SURPLUS ORDNANCE Episode 44: Das Boot (1981)

Rich Stephens
Minor on History, focusing on military history

[Quick Comments: Jesus! Pick a longer movie next time why don’t cha!]


Two, full size, Type VII-C U-Boat models were constructed for filming. One for the top of the sub used for above water scenes; and one a tube on a motion mount used for interior scenes. The models were built according to plans found at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. The exterior model was also used in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The Type VII U-boats were the most common type used by Germany in WWII. It is the prototypical “U-boat” most often represented in films and in the public’s perception of U-boats.

Jurgen Prochnow off-handedly references Das Boot in Beerfest when he says, “I had a bad experience once” while in a submarine (in Colorado? Very Top Secret-esque.)


*Battle of the Atlantic – Overview *

In short, Germany tried to win a war of attrition against Britain using submarines (a strategy it tried, and failed, in WW I as well.) The campaign was based on Tonnage Warfare. The German Navy’s calculations were that if 750,000 tons of British shipping could be sunk monthly, over a 12 month period, Britain would be forced to surrender. They only achieved this goal one quarter throughout the war; between April – June, 1942 with 2,213,573 tons sunk that quarter during the Second Happy Time (mostly due to U-Boats, but aircraft , mines, surface ships and other operations accounting for about a fifth of that total.)

The U-Boats were most successful in the Summer of 1940 (the First Happy Time,) after the fall of France when the German Navy could move the U-Boat fleet to French ports in Brest, Lorient, St. Nazaire and La Rochelle (the home port depicted in the film,) and Bordeaux. This put them closer to British shipping lanes and gave them immediate access to the Atlantic without having to move through choke points around the British Isles.

The Second Happy Time lasted for most of 1942 after America entered the war, and it took America awhile to realize the importance of the convoy system.

Regardless of this early success, once the United States entered the war and was able to bring its full industrial capacity to the Allied cause, the hope of ever winning a tonnage war against Britain was…ahem...sunk! Thank you, thank you.

U-Boats and Torpedo Attacks:

Submarines in WWII operated by the immutable mathematics of triangles and trigonometry.

Subs ran on the surface most of the time, only submerging below the waves (in most cases) once they had spotted an enemy (they were faster on the surface and had only limited battery power to remain submerged.)

Triangle #1 – Spotting a target: A submarine on the surface of the water only has a few feet of conning tower above the waves (roughly 15 – 20 feet.) Conversely, a larger freighter has masts and superstructure that rise a few hundred feet above the surface. As such, the submarine can see the target before the target can see the submarine. This gives the sub time to plot an intercept course and submerge.

Triangle #2 – Intercept: The submarine navigator had to determine the speed and bearing of the target, from the sub’s location, and solve for the course and speed the sub should take to arrive in a favorable position to attack.

Triangle #3 – Torpedo Gyro Angle: The hardest to solve. As WWII era torpedoes were not guided, the sub had to set a gyro angle instructing the torpedo to turn a certain degree after firing so that it intercepted and collided with the target. To accomplish this, submarines were equipped with a Torpedo Data Computer (TDC) that information such as target range, speed, angle of the bow, torpedo speed, submarine speed, etc. was entered to determine the correct torpedo gyro angle before firing. Essentially continuously solving a triangle.

Sub Pens

We see the Sub Pens – massive concrete port bunkers to house submarines and protect them from attack while in port (perhaps U-96 should have sailed into one at homecoming?) The pens at La Rochelle are still there and used by the French navy.


Several scenes depict sailors eating or sucking on lemons. This would have been to prevent scurvy, caused by a Vitamin C deficiency. Fresh fruits and vegetables are the primary source of Vitamin C, but most will not hold up for weeks at a time without rotting. Citrus fruits can be stored for weeks. We also see an officer make a “cocktail” by mixing lemon juice with milk. The acid in lemon juice would react and make the milk curdle, essentially making a form of cottage cheese.

Children’s Crusade

This is a reference to the 1212 crusade in which thousands of children follow a young boy who claims to have been visited by Jesus to embark on a crusade to convert Muslims to Christianity. Accounts vary, but they all end in disaster with the children boarding boats and then taken to Tunisia and being sold into slavey or die in a shipwreck. The young officer from Mexico who returned to Germany to fight is a “true believer’ and an idealogue.


Grand Admiral Karl Donitz was the head of the U-boat arm of the Kriegsmarine (BdU) and in 1943 the Supreme Commander of the Navy. He was a dedicated Nazi and supporter of Hitler. The influence of Nazism and Hitler had on traditional German/Prussian institutions like the Army and Navy was seen as corrupting an otherwise noble pursuit (hence the fly on his picture scene.) Donitz was officially the last leader of Nazi Germany as President of Germany from
April 30th – May 23rd 1945.

