There were hundreds of Allied servicemen in Brest in the weeks that followed the German surrender of the city and port in September 1944. In the harbour lay the massive U-boat bunker built to house boats from both 1st and 9th flotillas as well as workshops, ammunition and men sheltering from the relentless Allied bombing.
Though the capture of the port had originally been planned to provide a deep water harbour for the Allied advance in France, by the time of the battle itself Cherbourg and Antwerp had already fallen and German defensive lines had been pushed back to The Netherlands. Brest was no longer required and had become a battle for prestige more than anything else. The German defenders had also clogged the harbour with wrecks of everything from cargo ships to vehicles driven into the water, rendering it unusable. Once the battle ended, the Allies began the arduous task of clearing the harbour for future use.
Amongst the men involved was Royal Navy diver Foster Appleyard who, like most men stationed there, took the opportunity to explore the cavernous interior of the U-boat bunker. In a drawer he found 361 photographs of a U-boat in action, which he brought back to England with him. Through a chain of people they came into the possession of Frank James who brought them to the Royal Navy Submarine Museum.
At the time I was doing work on U-boat records at the museum and the collection was obviously somewhat unique. It charted a single patrol mounted by Reinhard ‘Teddy’ Suhren’s U564 from Brest to the Caribbean. Suhren was a maverick in the U-boat service while also being one of their most capable and successful skippers. It wasn’t unusual for propaganda photographers to accompany U-boats into action and during this patrol PK Maat Haring joined the crew, documenting this long distance mission.
This was an amazing book to write as it allowed me to research the ‘up close and personal’ aspect of the crew’s lives both during and after this patrol. A collection like this is rare. As always I spent a great deal of time meeting and corresponding with veterans and their families. In particular Suhren’s widow Hannelore and daughter Gesa were incredibly hospitable and a pleasure to be around.
On the evening of 9 July 1942 U564 left Brest harbour alongside U654, both boats bound first for Lorient and then west into the Atlantic Ocean, Suhren ultimately headed for the Caribbean. Photographer Haring captured the rhythm of life aboard a combat Type VIIC U-boat, from meals in the bow room to refuelling and replenishing from other U-boats, artillery and torpedo attacks (U564 sank five ships during its patrol ), intercepting a neutral freighter and the awarding – at sea – of the Swords to Suhren’s Knight’s Cross and Oak Leaves and his promotion to Korvettenkapitän. Every aspect of the patrol was documented, offering a unique insight into the crew’s experience. On 19 September the boat returned to Brest harbour – where Suhren made his now-famous ‘are the Nazi’s still in at the helm?’ quip.
The book also prefaces the patrol with a biography of the redoubtable Suhren and includes an epilogue that tells of the fate of the boat and many of those whose photographs fill the previous pages. An insight like no other into the German U-boat war.
First published by Greenhill Books, London, 2004.
Illustrated throughout with black and white images.
Available from the Pen & Sword website and most book outlets.
This is, in my opinion, a remarkable book. A photographic collection detailing the life on board U564 of its crew under the leadership of its commanding officer Reinhard ‘Teddy’ Suhren, a charismatic officer who was outspoken and obviously anti-Nazi.
Teddy Suhren was a top U Boat commander along with the likes of Kretschmer and Prien during the Battle of the Atlantic in 1942. I find it difficult to find the right words to say about this true story without upsetting those who lost relatives to U Boat activities during WWII but the author has managed to show the human side of a crew going about their task without glorifying the dreadful events they took part in. I recommend this book published by Frontline-Books.
Ton Class Association