Schnellbootwaffe: Adolf Hitler’s Guerrilla War at Sea: S-Boote 1939-45

Reviewed by Capt. Richard Dick, USN (Ret.) 

Schnellbootwaffe is a volume in the extensive Images of War collection from Pen and Sword. The collection focuses primarily on presenting lesser-known archival and private photographs woven with captions and text. For some subjects like military animals in the First World War and the Brandenburger commandos in the Second, the Images of War provide real insight into lesser-known areas of military history. For other subjects, the Images of War volume is just another entry in a crowded field. 

Schnellbootwaffe has elements of both. The real strength of the book is not so much its photographs but the operational details of the crews, formations, and operations of S-boat flotillas in Western Europe and the Mediterranean. Hrvoje Spajic’s book presents little on S-boat operations on the Eastern Front. On the organization and operations on the Western and Mediterranean fronts, unfortunately in English, Spajic has to go head-to-head with Lawrence Paterson’s comprehensive Schnellboote: A Complete Operational History, originally published in 2016 by the U.S. Naval Institute. The two books clearly draw on the same operational archives but Paterson has the textual room to cover the field more extensively and intensively (although Paterson’s volume is more expensive). 

Spajic begins with a useful history of fast boat development in Germany, from its roots in speedboats before World War I through naval applications during and beyond the war itself. One crucial outcome of World War I for the Germans was the rejection of gasoline engines for fast boats. As a result, in the interwar years, MAN and Daimler Benz concentrated on high-speed marine diesels and succeeded brilliantly; S-boats consistently outran allied coastal forces during the Second World War. The other key German advance between the wars was the rudder arrangement developed by Friedrich Lurssen, a pioneer in motorboat development whose firm is still prominent in watercraft development to the present day. Lurssen’s concept reduced wave resistance at high speed and so increased speed capability and stability for a given horsepower. 

Spajic briefly describes some of the classes of S-boat developed before and during World War II. However, one of the weaknesses of his book is the lack of a table of characteristics and performance for the various S-boat classes, coupled with photographs of each class. This is particularly frustrating since few of the S-boat photographs in the book are captioned with the class of the craft in the picture.

The book then reviews S-boat operations in detail, especially those around Great Britain against coastal convoys and, eventually, against the invasion of Northwest Europe. There is some coverage of the Mediterranean but, as noted above, little information on the Eastern Front. The narrative concludes with the German surrender. 

As discussed previously, the strength of the book is its operational history, although those sections are sometimes difficult to follow as the author switches between locations and time periods. The pictures are well-reproduced and include some fine views of S-boats. However, many of the photos seem to have little to do with the S-boat story (a wedding in Harwich?). Also, the text needs better editing (spelling, grammar) and the translation from Croatian needs to be reviewed for vocabulary by an English speaker familiar with naval matters (e.g., discussing 20 mm. “missiles” instead of “shells’ or “rounds”). The text also suffers from some small technical errors (e.g., referring to HMS Birmingham as a heavy cruiser). 

This is the author’s first work in English. Given his research skills, this reviewer is confident his second will be better. Hrvoje Spajic is a prolific Croatian military historian and science writer. He lives with his family in Zagreb. 

Captain Dick is a retired submariner and also served for over 29 years in the defense intelligence community. 

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