They made us all train for this day. "To be fearless and proud and alone. To need no one,
just sacrifice. All for the Fatherland."
The film is the story of a single mission of one World War II U-Boat, U - 96, and its crew. It depicts both the excitement of battle and the tedium of the fruitless hunt, and shows the men serving aboard U-boats as ordinary individuals with a desire to do their best for their comrades and their country. The story is based on an amalgamation of the exploits of the real U-96.
The story is told from the viewpoint of Lt. Werner, who has been assigned as a war correspondant on the German Submarine U-96 in October 1941. He joins its Captain, who is only named as der Alte ("the Old Man") and Chief Engineer Leitender Ingenieur. As the U-96 officers, including the "1WO" (the First [watch] Officer, and "2WO" (the Second [watch] Officer, drink in a cabaret Kapitänleutnant Phillip Thomsen, celebrating his award, gives a crude drunken speech in which he mocks Hitler.
The next morning, they sail out of the harbour to cheering crowds, Thomsen sends them off by saying "Hail victory and happy hunting!" Werner is given a full tour of the boat by Chief Bosun Lumprecht and becomes acquainted with the rest of the crew. As time passes, he learns the routine of being crammed together with forty people in a small space. Werner can neither relate to the officers nor the tough enlisted crew. The boredom is only broken by occasional airplane sightings, practice crash dives, and listening to morse code on the radio. He is able to make friends with Cadet Ullman, and sympathizes with his problem---French Partisans might kill his French fiancée, Françoise, if it is revealed her child is half-German.
Initially, the U-96 fails to make contact with the enemy but finally they're informed that U-32 has sighted a convoy somewhere within their search grid. A thick fog reduces visibility on the surface to zero, and they dive so that they can use the hydrophones. They locate a British destroyer and while preparing to attack, the U-96 is itself hit by depth charges. The boat is lightly damaged and they resurface safely a few hours later.
Amidst an outbreak of crab lice, U-96 is unlucky enough to get caught in a massive storm. After a week of enduring the relentless storm, with little rest or sleep, even the sea-hardened crew is pushed to the limit. They are somewhat cheered when they randomly meet Thomsen's boat, but the Captain realizes that a huge part of the sea is unpatrolled when two boats operate in such close proximity. The misfortunes, which range from large to small - horrible weather, a crewman (Pilgrim) nearly getting swept off the boat, learning their favorite soccer team lost, never hearing from Thomsen or other boats again, and radio broadcasts detailing how the war is turning against Germany - sends the crew's morale even lower. Shortly after the storm ends, the U-96 encounters a British convoy and, with support from several U-boats in the area, torpedoes the convoy. They are forced to dive below the submarine's rated limits when they are spotted by a destroyer, and they sustain damage, but they cannot surface until they're sure that the pursuit has ended.
The entire crew falls silent to minimize noise and avoid detection. Chief Mechanic Johann has a mental breakdown and is restrained before the Captain threatens to shoot him with his Walther P38. The U-96 sustains heavy damage and nearly implodes while Werner retreats to the officers' bunk with one of the LI's pictures from home. He wakes up six hours later, amazed that they survived. After hours of silent running, the boat resurfaces safely in darkness. There is one tanker remaining afloat and on fire. The Captain orders a single torpedo to be launched into her, and the crew is stunned when they see surviving British sailors are desperately leaping overboard, swimming towards them. Following orders not to take prisoners, the Captain gives the command to abandon the doomed sailors and backs the ship away. As the Captain is updating the ship's logs, Johann apologizes to the Captain for his actions, and is forgiven in consideration of his several tours of duty. Despite a radio message about another convoy contact from Captains Kupsch and Stackmann, U-96 has nearly exhausted its fuel supply and must return to base.
The worn-out U-boat crew look forward to returning home in time for christmas, but the ship is ordered to Italy, which means passing through the Straits of Gibralter— an area firmly controlled by the British navy. The destination has been changed as the U-96 has been assigned to help secure Filed Marshal Rommel' ssupply routes in the Mediterranean. Unable to let Werner and the LI perish, the Captain arranges for them to be taken ashore once they stop to resupply.
Before going to Gibraltar, U-96 makes a secret night rendezvous in neutral Vigo, Spain with the Weser, an interned German liner that clandestinely provides U-boats with fuel, torpedoes, and other supplies. After months in the filthy, cramped submarine, living on canned food and moldy bread, the crew clearly feels out of place amidst the appointments of the luxury liner. The U-96 officers meet pampered, decadent Nazi officers who believe German propaganda about the glorious life of the "grey wolves." In a subtle indication of how the crew's opinions of one another is changing that the liner's officers mistake the 1WO for the U-boat's captain, as he is the only officer in uniform, but he firmly corrects them. The following sumptuous meal has many features of a Henkersmahlzeit, the final meal before an execution.
During the dinner, the Captain receives his orders for the mission from the Weser's naval attache, as well as a radiogram from headquarters denying his request for Werner and the LI to be sent home. The crew finishes resupplying and the U-96 departs Spain for Gibraltar. The Captain plans to take advantage of the surface currents in the narrow Straits, and enter the Straits with his engines off, submerging only at the last possible moment. They are nearly successful, but as they prepare to dive, the boat is spotted and attacked by a British fighter plane, wounding the navigator. The Captain sends the boat south, towards the African coast, at full speed; British ships begin closing in and she is forced to dive. When U-96 attempts to level off, the forward diving planes do not respond and the boat continues to sink.
Just before the boat sinks below the depth at which the water pressure would crush it, it is lucky to catch on a shelf at 280 meters (918 feet). However, it has sustained critical damage while passing through Gibraltar, and the crew must make numerous repairs before they run out of oxygen. First, the crew works to stop the flooding in the engine room. Afterwards, they dump the water into the bilge beneath the control room and begin work to repair the heavily damaged diesel engines and batteries. To preserve oxygen, all crewmen who are not working go to sleep and breathe from their rescue gear. After over sixteen hours, they surface by blowing out their ballast of water, and limp home under the cover of darkness to La Rochelle.
Their return to La Rochelle on Christmas Eve is a little less triumphant than their departure; the boat is battered, the crew is pale and weary after their long tour. The wounded navigator is taken ashore to a waiting ambulance, but as soon as Admiral Donitzcomes aboard for an inspection, Allied planes strafe the facilities. Werner, the LI, the 1WO, Pilgrim, Frenssen, the Chief Bosun, Schwalle, and Dufte take refuge in the secure U-Boat Bunker, though most of the men are wounded. After the raid, Werner leaves the bunker and is horrified when he sees the lifeless bodies of Johann, Ullmann, and the 2WO, their bodies riddled with bullets and crushed by concrete. Looking towards the entry passage he finds the Captain, with multiple bullet wounds and bleeding from the mouth, watching the U-96 sink at the dock. When the Captain collapses after the conning tower disappears, Werner rushes to his side, then backs away in horror.
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