Saturday, March 2, 2019

Iron Coffins by Herbert A. Werner

My father bought this book in 1969, and this is one of the rare non-fiction books that he read. The Mickey Spillane novels were the only fiction that he read, but when it came to non-fiction he read about WWII or Popular Mechanics magazine. He wasn’t alone. Iron Coffins was the talk of the neighborhood when it was published, and the book’s reputation is secure all of these decades later. This book is often mistaken as the inspiration for the 1981 film, Das Boot, directed by Wolfgang Petersen, but that excellent film was based on the novel of the same name by Lothar-Gunther Buchheim.  Iron Coffins is in a category by itself; a riveting first-hand account of the U-boat battles of World War II. Herbert A. Werner served on five U-boats, survived the sinking of two, and was continuously promoted during the war. After the war he moved to the US and wrote Iron Coffins. He became a US citizen and died in California in 2013. Iron Coffins remains in print. The book is split into three primary sections: “Years of Glory,” a detailed and nostalgic account about Germany’s industrial and military growth, and which offers insight and great details into the the lifestyle Werner lived; “Above Us, Hell,” which recounts the military operations and battles in grueling and suspenseful details; and “Disaster and Defeat,” which documents the lingering death throes of the Nazi regime.  Iron Coffins reads like a novel but it’s all real, well documented, and illustrated with photographs from the author’s collection. Werner’s writing is lush, heartfelt and easily renders an image of a lost country and its people. He writes fondly of his escapades ashore, which are often hedonistic, sensual; and which in turn make a stark contrast to the terror stricken months in a submarine, praying not to be sunk. German U-boat losses were high, and Werner was acutely aware at his good fortune in surviving. I found this book impossible to put down and its reputation as an accurate and fascinating historical document is well-deserved.

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