In his first effort, Gregory L. Owen has contributed a substantial addition to the World War II, U-Boat lexicon. _The Longest Patrol: A U-Boat Gunner's War_ is intended to be a biography based on the oral testimonies of Karl Baumann, a young Kriegsmarine anti-aircraft gunner aboard U-953 operating in the Bay of Biscay during the summer of 1944. This work is a modern day companion to Herbert A. Werner's classic, _Iron Coffins_, as Werner took over command of U-953 as one of the last U-Boats to escape the doomed port of Brest. The result is a unique blend of memoir, and the "you are there" approach to the rigors of daily life aboard a German U-boat immediately preceding the D-Day landings at Normandy, and the hectic weeks following.
Owen chronicles Baumann's life journey from a humble up-bringing in Germany's Ruhr region; his rugged breaking in as a cabin boy aboard a fishing trawler in the cold North Sea; his induction and training in the Kriegsmarine as an anti-aircraft gunner at the onset of World War II; mostly boring, yet at times harrowing U-boat patrols; his suffering a serious wound when the barrel of a 20mm AA gun exploded due to some seaborne obstruction; his languishing in a hospital at Brest during the bitter siege; to life as a POW at a Virginia POW camp, which prompted Baumann to remain in the United States after the war.
In addition to countless hours of interviews, with Baumann and other significant participants, Owen utilizes a variety of sources, including U-953's Kriegstagebuch, or KTB, the official war diary of the vessel. The author's use of original grid System Sea Charts to follow the route of U-boat patrols further supports his many hours of diligent research. Each source is cited properly in footnotes, with the addition of a Glossary of German terms both within the footnotes and at the end of the book. This method aides the reader enormously, allowing one to understand German terms without having to leave the page.
There are some low points in the narrative, as well as outstanding ones. At times, Owen's treatment of his subject is over-sympathetic. For example, when trying to get the point across that Baumann was "reluctantly coerced" into a Hitler Youth group, and that Baumann's service to the Nazi regime was never more than "unenthusiastic and grudging participation," Owen lays on the adjectives pretty thick. Curiously, in spite of hours of interviews, Owen never quotes his subject directly, but instead does all the talking for Baumann. While relying heavily on the KTB for the early U-Boat patrols, Baumann, like just another member of the boat's crew, is almost lost entirely. During this lull, the reader almost forgets that this book is primarily a biography.
Throughout, Owen's handling of the factual information is admirable. The author's descriptions of the failed creation of U-flak boats, the added anti-air gun platforms to conventional subs, and the disastrous tactics of luring enemy aircraft into a kill zone is well written. Likewise, his telling of the creation and later use of the Schnorchel device, which was fitted with varying result to a few boats, including U-953, is right on the mark. Owen's delving into both Canadian and German archival material, to create an almost moment-by-moment account of an encounter between U-953 and Canadian destroyers establishes his credentials as an historian, and lends to one of the most exciting parts of the book. Owen also mediates the controversial "ramming order," first presented by Werner admirably. This was the vague directive handed down that ordered a last ditch desperate attack by Biscay U-Boats against the Allied invasion fleet by any means possible (including ramming Allied shipping). Lastly, through Baumann, Owen sheds light into the daily life of a German POW housed in the United States, a growing topic to the study of the Second World War.
I believe the well informed student of the German U-Boat war will agree that Owen broke onto the scene with a well written and researched memoir and combat narrative. For the lay reader, or beginning enthusiast, this work is a must-add to your reading list.