Print this Page


This interview is reprinted with the permission of www.ubootwaffe.net, and Howard J. Cock, who recently interviewed Theodore P. Savas.

In the wake of the success of Silent Hunters: German U-boat Commanders of World War II, Savas has again brought together a team of first class U-Boat experts: Erich Topp, Lawrence Paterson, Timothy Mulligan, Eric Rust, Jak Showell, Jordan Vause, Mark Wise and Keith Gill. Each of these authors can stand alone, but when Savas puts them together the result entirely surpasses the usual U-Boat book.

I asked him some questions about the book, the writers involved, and the subject. Oh, and what about the time he ordered around a certain Admiral...


HJC: Your earlier book, Silent Hunters: German U-boat Commanders of World War II, was quite a success for everyone involved, and from what I can tell Hunt and Kill is shaping up to follow in those tracks. One of the prime reasons for this success is the caliber of the writers you brought together for both projects. What did it take to assemble them for these books?

TPS: Thanks very much for that kind observation. I have to go back in time almost a decade for this to make sense. In the middle 1990s I read Jordan Vause's book U-boat Ace — the one on Wolfgang Lüth — and was pleased to discover he lived just a few miles from me in the San Jose area. We struck up a nice friendship. Our discussion on various commanders helped me flesh out an idea I had been thinking about for some time: that there were many U-boat captains who needed a fuller examination of their careers or some extraordinary achievement, but were not likely to ever receive book-length treatment. I wrote to other scholars in the field, shared the idea and my belief there was a gap in the literature that needed filling, and Silent Hunters (Campbell, 1997; Naval Institute Press, 2003) was the result. In my opinion other aspects of the U-boat war needed similar treatment. I finally got around to making a proposal that we work together again on U-505, many of the same contributors agreed, and here we are.

HJC: You made it clear in both books that you are not a U-boat expert, but every contributor to Silent Hunters and Hunt and Kill is a scholar in the field. What is your educational background?

TPS: It is absolutely is true. I could not have done anything like this on my own. I have a decades-long interest and keen appreciation in the subject, but my real strength is in organization and getting a team to pull in the same direction. I dropped out of my high school German class, so my understanding of the language is rather weak. (laughing) I deeply regret that choice now, but trying to learn German as an adult has taught me I have little talent for picking up other languages. My educational background is in European and American history, and I have a law degree and practiced actively for a dozen years.

HJC: Why U-505?

TPS: What do you know about U-505?

HJC: Well... I suppose the ordinary things most know. It's the boat in Chicago at the museum. It's a Type IXC, and it had some modest success before being captured by Daniel Gallery. That's about it.

TPS: And that's why U-505. Ask most students and general interest readers of the U-boat war what they know about this boat and some will be able to tell you it was captured late in the war, some will be able to name the task group [22.3] and captor, a few will know one of its captains committed suicide during a patrol, and most know it ended up as an exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry. That's it...

HJC: That is about all you ever read on U-505...

TPS: Yes, most readily available published accounts repeat the same few things over and over. In reality, U-505 had a remarkable three-year war history, had some solid successes, left on many patrols with equipment that was probably sabotaged by French workers in Lorient, and its postwar odyssey that finally ended in Chicago is almost as interesting as its war years. On one of my visits to the boat in the late 1990s it struck me that there was a much deeper story waiting to be told.

HJC: Your brief to the contributors of Silent Hunters was to write about a successful but lesser known commander. The subject matter of Hunt and Kill is focused on one boat in particular, U-505. Given this narrower focus, did you need to assign topics to some writers, or were they all given a free hand?

TPS: What a good question. A little of both, actually. I explained to everyone that U-505 was our topic, I offered a few general guidelines, and they started floating ideas for contributions. My job was to accept, reject, or mold each chapter idea in such a way that the entire puzzle would fit together when a reader picked it up for the first time. These guys are all professionals, and most of us have worked together before, so we have a good idea how to operate as a team. In the end there was one particular gap that needed filling, and Lawrence Paterson agreed to fill it, which is why he has two contributions.

HJC: Speaking of Paterson, I would like to ask you to comment on the individual chapters and authors. Let's start with Eric Rust's piece "No Target Too Far: The Genesis, Development, and Operations of Type IX U-boats." I don't think many people really fully appreciate the scope or contribution Type IX boats made to the German war effort. This chapter puts it all together.

TPS: It is indeed exhaustive and well written. Basically Dr. Rust presents an overview of Type IX boats and their place in the war. It is vintage Rust — detailed and absorbing without losing sight of the big picture. If you have read his outstanding Crew 34: Naval Officers Under Hitler (Praeger, 1991) or his contribution to our earlier Silent Hunters, in which he wrote about ace Friedrich Guggenberger, you will find the same thing.

