Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Clay Blair - 1994
 - Washington Island, Wisconsin

Notes:  Several months ago I ran a seven-part series of an interview with Clay Blair that was recorded in February of 1994.  Unfortunately, I had not properly operated the recorder during the second afternoon, overriding the first part of our interview in which Clay talked about his early days in becoming a writer.  
  I had one other tape that was recorded also in February of 1994 when Clay was invited to speak to the Island Writers, a group of 20 or so persons gathered in the meeting room of the Rec Center.  From the interest of several readers of this blog in the writing life of the Blairs, I decided to transcribe this tape, too.  During this taped presentation - which is very difficult to understand because I sat with my tape recorder several rows from the front - Clay does talk about writing and how he became a writer.  I had found it interesting then, and did so recently, too, when I transcribed the tape.  
  Due to its length, as with the previous transcribed interview, I've chosen to break it up into several installments.  This first installment describes his latest project with wife Joan Blair, a book about the German U-boats in WWII.   Although some of this information is covered in the prior interview installments, rather than cut-and-paste and have it not flow, I've chosen to reprint it here as he spoke it.   The parts that occurred where his words were unintelligible I've edited from the final copy you see below.  -  Dick Purinton

AN ISLAND WRITERS GROUP MEETING AT REC CENTER WITH CLAY BLAIR – [Recorded the evening of 2/24/94… in which Clay talks about his early years, getting started into journalism, and his interest in military history.]

I am asked to talk about – if I understand the format – how I got to be a writer.

The one question I can’t answer is, how you get a literary agent.  I don’t know that answer. 

To the present project…that we’re now very happily winding up after seven years of work, basically a history of the German U-boat war in World War II.   As some of you probably know – but not all of you, because you’re too young – in WWII, in the Atlantic Ocean, there was a horrendous naval war that went on for all of six years.  You may have seen movies about it, the German super-battleship Bismark, the actions in the Atlantic.  The principle weapon that the Germans had to use against the Allies was the U-boat, or submarine, and they built about 1200 of them during this long, long six years of war.   They didn’t have 600 when the war started, or any such numbers as that, but during the full course of the war they built a lot of submarines, and lost a lot of submarines.  This was a very complex war, in that nothing like this had ever been fought before on this scale or this magnitude.

At the end of the war, the very end of the war, the last days of the Third Reich when Hitler and his cronies were holed up in a bunker at the Reich Chancellery.   Hitler decreed – he was crazy then, crazier than he was – that all the records of the German navy be destroyed.   And this was part of the general destroying of documents that went on in the bunker, that he ordered others to do so.  

But the German navy was a little bit apart from the Nazi party, a little bit aloof.  Mostly at sea, they had their own network of people and installations, and by and large throughout the entire reign of Hitler they were aloof or removed from the Nazi party.  And it was not untypical that when Hitler gave his order to destroy all records, that they wouldn’t do it.   In fact, the chief archivist of the German navy packed all of these records into a box – boxes – into about 20 or 30 trucks and drove them out of Berlin in the midst of Russian shelling.  The Russians by now had almost encircled Berlin – and they drove madly through the night to a castle named Kambach (?) and there the archivist and his helpers buried all of these records, all throughout the grounds of this castle.    And within a few days, Patton’s Third Army came right through there.  And attached to Patton’s Third Army was a British intelligence unit, and they made contact with the guard there and dug up all these records, and the British air force took them to London, where they had possession of the entire German naval archive dating back from 1850.   Now they added hundreds of documents up to WWII, and this included hundreds – no thousands, tens of thousands – hundreds of thousands of pages of documents of U-boat war patrol reports, headquarter diaries, listing of the U-boat command, the whole naval command, and the daily diaries.  Everything you could possibly imagine was in these boxes. 

After the war, as you know, we had wartime scholars at Nuremburg, and the British, particularly, were out to hang the German navy people for engaging in submarine war against our shipping, submarine warfare of the type known as unrestricted warfare,  whereby you just shot at a ship of any kind, without any warning, without time for people to get into lifeboats and so forth.  In any case, in order to make the case against the German naval seniors, the English had tens of thousands of pages of these war diaries translated into English.   So that by the time the barristers were combing through these documents, looking for something they could hang the German admirals with, like an order to machine gun the survivors of a sunken battleship, or destroy all evidence of its sinking.  But, they didn’t find that because the Germans fought a clean war, cleaner than we expected, cleaner than the one we fought against Japan.   

