Naval Warfare Books

Book reviews

The Approaching Storm

U-boats off the Virginia Coast during World War II

Chewning, Alpheus J.

1994, Brandylane
ISBN 0962763594
Paperback (large format), 171 pages, over 100 b&w photos

Type. General History
Pros. Includes some rare photos, detailed accounts of a number of ship sinkings
Cons. Disorganized, contains a few errors

This large-format, glossy-paper book by an amateur historian details ship/U-boat encounters in Virginia waters during World War II. While it contains valuable data and photos, it also contains a few errors and is generally somewhat disorganized.

One of the book's two major strong points is its many previously unpublished photos, including some grim ones documenting the recovery and burial of the bodies of drowned crewmen of U-85. Among the more than 100 photos and other illustrations are a few wartime posters from both sides of the conflict, cartoons from newspapers, and other visual aids to understanding the wartime events.

The other strength of the book is its coverage of sinkings. Chapter 3, spanning 75 pages, is the meat of the book, presenting chronological stories of 63 ships, several paragraphs each, often with photo; plus a few pages devoted to U-701 based on an interview by the author with commander Horst Degen; and an account of convoy KS-520. Appendix A lists critical data on 73 ships, including nationality, owner, name of master, place/date built, dimensions, GRT, number of crew, number of survivors, cargo, attacking U-boat, and position of sinking.

The reasons for the inclusion of specific ships in the narrative and appendix are not stated, a symptom of the general disorganization of the book. Based on an analysis of the ship stories, it appears that the author's aim was to list the ships sunk, or attacked, in Virginia waters or after setting off from Virginia ports; as well as those sunk in other waters, survivors from which were brought to Virginia ports.

Appendix A, mentioned above, is not titled, but the 73 ships included seem to match the criteria above. Appendix B is titled "U-boats Operating off US Coast" and includes U-boat type, commission date, home port/flotilla, total ships sunk, months in active service, commander during time under discussion, actions taken during this time (i.e., ships sunk or damaged), and final fate. Appendix C is not titled, and lists statistics on two U-boat types - IXB and VIIC.

The book is generally accurate in terms of data, although a few incorrect U-boats are associated with attacked ships, possibly because new information has come to light since the book's publication. Spelling is another matter - samples from the first few pages include Mackeral for Mackerel, Gruman for Grumman, Deluth for Duluth, Cardif for Cardiff, Fins for Finns, and many more.

The framing story of the U-boat war is also a bit shaky. The Introduction covers U-boat operations in World War I and in World War II up to end of 1941 in a few pages. Chapter 1, titled "The Enemy", in 5 pages furnishes an outline of Operation Drumbeat, an overview of U-boat layout and living conditions, and a brief summary of U-boat visits to the US coast after 1942. Chapter 2, entitled "The Weapons", is a 7-page overview of US defenses, coastal patrols, and friendly fire incidents. Chapter 3, sinking stories, was described above. Chapter 4, "The Survivors," sums up the last few years of the U-boat war in five pages.

The book is well researched as far as ships' histories, with a respectable bibliography (and a useful glossary), but it is obvious that the author's main intention was to tell some ships' tales, and that the framing narrative was added in an attempt to round out the book. But for those interested in the subject matter, the book is definitely worthwhile just for the photos and ship information.

Review written by Tonya Allen.

Published on 11 Apr 2002.

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