HJC: I enjoyed Rust's chapter greatly. Perhaps my favorite chapter is Tim Mulligan's "A Community Bound by Fate: The Crew of U-505."

TPS: I can't tell you my favorite, because I want to work with all these guys again! Tim's is also outstanding. I don't think there is anyone else working today who could have written it — and I am not kidding...

HJC: That's very high praise.

TPS: And completely well deserved. He is such an outstanding writer, but an even better researcher. He knows more about German crewmen and the background of the individuals who served in the Kriegsmarine than any other scholar.

HJC: His book Neither Sharks Nor Wolves was on this very topic.

TPS: Yes, and of course Dr. Mulligan works with captured German naval records in the National Archives, so he knows all the sources and how to mine them. "A Community Bound By Fate" is an examination of who crewed U-505. Of course he discusses in some depth many individuals by name, but he goes much deeper than that by examining the diversity of the crew in terms of where they came from, educational backgrounds, and so forth. If you have any particular stereotype in mind of the men who manned these boats, you won't when you finish. It is a very satisfying piece.

HJC: Lawrence Paterson's essay "From Lion's Roar to Blunted Axe: The War Patrols of U-505" was well done. I thought it pulled together many of the sources into one coherent story line and filled in a lot of the gaps in the boat's history. He cites an article by Hans Decker, which I now must find and read also!

TPS: Hans Decker was a machinist aboard the boat and he wrote a rich memoir of his 404 days aboard U-505 in Naval Institute Proceedings forty or so years ago. That piece, together with Hans Goebeler's outstanding memoir Steel Boats, Iron Hearts (Wagnerian Publications, 1999) helps flesh out a lot of the details of what was going on inside U-505. They add personality to what otherwise would be by-the-numbers history, which is of course what we have for most boats. As I alluded to earlier, Lawrence wrote two of the chapters in Hunt and Kill, one on the boat's first eleven patrols and the other covering just the last patrol up to the moment the boat is forced to the surface. It is called "Collision Course: U-505 and Task Group 22.3."

HJC: Yes, I realized that the very next chapter examines what happened next from the German perspective.

TPS: We thought that would be a clever way to handle that. I hope it works with readers...

HJC: Paterson is from New Zealand but now lives in England...

TPS: Yes, he moved there many years ago to try and break into their music scene. He is an accomplished musician and a well read enthusiast who loves to scuba dive on wrecks off the French and English coast. He is also the author of two unique U-boat books—First U-Boat Flotilla and Second U-boat Flotilla, both published here in the states by Naval Institute Press. He has a new book coming out soon about a heavily-photographed war patrol on Reinhard "Teddy" Suhren's U-564. I have seen parts of it, and it will be very, very well received.

HJC: I think the first Paterson chapter goes a long way toward conveying the complex history of U-505 — the early success under Alex-Olaf Loewe, the terrible reign suffered under Zschech, including the mechanical failures and sabotage that could have easily caused the loss of the boat, and then along comes Harald Lange, who never really had a chance to show what he could do and gets caught up in the middle of Gallery's Hunter Killer group.

TPS: Lange handled the T-25 destroyer rescue effort competently. Peter Zschech gets the most attention in published sources because he committed suicide while the boat was under a severe depth-charge attack, but I think the commanders who bracketed him (Loewe and Lange) are more interesting. I think that comes out in this book in several of the chapters.

HJC: I think so as well. The Enigma-Intelligence chapter was packed with detail but flowed well. It can be a difficult topic to write about in-depth and yet keep a reader's interest. I did not know the intelligence story behind the capture of U-505.

TPS: Quite frankly, neither did I, at least to the extent presented by Mark Wise and Jak Mallmann Showell. Their chapter is called "Deciphering the U-Boat War." Essentially they examine, as you say, in great detail, the development of the various antisubmarine agencies, how they operated, tracked boats, and so forth, and how advancing technology coupled with equipment captures ultimately doomed U-505.

HJC: I have several of Jak Mallmann Showell's books. He has personal links to U-boats as his father lost his life on one.

TPS: Yes, I think it was U-377. It was the victim of a circular torpedo. Jak was great to work with. He is a superb researcher, a master of detail, and has done as much as anyone to preserve the memory of these men.

HJC: Can you tell me about Mark Wise? What is his background?

TPS: I like Mark a lot because, like me, he is a long suffering fan of the Minnesota Vikings [American football team], as is his wife! He graduated from the University of Minnesota and right now is in Africa someplace (I think on the Horn) working as an intelligence specialist in the U.S. Naval Reserve. His contribution, which was brought to my attention by one of the other contributors (right now I can't recall if it was Rust or Mulligan) is grounded in his Master's thesis on naval intelligence in the Battle of the Atlantic. Without question it is the latest research on the subject. Like Mulligan with the crew study, I don't think anyone other than these two guys together could have written this type of article.

