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U-boats in World War I

Posted in Books, European, War by Alex L. on August 28, 2012

Part of a photo of the German submarine U-14 (source: Wikipedia)I’ve been interested in submarine warfare 0f the Second World War since I was in middle school. There are a lot of books written in English about the German U-boat campaign targeting Allied ships in the Atlantic and also the American submarine war against Japanese merchant shipping in the Pacific. Relatively little has been written in recent times, though, about submarine operations of any nation during the First World War.

That’s why I was happy to discover a copy of Edwyn Gray’s book, The U-boat War: 1914-1918 (which was originally published in the 1970s as The Killing Time) in Manhattan’s mecca for rare books: the Strand Book Store. I’m really glad I bought this book, because after reading it, I disabused myself of several erroneous notions about these early German submarine operations.

For example, I previously believed that German submarines during WWI in comparison to their counterparts in WWII

  • were generally smaller, slower, and carried less fuel, crew, and torpedoes,
  • exclusively operated in the coastal waters of Western Europe, and
  • did not wage as large or effective of a campaign against merchant shipping.

All of these preconceptions turned out to be false. By way of comparing the U-boat campaigns of the First and Second World War, I turned to some data from uboat.net, an ongoing research project by an amateur historian which I’ve enjoyed visiting since I first started using the internet in the mid-1990s.

Just looking at how many ships U-boats attacked during each war, it’s evident that the number of ships hit by submarines in the 1910s surpasses the totals of the 1940s: (more…)

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Memoirs of a Russian submariner

Posted in Books, Reading, Russian, War by Alex L. on January 22, 2012

Book coverIn high school English class, I was taught about the three general types of conflict that one may encounter in literature: Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Man, and Man vs. Self. Memoirs from combatants of the Second World War are often as exciting to read as literature because all three types of conflict figure into them on a grand scale. But there is a fourth type of conflict that we didn’t learn about in class but which, particularly for the men and women of the Soviet armed forces, added that extra dimension of drama: Man vs. Machine.

The nation that brought the world Lada and Zhiguli cars–which asked of their owners to spend nearly every weekend under their jacked-up chassis salving their ever-irritated metal bowels–produced submarines during WWII that would never quite pass muster in an American or German shipyard. This run-down state of submersible machinery can be fully appreciated by reading Victor Korzh’s memoir, Red Star Under the Baltic: A Soviet Submariner in WWII.

As the chief engineer aboard these subs, Korzh knew every nut and bolt and describes their mechanical failures with the technical detail befitting a master. But the inability of Soviet designers and shipyards to perfect submarine design is no stain on the reputation of the Russian sailor. On the contrary, the Russian submariners’ ability to not only survive but also sink many German merchantmen in the unforgiving seas of the Baltic is a testament to their boldness and technical ingenuity. (more…)

History off the press (September ’11 edition)

Posted in American, Books, Christianity, Culture, European, Islam, Music by Alex L. on October 21, 2011

New history books, September 2011

Below the fluorescent lights of an auditorium, a professor lectures to students about current historical ideas gleamed from countless of hours of collective research and collegiate debates. A journalist, after decades of reporting on current events in a foreign land, publishes a book about a historical subject she deems particularly important to understanding what is happening there today. A popular film gets released about the past that lights up the public imagination to a certain era of history.

Public recollection of the past happens in many ways. To follow every one of these events, which occur daily, is almost impossible. But patterns emerge from observation, though understanding why they occur is sometimes difficult. In the following previews of new books, I hope to draw attention to trends in the public discourse about history. A more detailed look at the context and causes of these dialogues, though, requires further research.

Fighting to the last

Ever since I first heard the lyrics of Alexander Gorodnitsky’s song “Atlases”, the Siege of Leningrad has become elevated in my mind as an eternal symbol of people’s remarkable ability to endure suffering and emerge victorious. The symbols and metaphors of the song are ingenious. In the famous Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg, there are sculptures of Atlas from Greek mythology that act as structural columns for a portico . The Soviet men and women who died to stymie the advance of Nazi warriors before Leningrad are, to Gorodnitsky, like the Atlases of the Hermitage, “up-holding the sky / with arms of stone”. (more…)