96 to go home. Except they can’t go back to where they came from, La Rochelle, France. They get orders to go to Vigo, Spain, where they’ll pick up fuel and supplies and then head into the Mediterranean to dock at La Spezia in Italy.
While the movie doesn’t help us much with the timeline, this was late November, which means the patrol had lasted almost a month to this point.
We already learned U-96 didn’t leave from La Rochelle, but to give some geographical context here, the port they really left from, Saint-Nazaire, is about 470 miles or 756 kilometers away from Vigo. Vigo, in turn, is on the far western coast of Spain, just north of Portugal.
It was here in Vigo, according to the movie, that U-96 meets up with a German ship for fuel and supplies.
That’s true. After failing to find the convoy with the Störtebecker pack for a few days, the BdU sent another message ordering U-96 to rendezvous in the port at Vigo to get food and fuel from Bessel, a German ship there. Captain Lehmann-Willenbrock asked if he could have the war correspondent, Buchheim, disembark in Spain. He was refused.
If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering—wait, why are the Germans meeting in Spain? I don’t remember them being a part of the Axis forces.
Well, that’s true. Technically, Spain was neutral during World War II. But many historians consider their neutrality to really be nothing more than that—a technicality.
You see, just a few years earlier, Spain went through a civil war. Like most wars, it was one that saw a lot of people die—some 600,000 or so in this case from 1936 to 1939. Throughout the war, the Spanish Nationalists received a lot of foreign aid, including from countries like Italy and Germany.
So by the time World War II came about, those in power in Spain—in particular the dictator of the country, General Francisco Franco—returned aid to Axis powers by doing things like letting them use Spanish ports and allowing German and Italian spies to gather intelligence on the Allies from his country, and so on.
For the purposes of our story today, this means the movie is correct when it mentions that Spain is a neutral country but they’re tolerating the Germans.
On November 27th, 1941, U-96 met with a German ship named Bessel at the port in Vigo to get some much-needed supplies.
Although U-96 arrived at Vigo Bay at around 1:28 PM local time, she stayed submerged until night fall. At 8:28 PM, she surfaced in the dark and quietly entered the bay.
We know the meeting in Vigo happened from about 10:00 PM to about 4:00 AM on the night and early morning of November 27th and 28th. While officers of U-96 were invited on board the German Bessel ship as supplies like fuel, fruit and bread were transferred, we don’t have a lot of detail of the specifics that happened while they were on the ship.
Although it’s worth pointing out that Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock, the real captain of U-96 was a consultant for the movie. So it’s also very possible he helped offer guidance scenes like this that just don’t have much documentation.
According to the movie, after this meeting in Vigo, U-96 is headed to Italy by way of the Strait of Gibraltar. For some context, Vigo is about 460 miles or 740 kilometers north of the strait.
In the movie, after trying to get through the Strait of Gibraltar, U-96 is attacked by a plane and damaged pretty significantly. It sinks down to about 280 meters, or about 918 feet, before settling on some rock. The movie doesn’t mention how long they stay under water, but there is a moment when Herbert Grönemeyer’s version of Lieutenant Werner asks Jürgen Prochnow’s version of Captain Henrich Lehmann-Willenbrock if he thinks they’ll survive. Then the Captain replies by saying it’s been 15 hours and something to the effect of, “I don’t think he’ll be able to pull it off.”
The “he” mentioned, of course, was referring to Klaus Wennemann’s portrayal of the Chief Engineer, who was working to give U-96 a second chance at life.
And in the movie, he’s able to pull it off.
It’s true that U-96 was headed to the Strait of Gibraltar after the meeting in Vigo, and it’s also true that the Strait of Gibraltar was controlled by the British.
As a little side note, if you’re not familiar with the geography here, the Strait of Gibraltar is south of Spain and north of Morocco on the African continent.
So if Spain was tolerant of the Germans, why was the Strait under British control? Well, that’s because one of the world’s largest rocks—the Rock of Gibraltar—is just south of Spain. When World War II broke out, civilians on the Rock were evacuated and tens of thousands of British troops fortified the rock to help secure the Strait of Gibraltar. The Rock itself wasn’t particularly important except that it was in the perfect place to control who came in and went out of the Mediterranean Sea. And for that reason, the Rock was very important.
In fact, there was a point when the Spanish dictator, General Franco, wanted to conquer the Rock, but he decided not to because he didn’t think he’d be able to withstand a British counterattack. Essentially, it probably would’ve drawn Spain into the war. So he stayed neutral.
In the movie, as U-96 was passing through the Strait, we see a British airplane spot the submarine. It was a bi-plane torpedo-bomber, to be precise, called a Swordfish.
While that’s true, it’s just part of the story. In fact, U-96 was spotted multiple times. At 12:36 PM on November 29th, she crash dived after being spotted by a plane. Then again she was spotted at 3:48 PM. On November 30th, she was spotted at 9:16 AM, 10:30 AM, 11:25 AM, by two ships at 1:12 PM and again by planes at 3:50 PM and 4:05 PM followed by another spotting by a British ship at 4:11 PM and another plane at 4:14 PM.
