A Brief History
On October 30, 1942, the heroic efforts of 3 British sailors resulted in the capture of codebooks and key setting sheets for the top secret Enigma code machine used by the German military during World War II. The sailors had boarded a sinking German submarine, U-559 in the Mediterranean Sea, costing 2 of the men their lives but reaping incredibly valuable coding material. The 2000 French-American World War II movie, U-571, shows a fictionalized account of American Navy forces capturing an intact German U-boat, a coup reminiscent of the U-559 incident and certain other U-boat related incidents such as the capture of U-110 and the retrieval of code materials and the capture of U-505. The movie makers were highly criticized by historians and especially British observers that bitterly pointed out the misappropriation of the glory of having been the first to capture a German U-boat. British Prime Minister Tony Blair considered the movie an “affront” to the British, and Germans were none too happy about the (false) depiction of a U-boat crew machine gunning sailors from a sunken ship in the water.
The film depicts the title named U-boat on patrol in the Atlantic Ocean, sinking a merchant ship and in turn being damaged by British depth charges dropped by a Royal Navy destroyer. With seriously damaged engines, the U-571 skipper radios for assistance, a transmission that is promptly intercepted and decoded by American intelligence. The wily Americans quickly disguise their own submarine, S-33, to appear as a German resupply and maintenance sub for the express purpose of stealing the Enigma code machine on board the U-boat. Right off the bat, the premise of the film is pretty fantastic, with the idea that such a mission could be planned and executed quickly enough to actually happen. The idea that a submarine crew could be taken by surprise and captured is pretty far fetched as well, but in all fairness, the movie is action packed and exciting anyway.
The mission goes as planned with the S-33 successfully faking out the crew of the U-571 and the American boarding party takes over the hapless U-boat. But wait! The real supply submarine shows up and sinks the S-33 with a torpedo. The stalwart US Navy heroes are not to be denied their prize, and the prize crew takes the U-571 underwater and does battle with the German resupply sub. Of course, the now American manned U-571 sinks the German resupply sub. As if this scenario is not lucky enough for every American sailor on board the U-571 to win the Mega Million AND the Power Ball lottery 2 or 3 times in a row, the situation takes a turn for the worse! A German recon aircraft spots the U-571, and thinking the U-boat is still in German hands relays the information to a German destroyer that responds to assist the damaged U-boat. Upon the arrival of the German destroyer, a boarding party is prepared to board the U-571, but the sneaky Americans fire a single shot from the sub’s deck gun right into the radio room of the destroyer, eliminating any chance of the destroyer’s crew alerting German authorities of the capture of U-571.
Another incredibly tense fight commences between the U-571 and the German destroyer, with the submarine taken below and the destroyer depth charging the U-boat. On board U-571 the German skipper gets loose and tries to sabotage the engines of the U-boat but is caught and re-secured. While the cat and mouse battle continued, the German skipper has the presence of mind to be tapping out Morse code messages to the German destroyer. Damn him! For the audacity of pulling off the tapping stunt, the Americans promptly knock out the German officer. Meanwhile, the Americans try to trick the Germans on the destroyer by releasing some oil, debris, and a dead body to pretend the sub has been sunk. (If you are wondering why a U-boat that was damaged badly enough to need assistance is able to fight and win battles against another German sub and then a German destroyer, join the bunch.) U-571 is forced to descend to dangerously deep depths, only to suffer further damage from the intense pressure. In order to avoid losing the ship and all the crew, the American captain has to have all ballast blown and the U-boat makes an uncontrolled rise to the surface. While this surfacing is taking place, the heroic US sailor picked to enter the flooded torpedo room in order to pressurize 1 torpedo tube finds himself in big trouble when he is unable to complete the task. The Destroyer fires upon the now surfaced U-571, damaging it further, but the damages allowed the doomed sailor in the torpedo room to finally complete his task, allowing the U-571 to fire a single torpedo at the destroyer, sinking the unlucky ship.
Sadly, U-571 is damaged beyond repair, and must be abandoned by the American prize crew, although all code materials and Enigma machine are recovered. The Americans are picked up by a US Navy Catalina flying boat and rescued along with the prized code equipment.
While the film is well made and entirely entertaining, the action is seriously far fetched and unrealistic, and of course fictional. In the case of U-559, the ill-fated sub was spotted by a British aircraft that sent the sub’s position to a destroyer task force, and 5 RN destroyers responded to hunt the U-boat. Depth charging severely damaged the U-559, killing 4 crewmen and forcing the sub to the surface. RN gunners took the surfaced sub under fire with 20mm cannons, and the crew quickly abandoned ship. In fact, too quickly abandoned ship, as the proper scuttling protocol was not followed and the sub did not sink quickly enough to prevent boarding by 3 Royal Navy sailors that retrieved highly classified and valuable code information. Unfortunately, 2 of the RN sailors did not make it out of the sinking sub in time and died. The British decorated the 3 brave sailors, but stopped short of awarding their highest medal, the Victoria Cross, probably in the interest of security so as not to draw too much attention to the intelligence coup that had been achieved. U-559 sunk to the bottom and the whole matter was hush-hush.
In June of 1944 German submarine U-505 came under attack by American planes and ships (including USS Chatelain DE-149, a ship class no longer used called “destroyer escort”) in defense of a convoy. The U-boat was seriously damaged and forced to surface, where the crew abandoned ship with a bit too much enthusiasm, failing to properly set the scuttling procedures. A boarding party from the Chatelain went aboard the sub and found the only German fatality from the action. U-505 was duly captured and emergency damage control was performed, allowing the sub to be seaworthy enough to be towed to port in Bermuda, a voyage of 1700 nautical miles.
The incident most likely to have provided the inspiration for the movie, U-571, the capture of U-110 in May of 1941 by the Royal Navy, was kept so secret that the British did not even tell President Roosevelt of the capture until almost a year later. The U-boat had been forced to the surface by British depth charges, and when the crew began to abandon ship, the British machine gunned the German sailors, apparently afraid the sailors would use the sub’s deck gun against the destroyers. The U-boat skipper realized too late that his boat was not sinking, and he attempted to swim back to the stricken U-boat to perform the necessary scuttling procedures. Kapitänleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, the skipper of U-110, did not succeed in reaching his submarine, allegedly shot in the water by British machine gunners (according to a submarine crewman). The still floating U-boat was boarded by the RN sailors and was looted for all items of possible intelligence value, especially code materials. Although an attempt was made to tow the damaged submarine back to a British port, U-110 sank en route.
The real life stories of the capture of U-boats and their coding equipment are exciting enough without embellishing the stories with Hollywood glitter. Still, as we stated, the film, U-571, is a pretty entertaining film nonetheless. We enjoyed watching the movie and with appropriate suspension of disbelief found it to have a high level of tension and excitement.
Question for students (and subscribers): Have you seen U-571? Have you previously heard of the capture of Enigma materials from U-boats? What is your favorite submarine related movie? Should Hollywood try to stick to historical facts a bit more closely? Were the British right to be offended by the movie? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Gallery, Rear-Admiral Daniel V. U-505. Lucknow Books, 2016.
Goebeler, Hans, and John Vanzo. Steel Boat Iron Hearts: A U-boat Crewman’s Life Aboard U-505. Savas Beatie, 2008.
Kahn, David. Seizing the Enigma: The Race to Break the German U-Boat Codes, 1933-1945. Frontline Books, 2012.
Loomis, Greg. U-110. Pawtuxet Editions, 2012.
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