A Sailor of Austria
Years ago, after seeing a revival of a certain musical involving an Austrian naval captain and his children’s governess, I remember a college friend declaring, with the utmost seriousness, that the plot had a ridiculous error: everyone knows that Austria couldn’t have had a navy because it’s a land-locked country. I wish I had been able to hand that chemistry major a copy of A Sailor of Austria.
The narrator is Otto Prohaska, of Czech and Polish parentage, who is assigned to a submarine in the 1915 Austrian Imperial Navy. His first command of the U-8 is far from glamorous—petrol fumes nearly kill the crew, the toilet explodes, and they have no real sleeping or cooking facilities. A bout of indigestion caused by bad rations sends them to the surface for fresh air, right beside an Italian cruiser, enabling Prohaska’s men to be the first crew to sink a ship due to flatulence.
The author’s sense of the ridiculous shows in other incidents, such as whores refusing crewmembers because their breath reeks of petrol, or being assigned to transport a young camel, a present for their Emperor, inside the U-boat from North Africa to Crete. Yet it isn’t a war comedy, a la M*A*S*H. The reader gains a real sense of time and place in the Austrian submarine service. War technology buffs will appreciate Biggins’s attention to getting equipment details right. He includes explanations of abbreviations, place names, maps, and ship diagrams. Readers preferring a human emphasis in their stories will find plenty to like in Prohaska’s flashback to his childhood and his romance of a Romanian countess.
World War I was not previously very high on my list of favorite eras to read about, but I finished this book wanting to learn more. Excellent military fiction.