So…yeah, U-96 was spotted quite a bit. While each of these sightings didn’t require a crash dive, some did. It’d seem, though, that the movie simplified things a bit in just showing a single sighting.
At 7:17 PM, U-96 surfaced and tried to stay as close to the African coast of the Strait—staying as far away from the British outpost on the Rock of Gibraltar as she could.
At about 10:35 PM local time on November 30th, the Swordfish torpedo bomber we saw in the movie spotted U-96 and attacked. Like the movie shows, the plane damaged U-96, and forced her to dive underwater to safety. Two bombs detonated near U-96 just as she slipped beneath the water. The force of the bombs caused the lights to go out on U-96, and it took a bit for the emergency lights to come on…so for a brief period, the crew was cast into pitch black. Utter darkness.
It had to have been terrifying.
According to the movie, though, the plane’s bombs did more damage than just knock out the lights. We see U-96 start diving and she just keeps going down…150 meters…190, 220…bolts start popping—something we already learned was fictionalized for dramatic purposes—240 meters, 250, finally at 280 meters they stop at the bottom. That’s about 918 feet.
Unfortunately, though, we don’t know all of the details of exactly what happened down there. Some suggest most of these scenes were heavily fictionalized by Lothar-Günther Buchheim for his book and then, by extension, for the film.
In his book Hitler’s U-boat War, historian Clay Blair suggested things probably weren’t quite as dramatic as the book, or movie, makes it seem.
According to Luc Braeuer’s biography of Henrich Lehmann-Willenbrock, though, after diving and being cast into darkness, at a depth somewhere between 65 to 100 feet, or about 20 to 30 meters, U-96 was able to stabilize themselves after turning on their electric motors. Then, one by one, they assessed damages and began repairing them.
While the movie certainly seems to have added to the drama from what really happened, that’s not to say it was a calm affair—they did take damage. And it was war, after all. It was a submarine forced underwater after taking damage from an airplane.
It was not knowing what the enemy was doing in the waters and sky above you. Meanwhile, the crew focused on repairing instruments like the compass and listening devices while for others it was blocking oil and water leaks.
Fearing they’d end up sinking if they stayed submerged, at about 11:00 PM, or about 25 minutes after diving, U-96 surfaced again so she could travel faster to get out of the area.
Unfortunately, though, she’d sprung an oil leak externally and was leaving a trail as she went.
Fifteen minutes after surfacing, the torpedo bomber returned and forced U-96 to dive yet again. This time, and with more repairs to do, Captain Lehmann-Willenbrock decided to try to rest her on the seabed so they could focus on repairs.
So that part of the movie is sort of accurate, except in truth they had more control over it and picked a spot that was only about 80 meters instead of falling uncontrollably to 280 meters like the movie shows. That’s about 262 feet instead of 918 feet. Big difference.
At one point in the movie we see U-96 start taking on a lot of water.
That did happen, albeit not how the movie shows. But with the water creeping up to the torpedo tubes, U-96 was forced to surface again so the water wouldn’t get to their electric motor—that would knock out their power and spell out doom for them.
At 11:48 PM, she surfaced, kicked on her diesel motors and started hightailing it out of there.
But…the plane came back. No doubt her pilot was on the lookout for the sub that she’d spotted twice before already.
At 11:55 PM, the plane shot off a flare to illuminate the area so any nearby ships could launch an attack on U-96. Fortunately, though, there weren’t any ships nearby that the crew of U-96 could see. But they weren’t waiting around to find out.
At about midnight, she dove again.
This time it was a little more like what the movie showed. With all the water she’d taken on, diving this time was a bit too much. She started to sink. Down, down…but again, not nearly as far down as the movie shows. At only about 180 feet, or about 55 meters, she hit the seabed yet again.
This time, U-96 and her crew went quiet. Waiting to see if there actually was a ship overhead. Using a hydrophone, they could hear a ship approaching. She was circling overhead, likely finding the pool of oil that U-96 had left in her wake as she traveled on the surface and then dove beneath.
There’s a moment in the movie when we see the crew start bailing out the water by forming a line and passing the buckets one at a time. That actually happened. While she was underwater this time, the crew formed line and manually carried water from the aft compartment where the torpedo tubes were up to the control room—its pumped were still working so they could pump the water out of there.
Finally, the ships above began to leave the area.
At approximately 4:45 AM, U-96 finally surfaced.
But she didn’t do what we saw in the movie. She didn’t go to La Spezia like the movie implies. Instead, on December 2nd, they radioed the BdU to let them know they’d sustained significant damage and would be returning to base.
On December 6th, 1941, U-96’s seventh patrol officially came to an end when she returned to the same place she left from, Saint-Nazaire, France.
The total time of her patrol was 41 days, traveling a total of about 7,071 miles. That’s about 6,836 miles, or 11,000 kilometers, traveled on the surface of the ocean and about 235 miles, or 378 kilometers, traveled while submerged.
