How do they do it? I do not know. I have heaped praise on other books in this range before and along they come with another gem.

This extraordinary set of images comes from a photo album which belonged to a torpedo man named Willi Wilke, who served on the U-108 from October, 1940, to September, 1942.

The book begins with brief notes about the album and the service career of the submarine, which was sunk in 1944 and then salvaged; although it was no longer fit for war service. But the real power is in the exceptional photographs and the superb captions, which are truly outstanding. Make no mistake, this book is a masterpiece.

U-boat U-108 during World War II
U-boat U-108 during World War II

However good a sailor Willie Wilke was I will never know, but as a photographer he was a class act. He could handle either portraiture or general photography with aplomb and I would suggest he may have had some formal training. Even if you are not usually interested in the submarine war, there is something genuinely appealing about this book that just draws the reader in. It is in the characters of the crewmembers and situations of daily submariner life. The whole thing becomes real to an extent I found surprising. There is something haunting about it and I don’t want to be a windbag prattling on to labour the point.

By far the most significant photographs show the sinking of the Effna, a British merchant ship. The close ups of the British merchant sailors about to be cast adrift to die in frozen seas are some of the saddest photographs I have ever seen in all my years working at my day job in news photography – twenty six going on twenty seven to be precise. I walk past the Merchant Navy memorial at Tower Hill most days and now have a new reason to stop in addition to remembering the ships associated with my family.

The photographs of Willie Wilke’s crewmates remind us of the human cost for all sides in World War II. Alistair Smith’s marvellous captions tell us so much about the men shown, they become more than just faces. Thinking back to the Effna, I could end with some pithy reference to those in peril on the sea or perhaps you fancy a few bars of Will Your Anchor Hold. I’m sorry I’ve run out of nautical hymnal references so just do as you’re told go and buy the flipping book. You will not be disappointed.

Mark Barnes

U-108 at WAR
By Alistair Smith
Published in soft back by Pen & Sword Maritime £12.99
ISBN: 978 1 84884 667 8


Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.