Thursday, May 7, 2015

'Dead Wake' and Stink of U-Boats

Review by Bill Doughty

Captain William Thomas Turner
Premonition, dread, drama, romance and revelation await readers of "Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania" by Erik Larson (Crown Publishers, Penguin Random House, 2015).

The author describes the times and the people who inhabit this true story, including Master of the Lusitania, Captain William Thomas Turner, an imposing and self-assured man "with the physique of a bank safe."

"Dead Wake" builds like a thriller as it interweaves side stories with strong characters and historical references from a century ago and shows how the United States was dragged into World War I despite President Wilson's drive to remain neutral. Entreaties by Great Britain were ignored, as was German savagery against civilians and disrespect for "sacred freedom of the seas" – even for nearly two years after the sinking of the Lusitania. But eventually strategy on one side and miscalculation on Germany's side led the United States to join the Allies.

Attacks on civilian shipping – including against commercial ocean liners, causing to the deaths of innocent children, women and men – were perpetrated by German submarines, known as U-boats.

For Navy readers, the description of life in early 20th century submarines provides pungent details and insights.
"The boats were cramped, especially when first setting out on patrol, with food stored in every possible location, including the latrine. Vegetables and meats were kept in the coolest places, among the boat's munitions. Water was rationed. If you wanted to shave, you did so using the remains of the morning's tea. No one bathed. Fresh food quickly spoiled."
German submarines were known to scavenge – from other vessels, from a dispatched hunting party on land, and from the sea after explosions killed schools of fish.
"These fish and their residual odors, however could only have worsened the single most aspect of U-boat life: the air within the boat. First there was the basal reek of three dozen men who never bathed, wore leather clothes that did not breathe, and shared one small lavatory. The toilet from time to time imparted to the boat the scent of a cholera hospital and could be flushed only when the U-boat was on the surface or at shallow depths, lest the undersea pressure blow material back into the vessel. This tended to happen to novice officers and crew, and was called a 'U-boat baptism.' The odor of diesel fuel infiltrated all corners of the boat, ensuring that every cup of cocoa and piece of bread tasted of oil. Then came the fragrances that emanated from the kitchen long after meals were cooked, most notably that close cousin to male body odor, day-old fried onions."
U-boats in harbor. U-20 is second from left in front.
U-boats became the scourge of the seas, especially after Unterseeboot-20, under Kptlt. Walther Schwieger, sank the civilian ocean liner Lusitania, May 7, 1915. British artist Norman Wilkinson immortalized the scene.

But, according to Larson, "U-boats despite their fearsome reputations, were fragile vessels, complex and primitive at the same time."
"The boats were prone to accident. They were packed with complicated mechanical systems for steering, diving, ascending, and regulating pressure. Amid all this were wedged torpedoes, grenades and artillery shells. Along the bottom of the hull lay the boat's array of batteries, filled with sulfuric acid, which upon contact with seawater produced deadly chlorine gas. In this environment, simple errors could, and did, lead to catastrophe."
Larson gives examples in snippets of stories, and he quotes directly from letters, papers, once-secret dispatches, archived reports and logs, journals, telegrams, memoirs, and newspaper accounts.

Several times while reading personal stories or correspondence never meant to be public, especially those from the Wilson Papers, readers may feel they're invading someone's privacy.

British artist Norman Wilkinson immortalized the sinking of the Lusitania.
Yet, the author's accuracy in describing the science of undersea warfare, the architecture of ocean liners, or the terror of abandoning a sinking ship makes for powerful magnetic reading. You'll see the presidency, periscopes and vulture-like seagulls in a different light after reading "Dead Wake." And you'll practically smell the inside of a U-boat in 1915.

The conclusion of this book touches on some fascinating discussion in the aftermath of the sinking of the Lusitania – in the wake of the "dead wake."

Was there a conspiracy by the British Admiralty and a secret desire for the ship to be attacked in order to get the United States into the war? What was behind the German plot to get Mexico to side with Germany "in return for Texas, New Mexico and Arizona"? Why was Captain Turner, by all accounts a good and honorable man, blamed by Winston Churchill and the Admiralty?

U.S. Navy destroyers join the fight in Gribble's painting, "The Return of the Mayflower."
When U.S. destroyers joined the British in patrols against German U-boats on May 8, 1917, people in Great Britain rejoiced the "descendants of the colonials returning now at Britain's time of need." The moment was captured, Larson notes, in "The Return of the Mayflower," a painting by Bernard Gribble.

Larson ties up story lines nicely and unflinchingly – showing us the grisly reality of life and death in time of war. A recommended read that helps put the First World War and submarine warfare in context.

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