HJC: Jordan Vause. His chapter is very intriguing and rather suspenseful. He is one of my favorite authors. I liked his U-Boat Ace book, but his book Wolf — I forget the subtitle...

TPS: I think it is U-Boat Commanders in World War II...

HJC: Yes, I think that's right. In my opinion, that book shines a light into the U-boat community that is extraordinarily revealing. His article on the loss of U-505 is similar in style but different from all the other chapters in Hunt and Kill. It's not counter-factual, but... I am unsure exactly how to describe it.

TPS: Well, first, it is very different than all the rest, but it is definitely not counter-factual or a "what-if scenario." The chapter is entitled "Desperate Decisions: The German Loss of U-505." When Jordan proposed covering this topic, I jumped at the chance because I knew he would do a great job. What he does — and I believe it is the first article of its kind on this aspect of U-505's career — is examine the command structure and decision-making process inside the boat from the time it was discovered until its capture.

HJC: With its central focus on why the boat was not scuttled...

TPS: Yes, but I think it is much deeper than that. What he does is essentially say, look, what options does a commander have when he is forced to blow the ballast tanks to save his boat, but knows he will surface in the middle of a Hunter-Killer group? Most people don't think about this, but the options you have available once you surface are largely determined by what you do before, during and after you blow the ballast tanks. You have certain decisions you can make — certain options. Jordan explores those and follows the chain of command and decision-making, bringing in outside experts like Jürgen Oesten and Sigfried Koitschka, both former U-boat commanders and U-boat aces, and other former Kriegsmarine personnel, to evaluate the decisions made, and the decisions that were not made but could have been chosen. It is an intriguing — I think you used that adjective earlier — perspective. I think it will be well-received. At least, I hope so!

HJC: I read the final chapter — at more than 60 pages it is a small book! — by the boat's curator, Keith Gill, with a lot of interest because virtually everything in that chapter was new to me.

TPS: It was new to me, too! (laughter) I think Tim Mulligan suggested we bring Keith aboard, and that was a very good idea. First, as you said, he is the curator of the boat at the museum. Obviously he knows U-505 — the boat itself — better than anyone. Right now he is spending his days crawling through it matching paint chips and restoring the interior to its original condition, as far as possible. With a 6'4" frame, it is not easy!

HJC: I had always assumed a phone call or two between the Navy and museum, a tug around north through the Great Lakes, and Chicago gets a U-boat. The real story was so much more complicated.

TPS: We are very lucky to have U-505 preserved anywhere, and especially at such a fine institution like the Museum of Science and Industry, and not acting as an artificial reef off the eastern coast of the United States. Saving, obtaining title to it, and transporting and exhibiting U-505 is a story about politics, bureaucracies, rivalries, leadership, perseverance, amazing feats of engineering, and of course, money. Lots of money. As Keith makes it very clear, it was a close call between nip and tuck, and tuck almost won.

HJC: Gill also talks about what the boat meant to those who preserved it, and how its meaning has changed over time. It is quite moving, really.

TPS: Yes. His chapter, by the way, is called "Project 356: U-505 and the Journey to Chicago."

HJC: Thankfully, they are now in the process of moving the boat indoors.

TPS: It is a $35,000,000 project to build an indoor facility to house the boat. It will preserve it indefinitely. I think it will be finalized next spring or summer of 2005. U-boat enthusiasts everywhere should stand and shout their approval. They should also open their wallets and send in a donation. The museum needs the money. If you have not seen the boat live and in person, it is worth getting on a plane or driving in a car for that opportunity alone. It is that impressive.

HJC: I also found there were a lot of odd coincidences about U-505 after the war. Some of the final parts on U-505 came from boats with direct connections to it, the boat berthed next to her at Portsmouth was commanded by U-505's former First Watch Officer, and so on. It was sort of spooky.

TPS: Keith and I talked about that one night. It is a little weird. As if it was all meant to be.

HJC: Finally, I wish you would comment on Erich Topp. I have never met him, and likely never will, but you know him pretty well. Is he as much of a gentleman and friendly man as he comes across on TV interviews?

TPS: Yes, he is all that and more. I first met Admiral Topp when he was visiting the States back in early 1996. I called him in Texas, where is daughter lives, and he invited me to visit him in Southern California the following week. I did, we struck off a nice friendship, and still correspond regularly. I saw him this past December in Germany.

HJC: You were going to tell me about ordering an admiral around a bit.

TPS: Oh, that's right. I had to order him out of his car into the passenger seat when he insisted he drive. It was dark and stormy. I had been insisting for several minutes that I drive. "No! It is my car, you are my guest, and I will drive us," he told me several times. Well, he backed his old BMW out of the garage and was almost clipped by a passing car. My daughter was in the back seat and was shaking her head. I walked over to his door, opened it, and said, "Admiral, I know you used to run U-boats all over the ocean, but I am driving your car down these winding streets to Remagen. Move over."