Enigma Machine

The film shows several radiograms being decoded, and it was used extensively by the Kriegsmarine. For more information, see the research for The Imitation Game, as that movie dealt with the Allies efforts to break the cipher.

Works Cited

Williams, Andrew. Battle of the Atlantic: The Allies’ Submarine Fight Against Hitler’s Gray Wolves of the Sea. 2004

High Command of the Navy. The Submarine Commander’s Handbook. 1943.

Republished by Thomas Publications. 1989
(I purchased this as a companion to the Silent Hunter video game series.)

Keegan, John. Collins Atlas of World War II. 2006.

Dan's research:


"La Rochelle, France. Autumn, 1941. Germany's vaunted U-boat fleet, with which Hitler hoped to blockade and stamp out Britain, is beginning to suffer its first major setbacks. British freighters are now sailing the Atlantic with stronger and more effective destroyer escorts, inflicting heavy losses on the U-boats. Nevertheless, the German High Command orders more and more U-boats, with ever younger crews, into battle from their ports in occupied France. The battle for control of the Atlantic is turning against the Germans. 40,000 German sailors served on U-boats during World War II. 30,000 never returned."


Germany maintained its unrestricted submarine warfare was in response to the Royal Navy's blockade, which was illegal under international law as it violated Article X of the Hague Convention of 1907.

The film, as well as the book by Lothar G. Buchheim on which it's based, are both loosely adapted from the wartime career of the Type VIIC boat U-96, and its skipper, Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock. In late 1941, Buchheim, who was then a war correspondent in the German Navy's propaganda office, joined the crew of U-96 for one tour in the Battle of the Atlantic. This tour became the basis of Buchheim's book. (In the film, the character Lt. Werner is based on Buchheim.) During the war, Capt.-Lt. Lehmann-Willenbrock ranked seventh among U-Boat skippers in terms of shipping tonnage sunk (183,223 tons on three boats, the U-5, the U-96, and the U-256). After transferring to a new skipper, the U-96 was retired on 5 February 1943, one of the few U-boats to actually survive its tour of duty in the Atlantic. Far from being killed in an air attack (as depicted in the film), Lehmann-Willenbrock survived the war, and later served as captain on various German merchant cargo ships. Lehmann-Willenbrock and Buchheim both served as technical advisers for this film (although the volatile Buchheim fell out with director Wolfgang Petersen, who refused to let the author write the script based on his book). Lehmann-Willenbrock died in Bremen in 1986. Buchheim died in Bavaria in 2007.


The screenplay was inspired in part by exploits of the real life U-96, a Type VIIC-class U-boat.
Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock, the actual captain of the real life U-96 and Hans-Joachim Krug, former first officer on U-219, served as consultants for the production of the film.


All the cast members were fluent in English and dubbed themselves for the English version.


Petersen had a fanatical obsession with regard to the structural detail of the U-boat set. He pointed out that “every screw” was an authentic facsimile of the type used in WWII U-boats.

Two full-size mock-ups of a Type VIIC boat were built, one for use in outdoor scenes, and one for the interior scenes. The mock-ups were built according to U-boat plans found in Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. The appearance of interior and exterior was duplicated as closely as possible; however, the controls were non-functioning. The outdoor mock-up was propelled with a small engine. Additionally, a mock-up of a conning tower was placed in a water tank in the studio to simulate outdoor scenes not requiring a full view of the boat's exterior. The interior mock-up was mounted 16 feet off the floor and was shaken, rocked, and tilted up to 45 degrees by means of a hydraulic apparatus. Several models of varying scales were used for exterior shots; in some cases the camera speed was altered so that the wave action and model movement matched that of a full-size U-boat in the open Atlantic. A scene near the beginning of the movie shows a long row of occupied submarine pens; to achieve this shot using the single full-scale outdoor U-boat mock-up, the model had to be set up and filmed in one pen at a time, in varying stages of loading and repair.

Three scale models were built for special effects work. The first, a 35 foot remote controlled model, could sail in high seas and dive; the other two, 18 feet and 8 feet in length, were used for underwater shots. Scale models of tankers, destroyers and other ships were also built to complete the armada.


Production of Das Boot took three years (1979-1981). Most of the filming was done over a period of one year; in order to make the appearance of the actors as realistic as possible, the scenes were filmed in sequence over the course of the year. This allowed the camera to record the growth of beards and hair, the increasing pallor of skin, and the general signs of strain which marked the faces of the actors, who had, just like real U-boat men, spent many months in a cramped, unhealthy atmosphere.

Steadicams were not yet in use during the production of the movie. In order to get the fast tracking shots through the U-boat without a shaky image, director of photography Jost Vacano created a system of heavy gyroscopes together with his father that kept the camera steady as he ran through the hallways. The set of the U-boat had intentionally been built slightly bigger to give Vacano more room to work. Even so, as he had to look through the camera, he had to wear a helmet because he would regularly bump his head.

