Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. “The Sound of Music” and the Real Captain von Trapp


I see that this year marks the 60th anniversary of “The Sound of Music” as a Broadway play. If you’ve seen the 1965 move that was based on this play…and who hasn’t?…you’ll remember Captain von Trapp. The real Captain’s real-life children were not thrilled with the way he was portrayed in the movie–according to them, he was by no means that rigid disciplinarian who summoned the children with a bosun’s whistle and required them to line up in military formation. (The bosun’s whistle was real, but only for communication purposes on the large estate…no lining-up involved.)

The movie was indeed correct that Captain von Trapp was a former naval officer whose services were much desired by the Nazis after their takeover of Germany and, later, Austria… and that he wanted absolutely nothing to do with them. His memoir, To the Last Salute, was originally published in German in 1935 and later translated into French; an English translation has only become available fairly recently.

Captain von Trapp could not be called a brilliant writer, but he does achieve some nice descriptive and reflective passages. Here, he is returning from a patrol very early in the First World War, when he was commanding a torpedo boat:

We had been out all night searching for enemy ships that had been reported, but once again, had found nothing. Far out in the Adriatic we had investigated, looked, and looked, and again came back disappointed through the “Incoronate,” the rocky, barren island,s that extend in front of the harbor at Sebenico…These islands look bleak; nevertheless, years ago people found them and still live there…It is a heavenly trip there between the islands with the many large and small inlets swarming with fish. But it is most beautiful in the wind still nights, which are uniquely animated.

From one place or another, red and white lights flash on and off. They are the beacons that flash their warnings to the ships. Out of the many inlets merge innumerable fishermen’s boats. Some are under sail, hauling big nets; others, sculled about almost silently by heavy steering rudders, search the water with strong lanterns…As they put out to sea, the people always sing their ancient folk songs: ballads with countless verses, wild war cries, soft, wistful love songs…

The war broke into this peaceful world. Traveling between the islands changed overnight…The singing has become silent, for fishing is forbidden, and the men are fighting in the war…Mines lie between the islands. At any moment an enemy periscope, or a plane with bombs, could appear, and the nights have become exceptionally interesting; there are no more beacons. The war has extinguished them.

Soon, Captain von Trapp was reassigned to command of a submarine,the U-5. This boat was one of a type that was extremely primitive, even by WWI standards. Propulsion for running on the surface was not a diesel but a gasoline engine, and gasoline fumes were a constant headache, often in a very literal sense.

The Captain seems not to have thought a great deal about the rights and wrongs of the war. As a professional, at this stage, he also felt no animus toward the men it was his duty to attack; quite the contrary. Here, after sinking a French cruiser:

I quickly scan the horizon. Is there absolutely no escort ship? Did they let the ship travel all alone? Without a destroyer? WIthout a torpedo boat? No, there is nothing in sight, only five lifeboats adrift in the water.

After discussing the matter with his exec and determining that there was no feasible way to take the survivors on board:

With a heavy heart, I order the engines to be turned on, and I set a course for the Gulf of Cattaro. “They let our men from the Zenta drown, too,” I hear one of the men say. The man is right, but I cannot bear to hear that yet. With a sudden movement, I turn away. I feel a choking in my throat. I want to be alone.

I feel as if something were strangling me…So that’s what war looks like! There behind me hundreds of seamen have drowned, men who have done me no harm, men who did their duty as I myself have done, against whom I have nothing personally; with whom, on the contrary, I have felt a bond through sharing the same profession. Approximately seven hundred men must have sunk with the ship!

On returning to base, von Trapp found numerous letters of congratulation waiting for him, one from an eighth-grade Viennese schoolgirl. To thank her for the letter, he arranged to have a Pruegelkrapfen from a noted confectioner to be delivered to her. “The outcome of all this is unexpected. Suddenly it seems all the Viennese schoolgirls have gotten the writing bug because it rains little letters from schoolgirls who are so happy and so on. But such a Pruegelgrapfen is expensive and, at the moment, I don’t have time to open a bakery myself.”

On one patrol, U-5 met up with an allied German U-boat, and von Trapp had an opportunity to go onboard. He was quite impressed with the diesel engine, compartmentalization of the boat, the electrically-adjustable periscopes, and even creature comforts like tables for dining. “It’s like being in Wonderland…” The German commander’s comment, on visiting U-5, was “I would refuse to travel in this crate.”

The worst thing about the Crate was the persistent gasoline fumes. Captain von Trapp describes one attack that had to be carried out after there had been very little time on the surface to ventilate the boat:

A couple of minutes later, five men lie poisoned and unconscious on the floor, and the rest who are still able to work are overcome by a nausea and a headache that feels as if an iron band were clamped around their head. ..After each lookout I correct my course and speed. The closer we two enemies get, the slower our U-boat has to travel so that the periscope doesn’t create a wake. Suddenly I feel as if the floor were giving way under my feet; I have to sit down on a folding stool in front of the periscope. “Hermann, wake me in three minutes! Ten degrees starboard! And I collapse on my seat.

These attacks were conducted mostly against French and Italian ships; sometimes British. As the United States–still officially neutral–began increasingly putting its weight on the side of the Allied Powers, von Trapp did not find our conduct to be rational or fair.

