`U-571' should be diving for deep cover

June 28, 2000|By Bill Scanlan Murphy

PRESIDENT Clinton wrote an apology to Paul Trusswell, a British member of Parliament, May 10 about the submarine movie "U-571," which opened to a storm of protest in Europe.

Mr. Trusswell represents the small Yorkshire coastal town of Horsforth, where townsfolk collected money from their meager wages in 1940 to pay for a warship, the HMS Aubretia. It became one of the hero ships of World War II in 1942 when one of its officers, Sub-Lt. David Balme, climbed aboard a sinking German U-boat, U-110, and captured an Enigma code machine -- a feat which changed the course of the war.

Moviegoers will immediately recognize this as the basic story of the spring blockbuster "U-571" -- and so do the people of Horsforth. And they're outraged because, in the movie, the U-boat is captured by an American submarine.

In his letter to Mr. Trusswell, Mr. Clinton acknowledged the contribution to the war effort of Britain in general, and Horsforth in particular, but says that "U-571" is only a movie. It's all fiction, he says.

Indeed it is.

Just over 150 miles west of Ireland lies the wreck of the real U-571, sunk with all hands by an Australian aircraft in 1944. The families of its dead crewmen are similarly outraged that the movie shows their men machine-gunning survivors from a sunken ship. In other words, they're shown as war criminals.

Why? There were nearly 100 3-digit U-boat numbers that went unused by the German Navy. It's reasonable to ask why Paramount Pictures didn't use one of these -- if only because Germany is the only country in the world where you can be sued for libeling the dead.

It's hard to see why any director, 55 years after the war, should want to portray the Germans like this. But Jonathan Mostow, "U-571" director, gave a clue in an interview when he condemned the Oscar-winning German movie "Das Boot" as based on a lie because it pretended that the captains and crews were submariners first and only incidentally Nazis. It was because they were dedicated Nazis, he reasoned, that they fought so hard.

This is simply untrue.

The German navy was by far the least political of the Third Reich's armed services. There was enough danger in the U-boat service without adding Nazi fanaticism to the mix. With the sole exception of Japanese kamikaze pilots, U-boat crews had the highest death rate of any fighting force in the entire war; barely a fifth of the men survived. Far from being a Nazi juggernaut like the German air force, the navy was distrusted by Hitler as a hotbed of opposition.

In the entire war, there was only one case of a U-boat crew shooting survivors -- after the sinking of the Greek freighter SS Peleus by U-852 in March, 1944. The officer responsible, Heinz-Wilhelm Eck, was hanged as a war criminal. But U.S. Navy Cmdr. Dudley Morton, of the USS Wahoo, did exactly the same thing to Japanese survivors off Palau in the Pacific in 1943 and was acclaimed a hero.

In the movie, U-571 sinks a German destroyer to stop news of the submarine's capture from reaching the German High Command. This would have to mean sunk with all hands, of course, or the survivors would tell the tale.

It isn't difficult to imagine the furor that would result in the United States if the British made a movie about the Welsh Guards storming Iwo Jima. But that is pretty much what Paramount did in "U-571."

On June 8, Mr. Clinton's close friend, Prime Minister Tony Blair, denounced the movie as an "irritation and a disgrace" in the House of Commons, to a roar of agreement from all sides of the House.

Bill Scanlan Murphy is a professional naval historian specializing in submarines who lives in Baltimore. His book, "They Came Unseen," a history of covert underwater warfare, will be published in December.

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