The claustrophobic interior shots owe much of their power to the work of cinematographer and chronic Paul Verhoeven collaborator Jost Vacano. As Vacano explains in 'Das Boot Revisited', his creative goals were restrictive in nature: "the camera has to be squeezed into a tight space. And be limited in space, just like the people who are in there. The camera is not allowed to leave that space at any point. It must physically stay there." Speaking to CraveOnline, Wolfgang Petersen explains: "we thought, in the beginning, we might kill ourselves after a few weeks because it's just such a small place [but] because we shot in sequence, the actors got more and more really into it, into their part."

Klaus Wennemann, who portrays the Chief Engineer, was forty one years old when the film was produced. The actual Chief Engineer of U-96, Hans Peter Dengel, was just over twenty five during his first patrol onboard the submarine. Dengel survived the war patrol, was promoted to Captain Lieutenant in 1943, and assigned as Chief Engineer of the type IX U-boat U-543. He was killed when the boat was sunk by an allied air attack in July 1944.

Jürgen Prochnov was 38-40 during filming, while Capt.-Lt. Henrich Lehmann-Willenbrock was 30.

In order to further sell their nautical purgatory, the actors in Das Boot were discouraged from being in the sun and instructed to grow their beards out. All the foodstuffs in the submarine, which dangle abundantly in the film's opening moments, were real and began to rot over the course of production. "Disgusting but very authentic," recalls Claude-Oliver Rudolph, who plays the burly mechanic Ario, in the 2021 documentary. Prop master Peter Durst even recalls pouring heaps of cologne into the increasingly foul water in a last-ditch attempt to improve the working conditions.


The movie was shot silent because of exaggerated camera noise in the submarine interiors. All German and English dialogue had to be looped.


The picture was nominated for six Academy Awards which was at the time the highest number of Oscar nominations ever received by a foreign language film. The record has since been beaten by such films as Life Is Beautiful (1997) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).


The original TV mini-series was severely criticized in Germany for portraying World War II Germans sympathetically. When the film opened at the Los Angeles Film Festival, no one was sure how a former enemy nation would react, especially in a city with a large Jewish population. The audience applauded the opening caption saying 30,000 of 40,000 German men who went to war in submarines didn't come back. At the end, the audience gave the film a standing ovation.

Lothar G. Buchheim was incensed when he first saw the scene of one crew member dancing like some sort of tropical girl while the rest of the crew shouted out catcalls and wolf whistles. He said that no U-boat crew would ever behave in such a way.

The film was accused of exaggerating the extent to which U-Boat crewmen and officers were anti-Nazi.

In the scene in the La Rochelle bar, Otto Sander was really drunk.

The names of the Captain, Chief Engineer, 1st Watch Officer, and 2nd Watch Officer are never given.

Rutger Hauer was offered to play the Captain, but turned it down to do Blade Runner (1982).


In the depth charging after the torpedo run, the boat goes deeper and deeper until finally rivets start to 'pop'. In fact, the pressure hull of the Type VIIc boat was welded, not riveted. This was also one of the reasons the type was able to survive depths of 220 meters and beyond in the first place.

War History Online

Wolfgang Peterson comments in interview with Scott Roxborough:

We have to talk about "Das Boot," the movie that made you famous. Do you think it is still your most important film?

Oh yeah, definitely. So many directors have their one film. It's the one that changed everything for you and the one people will talk about forever. I am lucky enough that I have that film.

What was it about "Das Boot" that made it special?

First of all, I think for the world to be forced to relate to or even identify with Nazis in a submarine was quite an unusual thing, and the film managed that in the end. In the beginning, when the film was first screened in Los Angeles, it read on the screen, "Of 40,000 German submariners, 30,000 died." There was a big applause. They thought it was good that they died. At the end of the film, after two and a half hours, they all clapped and there was a standing ovation. The film turned this hostile audience around. That is a quality of the film to show that war is war and young people die for horrible reasons. And of course the film was done in a very realistic way. You really felt that war is hell - especially submarine warfare, where they felt like sardines. The claustrophobia in the film was there.
And then there's the focus we brought on these characters inside, the captain and all these people. Even in the most horrible situation, something beautiful can happen: They were brought really close together. They would die for each other. That is a good lesson that even in the worst, most horrible situation, something beautiful and human can happen. And that goes way beyond being German, American, or English. It's universal.

Buckheim’s thoughts on the film:

Info on U-96:

U-96 Patrol record:

U-boat history:

Typ VII U-boat:

Excerpts from Buccheim’s novel:

Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock’s military record:

Based on a True Story podcast episode page: