An Operational Necessity - Gwyn Griffin minor editing and added a star 6/10/11

This novel is based loosely on a WW II incident in which the U-852 sank an allied freighter, the Peleus, and then machine-gunned the survivors in order to evade detection. [More information at]

Griffin follows the crew of the sub and the survivors of the freighter as their destinies become enmeshed. It’s a complicated story that raises a host of moral issues. The sub is on her last patrol, everyone knows the war will soon be over, the ship is depth charged and almost sunk, and morale is low because of the machine-gunning of the survivors of a French ship they had torpedoed. The captain’s rationale for killing the survivors had been to protect the crew by preventing any survivors from reaching help and announcing their position. Later, in a parallel event, he is forced to kill one of his crew to prevent the sinking of the boat. They had just been badly depth-charged and the box had been stove in, only a torpedo that had fallen on a crew member, preventing the bow from completely collapsing. Moving the torpedo to save the crewman's life will inevitably remove the support for the bow and the rest of the crew will die. So he orders the man killed with an overdose of morphine.The captain vows he will surrender to the first enemy vessel they encounter rather than to face making such decisions again. Little did he know the result would be his own killing.

The novel is divided into three sections and multiple points of view: the patrol until they are attacked and forced to beach the sub just short of neutral Mozambique, the interlude in Tanzanika where several of the injured ship’s crew recuperate, and finally the trial. It’s interesting because the crewman who ultimately forces the trial is Emil, a French citizen who is scooped up by the German Navy after France had been overrun and collaborated. He thinks of himself as French, but now that the war has ended collaborators are being shot by the French so he is condemned to being considered a German POW. He is befriended by a naive little British girl who agrees to retrieve the log book (why it was not destroyed escapes me, but people do bizarre things) which had been hidden aboard the sub and now lies stranded on a reef just off Madagascar. She successfully does that only to have it fall into the worst possible hands, a British policeman who turns it over to British intelligence. It, of course, contains the only extant record of the machine gunning of the crew of the French freighter.

The members of the tribunal trying the two German officers each had their own demons: for the defense, the American, Captain Kaye, who enjoyed tweaking Patton, crediting himself with having given Patton his gastric ulcer and who wants nothing to do with the trial arguing he would most certainly have acted the same way; Meilhac,one of the French officers on the board who hates the British more than the Germans, the French having warred against England for centuries, and who never forgave the British for their destruction of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir.

At the trial, the accused admitted to their actions but plead "not guilty" by reasons of military necessity. Their counsel pointed out that the German High Command had issued strict orders that submarines should under no circumstance assist the survivors of a torpedoed ship, often condemning them to certain death. The German captain insisted that by killing the survivors he was saving his sub and its crew because he dared not let any escape and possibly reveal the location of the sub. In Griffin's story, the stricken sub limping toward neutral Madagascar, gets stuck on a reef, ostensibly within Portuguese waters, helpless, but is strafed by a British fighter, killing many on deck.

A fascinating novel. It’s unfortunate Griffin died so young. After thinking about it, I have upgraded to five stars for its dynamic handling of complex ethical issues.

There was a similar incident involving a U.S. submarine in 1943 recounted in The Bravest Man (reading concurrently, review to appear shortly) in which the Wahoo sank a Japanese troop ship and then machined gunned the survivors' lifeboats. It was later learned that there were about 400 Indian POWs aboard. There is a competent summary of the action against the Boyu Maru troopship at The Wikipedia has an excellent summary of the wartime patrols of the Wahoo at In Paul Fussell’s The Boy’s Crusade Fussell recounts the shooting of unarmed German prisoners after the landing in Italy. Morality in wartime is an oxymoron.

I have always argued that the Nuremberg trials set a standard that might come back to haunt the Allies. Was the captain justified in making a decision based on what he considered to be an “operational necessity?” Indeed, the clamor for trying U.S. servicemen as war criminals for actions committed in Iraq and Afghanistan remain muted only because we seem to be winning, whatever that means.