And so it came to trial, and the admirals were the least punished of all the German war criminals. 
These documents were then classified, and put in British archives.  (They generously gave us a microfilm of all these documents.)   These documents were then kept under lock and key for about 30 years, and the reason for this was that code breaking played such an enormous role in both the German U-boat attacks against our shipping, and our attacks against U-boats.   In other words, the Germans were breaking our codes, and we were breaking their codes, so that you could see by the anti-warfare documents the stuff they had done, and were very proud of, and if you could put it (our ship movements) against the submarine patrol reports by the Germans, you could see that one boat (of ours) make a change of course followed by the German U-boat changing its course, also.   And you’d say, “Holy smokes, what’s going on here?”  

And the answer is, that they were reading our codes, and we were reading their codes.  So every time the enemy made an adjustment, the other side had to react to it. 

So the British and the Americans entered into an agreement after the war to withhold, as tightly as anything has ever been withheld, all documents related to code breaking even though the U-boat documents were not directly related to code breaking.  So, these records remained secret for many years.  All kinds of U-boat books came out, some trash, some that were fairly good books, but they were not very accurate and they never told about the war in any kind of detail, because these records had not been released. 

And in the mid-70s when the British published several books about code breaking, several unauthorized books, then their government started releasing documents on code breaking, and not long after that, the U-boat records.   So that one could finally take the primary documents relating to this war, this six-year war, and write a history about it.   And at the same time, overlay or underlay all the programming as applied to the U-boat activity.

Quite a few years ago, in 1975, we wrote the definitive history of American submarine warfare against Japan.  This was quite well received.  And we were asked to write the German U-boat history, but we couldn’t do it because these records were still locked up.    So we did all those other books.  And finally, everything came together:  money, with much commitment from the publisher; documents; code breaking declassification.  And so one could write this story for the first time in an authoritative way.  
And, I will say in conclusion, it’s an insanity!  Total insanity!  We’ve got … we went to London, Washington, where we made a copy of all the microfilm.  London is where they had all the records.   Germany, where we went to get the German U-boat skippers’ records.  And we have, besides microfilm and books, hundreds of thousands of papers and documents in our house.   I must repeat, that to undertake such a project, we had to be crazy.   And over the seven years that we pursued it, we’ve grown crazier and crazier!  

And now, we’re almost done.  The book will be probably about this size, about 1000 published pages.   It will take probably a year to review every last final word, and a whole year to copy edit and process this book, to give us a legal reading.  We have to do the index, a mind-boggling index … just thousands and thousands of people and U-boats, that we can’t even deal with it.  

Hopefully the book will be out and arrive by the 50th anniversary of the conclusion of the war with the Germans. 

We found out a lot of amazing things about this war which I do believe will compel historians writing after us to change their views on U-boats based on what we found - generally speaking - that German U-boats were a failure, were a flop, badly built, wrong type of submarines for the mission, and a number of other things.  We tended to treat German submarines as being “ten feet tall” and they weren’t.  They weren’t “pygmies” at all, either, but all kinds of serious historians have made all kinds of very serious statements to the effect that these U-boats delayed our overthrowing the Germans in France and various other claims.  

But our research has shown us that in the entire war, the U-boats sank only 1/10 of one percent of shipping.  In other words, 99 point something-or-other got through.   So, anything said at all about the U-boats is basically nebulous. 

That’s the end of that!

So now, we’ll talk about … how much time do we have left?  20 minutes?  I was going to read a chapter! (laughter from audience)

  End Part I -  Dick Purinton


Bill Tobey said...

Thanks again, Dick! I'm well into "The Hunters" and have "The Hunted" as well, both bought from Amazon. Very interesting reading that I never would have tumbled across if it hadn't been for you and the transcribed interviews and recordings.

Thumbs up!

Bill Tobey said...

Thanks again, Dick! I'm well into "The Hunters" and have "The Hunted" as well, both bought from Amazon. Very interesting reading that I never would have tumbled across if it hadn't been for you and the transcribed interviews and recordings.

Thumbs up!