Sharks and Little Fish: A Novel of German Submarine Warfare - Wolfgang Ott, Ralph Manheim A very depressing look at German naval service in World War II written autobiographically by a German sailor. It follows Hans Teichman from his entry into the Navy, training, first experience as a midshipman on mine-sweepers (he was quite the reprobate) and then service on submarines, about the last third of the book. The cover would indicate it was quite controversial in Germany when it was first published. I could find little information as to why, although I could guess it’s primarily for its unvarnished view of German sailors and the Navy.

His captain on the Albatross, a minesweeper/subchaser, was Pauli, a reservist and brassiere maker who is totally clueless and he and Teichman cross swords almost immediately. Everyone can see what a jerk Pauli is, but he’s the captain. It’s during mine sweeping operations they have their first exposure to death and the trials that they were soon to experience in even more graphic detail. One group of men, sent out to disarm a mine, simply disappear when something goes wrong. Another crew is obliterated after their boat is bombed. They all escape into the water only to have the armed depth charges explode under them when the boat sinks.

On another occasion, a different boat hits a mine, most of the men escape into the rafts, but when they are retrieved onto the Albatross, the rescued men won’t stop emitting blood-curdling screaming. Only after cutting off their pant legs did they realize the force of the explosion had drive the men’s legs up into their thighs. Their feet were where their knees should have been.

The description of the bombing of the Albatros and agony suffered by the injured is portrayed using the most frightful metaphors. Teichman, hit in both legs and the stomach, is in agony. Suddenly the tearing pain was back again. It ate into his bowels like a hungry rat. . .The rat was in a metal tube; one end of the tube was above the ground but red hot; the rat couldn't get out by that end and the other end was aimed at his belly button. The rat could get out if it chewed its way through, and that was what he was doing. . .He felt the rat burrowing through his bowels as through a pile of straw. . .He felt its sharp, pointed teeth cutting everything that was in its way. Now I propose that no one who has not been wounded in the stomach could have dreamed up that frightful image.

Describing the book, as the cover does as a novel about German submarine warfare is a bit misleading as Teichman doesn't make it on to the sub until about the last third of the book. But when he does, goodness, talk about heart-pounding reading as the sub is depth-charged and bombed. By the end of the war, U-boats continued to head out into the ocean even though 75% would not make it back. "It was not fear of death--that was bad enough--but the senselessness of dying in this way. There is no country in the world, thought Teichmann as the rain dripped down on him, where men are so docile about dying, and they call it bravery. . .It struck him now as a perverted kind of courage. And what if it were mere stupidity? Or a matter of false pride? . . .Top-ranking generals usually survive; they have the greatest chance of survival. And that too is very important for them, especially when the war is lost: because they've got to write their memoirs. And in their memoirs they'll tell us how clever they were, how brilliantly they led the troops. . .But they weren't to blame. . .they weren't able to do what they wished, and for that a certain corporal was to blame."

I’ll refrain from any more horror stories, of which there are many.

A quote from Time Magazine on the back cover indicates this books makes a powerful case against war. As if such a case needed to be made, but that made me wonder just what makes a solid anti-war book. Is it the gore? the realism? the futility? Conversely, is there such a thing as a pro-war book? One that glorifies the solidarity created among the troops? the heroism? the glorification of fortitude in battle? Is For Whom the Bell Tolls or any other of Hemingway’s books pro-war? And what’s the difference between this book and Catch-22?

I have a pretty good idea, but we’ll save that for another time.