HJC: Wow! What did he say?

TPS: He looked at me really seriously for a few seconds, then he laughed and said, "Ok, ok, you have pulled rank on me. I know you are now in charge." Something like that. I have met many German and American veterans over the years, but Topp is my favorite, perhaps because I have spent the most time with him. Jürgen Oesten is another extraordinary man, generous with his time and very friendly. It is very sad, really. Topp and so many more of these links with the past are getting up there in years, and they will not be with us much longer.

HJC: Topp wrote a very nice, but short, Foreword, that sounds like his book. Philosophical but practical. Now, what has been the most challenging thing for you, as the editor of these two projects? What has been the most interesting?

TPS: The most interesting for me is always the process — watching what only exists in my mind take shape as the artists paint, carve, chip, and produce. The "whole,"as I envision it to be, must ultimately end up greater than the sum of the parts. It can't simply be several disjointed chapters slapped between two covers. It is the journey, for me, that is the most interesting. And it is always challenging, too, because sometimes as editor I do not receive exactly what I need or would like the first time or two around. Naturally, this is often not the fault of anyone because, as is typical for these sorts of project, individual contributors do not have access to all the various chapters, correspondence, and telephone calls that take place on a regular basis. Except for an occasional "Project U-505" e-mail I sent to keep everyone up to speed, each writer works in a sort of vacuum.

HJC: You have written or edited many books on the American Civil War, which at first glance appears a long way from the Battle of the Atlantic. Most of us can pinpoint what began our fascination for submarines, for U-Boats. What sparked your enthusiasm for U-Boat history?

TPS: When I was a kid there was some corny movie — I don't even recall the name — where Frank Sinatra and some others raised a German U-boat and used it to attack an ocean liner. [Assault on a Queen, 1966]. I remember running to the library the next day to read more about them. The more I read the more fascinated I became. My interest has never waned.

HJC: U-Boat history has been steadily growing in popularity. What do you think are some of the reasons for this?

TPS: I think that's right. The short answer (from my perspective) is that the veterans are growing old and are almost gone. There is a certain urgency to understand them, appreciate them, read about them, meet them, write to them, experience them and their former world in a vicarious way — knowing some are still alive. Of course, many veterans have a deep desire to tell their story before it is too late. I know this might sound a bit odd, but it was the same with the Civil War. There was a smallish burst of publishing and interest about the war in the early postwar period, which faded for a few decades until the vets were old men. They and others started writing about it with a passion, the public started reading more about it, and then all hell broke loose.

HJC: I have never heard it put that way before.

TPS: Erich Topp (U-552) and I spoke on this once. He was visiting San Francisco for a convention in 1998 and we did several book signings for Silent Hunters. Everywhere people stopped to talk, the lines were long, and the interest deep. It was intense. It really shocked him. On his way back to his room he stopped me, grabbed my arm, and said, "I wrote my book to put all this behind me — to tell my story and move on with my life." I told him that was impossible, and like it or not, those few years defined him for life. He agreed. "More than ever I realize now I will never be able to put it behind me. The interest is growing stronger each month, more and more letters and calls. They are always pleased to learn I am still alive so they can try to understand from me, personally, what it was all about. It is my responsibility to explain it as well as I can." That conversation confirmed for me my theory. The veterans age, the interest grows.

HJC: On a more personal level, what is your favorite anecdote or particular area of interest in U-Boats?

TPS: Really, I don't have one. If pressed, I would have to say it is the men themselves in general, and the commanders in particular. To my way of thinking, all men are ordinary — it is just that some find themselves in extraordinary circumstances and react in such a way that history remembers them, for good or for ill. How men reacted in the face of the unrelenting and without-quarter Battle of the Atlantic intrigues me. Can you imagine being responsible for 50 men in a U-boat at age 25? Neither can I.

HJC: Hunt and Kill is now at press. What's next? Can we look forward to more books on U-Boats?

TPS: Funny you should say that... I have a few ideas rolling about upstairs. I would love to gather the same team for a third go at it. They just don't know it yet!

HJC: I enjoyed our chat and enjoyed this book. Good luck with it.

TPS: Thank you. It has an outstanding cast, and if it succeeds, it is because of them. I was only the pencil herder.


(All copyright laws apply to this interview. However, this interview may be posted digitally on the internet or printed for use in newspapers, newsletters, magazines, and other similar uses, provided it appears in its entirety, and that notice of its use is provided in advance to sarahs@savasbeatie.com. We also allow partial edited use, with advance permission. Please inquire. Include our website www.savasbeatie.com and email address sales@savasbeatie.com with use. Thank you.)