Book Review – Hitler’s Navy: A Reference Guide to the Kriegsmarine 1935-1945

Jak P. Mallmann Showell, Hitler’s Navy: A Reference Guide to the Kriegsmarine 1935-1945. Seaforth: Barnsley, 2009. Chronology, Appendix, Index. Cloth. 223pp.

Reviewed by G H Bennett, Plymouth University

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There is a fundamental problem with the title of Jak Mallmann Showell’s Hitler’s Navy. It sets up an expectation of a definitive tome: a compendious, all knowing work of incredible detail and authority that quickly becomes a standard work at the right hand of every author in that particular field. The words ‘Reference Guide’ have certain connotations with an academic audience (and with the general reader), and those expectations extend to the way in which material is organised within a volume. An encyclopaedic style layout is common, or one where the reader can move through carefully ordered hierarchies of material from broad overview down to the most detailed insights of the furthest realms of the subject. This book is not a reference guide nor could it ever hope to be in just 223 pages with a topic as large at the Kriegsmarine, 1935-1945.

Indeed, Showell’s book could easily be dismissed as a coffee table book with its large format, pages packed full of photographs, coverage of popular topics such as U-boat war and the big ships of the surface fleet. The sections covering rank, insignia, uniforms and awards (almost 10% of the book) will be meat and drink to the collectors of military memorabilia and the more nerdy students of the Kriegsmarine. This book will be categorised by some as a ‘reference book’ only of interest to, and use by, the ‘Third Reich aficionado’, and they would be entirely wrong.

As author of twenty books based on extensive archival research Jak Mallmann  Showell is too good a historian for this book not to have its uses. There are gems to be found throughout the text, although the organisation of the opening chapter on ‘Major Aspects of German Naval History’ is a little puzzling. For example, a section on the ‘Heinkel 177’ is slipped in between sections dealing with ‘U-boat construction under Dr Albert Speer’ and ‘U-boat policy, September 1942’. The gems include the number of men lost overboard during the Second World War (around 1,000) and the length of time that it took a U-boat to crash dive (around 60 seconds for a Type IX ocean-going boat). Such pieces of information, and his accounts of life on board a U-boat, are based on extensive work with veterans.

Mallmann Showell understands his subject matter in a very practical and detailed way and this is relayed in the text, the photographs and the captions. His description of a U-boat at sea as being like a tidal rock conveys a level of understanding not found in most academic accounts, and such nuggets can open the door for us to re-think some aspects of the war at sea. For example, if the deck of a U-boat was such a difficult and dangerous place to work, with the boat rolling and pitching badly in even a moderate sea, what might this tell us about those cases where survivors of sinking’s thought that they were fired on by enemy submarines.

The book also engages in interesting ways with the historiographical debates and the scholarly consensus around the war at sea. May 2013 will see probably the last major public commemoration of the Battle of the Atlantic. It marks the 70th anniversary of a period of three months in 1943 when the ‘critical convoys battles’ of March gave way to ‘Black May’. In a period of ninety days, the Battle of the Atlantic turned decisively against the U-boat arm. The heavy losses of May forced Doenitz to withdraw his U-boats from the Atlantic, in order that they be retrofitted, and otherwise equipped, with technologies (schnorkel, homing-torpedoes, and improved anti-aircraft defences), that would improve their chances of success and survival against Allied convoys and anti-submarine forces. As Mallmann Showell reminds us, there were a number of key steps before the debacle of May 1943. The tide had begun to turn in the U-boat as early as 1941 with the loss of figures such as Prien, Kretschmer and Schepke. In September 1942, Doenitz’s had expressed his concerns about developments in the U-boat war directly to Hitler. With the ending of the so-called second happy time, the U-boat war had shifted from the East coast of the Americas back into the wastes of the central Atlantic. The process of drift towards the disaster of Black May did not begin in March 1943 and Mallmann Showell offers us a number of useful alternative starting points.

While the book does contain a large number of photographs, they are more useful to an academic audience than might be suspected. Mallmann Showell avoids the standard studio shots of Hitler, Doenitz the battleships, the U-boats that one sees reproduced repeatedly. Instead, he gives you the visual results of his trawl through the archives. A high proportion of the images he uses are very fresh indeed and there are runs of photographs on particular themes (such as U-boat interiors and a series of colour plates of a U-boat on patrol) which are strikingly good and different to other publications. This is one book where the old adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ might literally be true. While the order of the text sections might be considered questionable (certainly in terms of use of the term ‘reference guide’), there is no such query with regard to the visual structure and linkages. The photographs are reproduced at a high quality and at an appropriate size. The photographs amount to this book’s unique selling point.

Overall, there are a number of problems with this book at least for an academic audience. They will matter rather less so to the general reader, and there remains much of value to both constituencies. It remains an engaging read and its photographs are a genuine strength of the book. The work might be better titled as a ‘visual reference guide’.

Citation: G.H. Bennett, ‘Review of Jak P. Mallmann Showell, Hitler’s Navy: A Reference Guide to the Kriegsmarine, 1935-1945’, The Second World War Military Operations Research Group, 24 February, 2013

You can download a copy of the review here.

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2 responses to “Book Review – Hitler’s Navy: A Reference Guide to the Kriegsmarine 1935-1945

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