U-571: Historically Accurate?

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  • Topic: World War II, Enigma machine, U-boat
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  • Published : September 24, 2006
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U-571: Historically Accurate?
U-571 was a movie released in April 2000 and directed by Johnathan Mostow. This movie depicted the capture of the Enigma cipher machine and other cryptographic documentation from a German U-boat by American forces disguised as Germans during spring 1942. According to the film makers, this film promised to be thrilling and exciting. Although the movie did live up to its promise, it fell short in the historical accuracy department.

This film was split in terms of what perspective it was told from. The movie began with the German perspective. The Germans carried out a routine mission in which they located an Allied ship, most likely a supply ship or merchant ship, and destroyed it in an effort to hinder supplies to the Allied forces in Britain. This already slightly skewed history since these attacks usually occurred between a convoy of ships and a team of U-boats in a system called the Rudel (wolf pack) by the Germans.

During this attack, all of the German mechanics died and the submarine was stranded until a German resupply boat could come along and help them out. It just so happened that this was one of the submarines carrying the top-secret Enigma machine. This was where the American perspective came into play. The United States Navy decided to take advantage of this situation. They converted a U.S. Navy S-class submarine into a replica of a German U-boat and sent it to "help" the stranded U-boat. The perspective of the film switched back and forth between the Germans and Americans until the Americans captured the German U-boat. From this point, everything was from the American point of view.

This leads to the most blatant historical inaccuracy I have ever seen. This movie portrayed the Americans as the victorious group who stole the Enigma from the Germans. This action was supposedly a consequential factor in breaking the German ciphers and helped turn the tide of the Battle of the Atlantic. This is, in fact, completely wrong. The Americans had not even entered the war yet when the Enigma machine and coding documents were captured from U-110 by the British ships HMS Bulldog and HMS Aubretia on May 9, 1941. There were 15 additional seizures of German Naval Enigma material which included materials from U-559 by HMS Petard in October 1942 and from the U-505 by the U.S. Navy Task Force 22.3 in June 1944. The capture of the U-505 was the first capture of an enemy vessel at sea in 129 years. In addition, this U.S. capture could have jeopardized the all-important Operation Overload (Battle of Normandy).

The film's historically inaccurate portrayal of these events caused great debate in Britain. The relatives of the two sailors, Royal Navy Lieutenant Tony Fasson and Able Seaman Colin Grazier, who lost their lives while retrieving the Enigma machine from U-559, were particularly outraged at the film. One former British naval officer was interviewed by BBC radio and stated that the film was "entertaining, though it had nothing to do with historical fact."

Another historical inaccuracy in the film was the portrayal of the German sailors. The Germans were made out to be cruel and dumb while the Americans were the nicest and bravest bunch of people ever seen. For example, at one point during the film, there were survivors from the German attack on the Allied supply ship floating around in a raft asking for help. Instead of stopping to help these survivors, as is the protocol during a war, the Germans ruthlessly opened fire on the defenseless crewmen, killing them in cold blood. This scene made it seem that the Germans had a policy of shooting any survivors. This, however, is not true. In the thousands of sinkings (about 2400) documented by the German U-boats, there was only one incident in which the crew of the U-boat deliberately attacked the survivors: that was the U-852 which was under Kpt.lt. Heinz-Wilhehm Eck, whose crew attacked survivors of the Greek ship Peleus.

The Germans were...
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