A few days ago I saw the director’s cut version of the 1981 German film Das Boot. Of course I had seen it before, but it had been at least a decade, and it had been the theatrical version, not the director’s cut. The film was every bit as harrowing, realistic, and tragic as I had originally remembered it; perhaps more, now that the passage of time and (hopefully) greater maturity had enhanced my sensitivity to suffering and loss.
It is without doubt the greatest film of naval combat ever made, and belongs on that very short list of the greatest war films ever made. The heroism and fortitude displayed made me ponder what I had seen for days afterwards, as I am wont to do after any emotionally engaging experience.
The greatest of all naval war films
What greater eulogy could be made to those brave men of the German U-boat service, which witnessed shockingly high casualty rates? Consider this: of the 1155 submarines that Germany sent into battle, we are told, 725 never returned. The death rate of German seamen, incredibly, exceeded 60 percent, a figure equaled by no other service of any other nation.
And yet the Kriegsmarine never suffered from a want of volunteers; its morale, against all expectations, remained high even at the conclusion of the war. Most U-boat commanders never even surrendered their vessels, preferring either to scuttle their crafts or sail them to neutral ports.
In the belly of the beast: the engine room
Das Boot was intended to be the film rendition of Lothar-Günther Bluchheim’s 1973 novel of the same name. Bluchheim’s novel related the adventures of U-96 during the Battle of the Atlantic in 1941. From the outset, director Wofgang Petersen wanted the action, scenes, and sets to be as faithful as possible to actual wartime conditions.
The film was the most expensive in German film history. No effort was spared in meticulous attention to detail: several submarine mock-ups were constructed, actors were required to follow a strict regimen to enable them to acquire that pallid, sickly complexion that a real sailor might acquire from prolonged denial of sunlight, and the crew was put through an arduous training schedule.
The film took two full years of production and was released in 1981. The final result is nothing less than spectacular. We feel the exhilaration of salt spray on our faces while standing in the conning tower, plunging through the cold, white-peaked waves; we grit our teeth in irritation at the ceaseless pulse of the rackety diesel engine; we surge with joy at the sounds of enemy bulkheads cracking from direct torpedo strikes; and we soak in the horror and claustrophobia of being subject to depth-charge attack from an unseen enemy.
This is the grim face of combat, of battle leadership, raw and undiluted. Yet beyond the film’s merits as an artistic achievement, there are timeless lessons here, which will be familiar to those who have had military leadership experience in conditions of extreme duress.
Be technically and tactically proficient. No leader can be effective unless he knows his business completely. The U-boat commander emerges to me as the major figure of the film. Actor Jürgen Prochnow plays the intense, reserved “Kapitänleutnant” (also called “Der Alter”, or “old man” by his crew) who always seems to project a command presence under even the worst conditions. He knows every inch of his ship, and is obviously a veteran of multiple combat patrols.
His chief engineer (played marvelously by Klaus Wennemann) is the perfect complement to his captain’s simmering intensity. His technical brilliance is what enables the sub to rise from the seafloor at Gibraltar. Technical and tactical ability cannot be faked. All of the captain’s big decisions are made in the full view of the other crewmembers, under the direst of circumstances. There is no running and hiding, no dodging, and no opportunity to shift the blame. There is no room for posturing or theatrics: either the leader knows his business, or he does not.
Train your men as a team and cultivate cohesiveness. It is difficult to imagine circumstances that would promote as much cohesion and unity than service aboard a U-boat. The men “hot-rack” (alternate bunks between men); have one toilet for fifty crewmen; and are crammed together like sardines. The actors had to go through an arduous training schedule that would enable them to move about the submarine with ease, and this was before filming even began. The conditions of hardship and unrelenting adversity cement the bonds of duty between the crewmembers like no other environment could hope to achieve.
While passing through the Straits of Gibraltar, the ship is attacked and plunges directionless to the seafloor. Without this level of unit cohesion, there is no way the crew could have gotten the boat repaired and raised from the deep.
Dive! Dive! Dive!
Know your men. The captain was always aware of his men’s capabilities and limitations, and was not afraid to push the boundaries of both. He never coddles his men, but never is curt or disrespectful with them, either. There were times when he deliberately withheld information from them that they did not need to know. He tried, for example, to get the chief engineer and another crewmember off the boat before they passed through the Straits of Gibraltar. The unstated reason, they later found out, was that the captain did not expect to survive the crossing of the Straits.
Set an example. The example of the officers is consistently the same: professionalism, tactical knowledge, and bearing. Despite the worst possible conditions, and under the most adverse of combat circumstances, the captain and chief engineer never outwardly show signs of fatigue or hesitation. When you are in a leadership situation, your people are going to be watching your every move: every inflection of the voice, every raised eyebrow, every bodily gesture. Command presence matters: how you look, how you present yourself, and how you conduct yourself will be assiduously studied.
My captain, my captain: the anguished conclusion
Enforce discipline tempered by fairness and justice. There is a moving scene in the film where one of the engine-room technicians (named Johann) temporarily cracks under the strain of combat and ignores the captain’s order to return to his battle-station. The captain retrieves his pistol and seems prepared to shoot Johann; discipline and orders in the German military were not a punch-line in those days.
Later, when the danger had passed, Johann apologizes to the captain, who forgives him and sends him on his way. This action showed a generosity of spirit and awareness of human nature that a lesser leader might have been incapable of appreciating. Sometimes it is better to let things go, especially if the offending person has a solid track record of performance.
Be aggressive and take the fight to the enemy. The mission always comes first, and there is no way to obscure this fact. The purpose of the U-boat is to sink enemy vessels, and this is something the captain knows. He is a wolf, a predator. He does not hesitate to attack convoys that a less aggressive commander might have gone out of his way to avoid. A leader must take the initiative and not shrink away from situations that cause him and his men discomfort.
All in all, we must rank the leadership lessons of Das Boot the most powerfully delivered messages of the film, clearly overshadowing the antiwar intentions of the director. While the film can be seen as an adventure story, an antiwar parable, or as an operatic tragedy, it also serves to showcase the leadership traits and principles that we as leaders should aspire to. Das Boot joins Adolf Von Schell’s classic manual on small-unit combat leadership Battle Leadership as one of the very few epitomes that have the ring of brutal, hard truth, forged and tested under fire.
Read More: Leadership Training For Men