In the movie, almost immediately after arriving, an air raid cuts off the band’s music and forces everyone to run for cover.
Oh, and just before that we hear an announcer who says, “The Third Submarine Flotilla welcomes our returning sailors!”
I couldn’t really tell if they were saying that like the Third Submarine Flotilla was stationed where U-96 arrived and they were the ones welcoming U-96, or if they were welcoming U-96 as part of the Third Submarine Flotilla. I’d like to say the former, though, because if it was the latter then the movie would be inaccurate. You see, U-96 was a part of the Seventh Submarine Flotilla.
But that’s neither here nor there.
Back to the air raid in the movie, once the raid is over Werner emerges to survey the damage. Among the wreckage we see Johann’s body. Ullmann’s body. Then Werner stumbles across Jürgen Prochnow’s version of Captain Lehmann-Willenbrock himself.
The camera moves to the water and we see U-96 sink beneath the surface as it finally succumbs to the damage from the raid. Then, we see the Captain succumb to his wounds.
That…well, that’s all made up.
If you remember, the real Captain Henrich Lehmann-Willenbrock served as a consultant for the movie, so he didn’t die in 1941. Johann didn’t either—or at least, the real person Johann was based on, Hans Johannsen, didn’t. He lived until March 5th, 1961 when he passed away at the age of 48.
Another person who didn’t die like the movie shows was Hans Heinrich Hass, the real person that the character of Ullmann was based on. He lived until January 21st, 2009 when he passed at the age of 86.
Finally, the boat itself didn’t slip away in 1941 either.
That was the seventh patrol for U-96 out of a total of 11 that she had during World War II. Her last ended on February 8th, 1943.
As a fun little fact, despite now being the most popular of her patrols because of Das Boot, the seventh patrol was actually one of the least effective for U-96. During those 41 days, U-96 was responsible for sinking a single ship. Throughout all 11 patrols, she was at sea for 425 days and sank a total of 27 ships, damaged four more and caused so much damage on another that it was declared a total loss.
And even though I said it was all made up in the movie, probably the most accurate part of it was that U-96 did indeed end up sinking after an air raid.
After her final patrol in 1943, U-96 was reassigned to be a training boat as newer U-boats were being put into service. She was officially decommissioned on February 15th, 1945. Then, only about a month later, on March 30th, 1945, the U.S. Air Force bombed where she was at in Wilhelmshaven, sending her to the depths for good.
As for Captain Lehmann-Willenbrock, after the war ended he went to work repairing ships until, in 1948, he moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina and found work as the captain of merchant ships. He’d finally return to Germany as he continued work commanding merchant ships until, as we’ve already learned, he helped director Wolfgang Petersen on the movie Das Boot.
Four years after the movie was released, on April 18th, 1986, Henrich Lehmann-Willenbrock passed away at his home in Bremen, Germany at the age of 74.
He was outlived by the man who joined him on U-96’s seventh patrol during World War II. We already learned a bit about Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s career after the war in the introduction to this episode. For decades after the war, he took advantage of both his love of art and the sudden influx of cheap art available after the fall of the Nazi regime as focused on art—as an artist, collector, publisher and more.
Then he rose to international fame with his book that the movie was based on. The book released in 1973, but he also wrote numerous other books about his war experiences after that. All the while he insisted that his book was supposed to be an anti-war book, something that he didn’t feel the movie portrayed very well.
In fact, Buchheim wrote a rather scathing review of the movie that I’m going to include as a bonus episode for Producers of this show.
For some time, he went back to focusing on art. Then, in 2001, he opened a museum to house his $300 million dollar collection of art—at least that’s what some have estimated it to be worth. Six years later, on February 6th, 2007, he celebrated his 89th birthday at his home in Starnberg, Bavaria.
Just sixteen days later, Lothar-Günther Buchheim passed away.
KEEP LEARNING WITH MORE RESOURCES
- ′Das Boot′ director Wolfgang Petersen unpacks Hollywood secrets as his first comedy is released in Germany | Film | DW | 22.12.2016
- Das Boot, The Background, Facts and Goofs
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- uboat.net – Naval Warfare Movies – Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
- uboat.net – Naval Warfare Movies – Das Boot: The Director’s Cut
- DAS BOOT Watches – Movie – Lothar-Günther Buchheim – Author of the Novel
- Das Boot and Historical Accuracy | Forums
- Das Boot Review by Lothar-Günther Buchheim
- Obituary: Lothar-Günther Buchheim | World news | The Guardian
- Lothar-Günther Buchheim – Wikipedia
- The Type VIIC boat U-96 – German U-boats of WWII – uboat.net
- German submarine U-96 (1940) – Wikipedia
- U-Boat 96, and the film Das Boot
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- Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock – Wikipedia
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- U Boats
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- The Strait of Gibraltar in 3D : Image of the Day
- Lloyd’s Register 1945-1946