President Wilson has openly joined England’s side. He wants to eliminate the Central Powers’ most dangerous weapon, the U-boats, and with the cheap slogan: “upholding the most sacred of human rights” he pushes for the safe passage of passenger steamers. A free American citizen must be able to move about wherever he wants to, and on every steamer–even English ones–he must be certain of his life.

At the same time, these transports filled with munitions and troops are dispatched to England and are armed. So woe if a Yankee war supplier gets a scratch when he happens to go to England to conclude his business! It is only luck that they have no business transactions in enemy trenches; if they had, they might also have to be under protection there.

On shore leaves, von Trapp heard increasingly frequent stories about corruption and also saw evidence of the disaffection of some of the nationalities and ethnic groups within the Austro-Hungarian empire. While having some shipyard work done in his submarine, he observed that “the work is actually delayed. It is quite similar to Penelope’s tapestry: mysterious forces impede the construction. The crew is suspicious.” He thought it likely that Czechs working in the shipyard were deliberately slowing the work, noting that “At the American declaration of war, they supposedly really celebrated, but you can’t pin anything on them.”

As the war continued, Captain von Trapp was not able to maintain the “it’s nothing personal” orientation toward the enemy with which he started the war:

It is exactly one year since I sank the Leon Gambetta; I can well remember how I had felt then. But…during this past year much has changed. I have been home on leave. There I watched my children eat beetroot; meat, vegetables, butter, and eggs are not even talked about anymore. I heard that gypsum was mixed into the flour for bread and that supposedly coffee was made of roasted May beetles.. When you had to eat the stuff, you could almost believe it. I have seen women who couldn’t nurse their own children because they themselves had nothing more to eat, and children, even very small ones, who had to be fed with a substitute tea…Today I would not have any scruples about sinking my first cruiser. Since my leave I understood what the enemy means by “war”—annihilation. And the whole future generation would be annihilated with it.

I was aware of the widespread hunger that existed in Germany during the latter half of the First World War; it makes sense that this would have been the case in Austria as well. The food shortage was caused largely by the very effective British blockade of the Central Powers, together with unavailability of food shipments from Russia–now an enemy–together with a bad harvest in Germany in 1916 and reduced availability of manpower for farm work. Some estimates (see also here) put the number of excess deaths attributable to the blockade at 400,000 to more than 700,000 in Germany, and about 450,000 throughout the Austro -Hungarian empire.

Captain von Trapp’s feelings about this human suffering are very understandable, but he should have directed part of his anger toward the political and military authorities of Austria-Hungary and its ally Germany, who had taken their countries to war without proper consideration of the likely chain of events when an import-dependent power takes on the world’s greatest sea power and also cuts off a primary source of land-based supply. It surely would have been psychologically difficult for a commander to do this in the middle of the war, but apparently, when this book was written and published in the mid-1930s, he was still viewing the Allies as the main blameworthy party for the civilian suffering he had seen. (It should be noted that the blockade continued after the armistice, in full force until January 17 of 1919…after this date, Germany was invited to send ships to Allied ports to transport food to Germany…it did not do so until March because of fear that the ships would be confiscated. It should also be noted that during the war there had been widespread hunger in occupied Belgium and Northern France because of German confiscation of the harvest.)

The outcome of the war represented a geopolitical disaster for Austria-Hungary: the empire ceased to exist. Also, the remaining Austrian state lost access to the sea. At the end of the war, von Trapp writes:

The next morning at 8:00 the Austro-Hungarian flag is to be raised for the last time with a twenty-one-gun salute and thereafter lowered forever…Slowly and solemnly I personally raise the flag, wait for the gun salute , and take her down again. For the very last time! Tears stream down every face.

When von Trapp returned home, his wife Agathe told the children, “You must be very sweet and kind to Papa because he lost the war and the Navy.”

Overall, the book provides an interesting and human view of the submarine war from the enemy side. Captain von Trapp was, I think, a very decent man who followed his Emperor without too much question, but drew the line firmly at the outright evil cause represented by Naziism.

(This review was originally posted at Chicago Boyz, as part of the Nautical Book Project, which can be accessed via this link.)

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  1. CarolJoy, Above Top Secret Coolidge

    Captain von Trapp was a wonderful writer. His descriptions of the islands extending outwards from Sebenico were heart felt.

    As far as the idea that he should have been persuaded to change gears in his thinking after realizing how WWI was causing Germany to suffer, that is not a realistic expectation. Soldiers fighting wars start to blame the enemy – regardless of which side started it or which side could have avoided it. While fighting a battle, they do not have the time or energy to decide on which of their native politicians might also share part of the blame.

    War is hell. Having studied far too many wars that were fought for who knows what reasons, I sure hope that those high ranking ministers, bankers, and politicians who have set up nations to fight in pointless conflicts like the trench warfare of WWI, deserve a special spot reserved for them in hell.

    • #1
    • December 10, 2019, at 4:55 PM PST
  2. Larry3435 Inactive

    That is a story that goes straight to the heart, and is much needed in this time when good hearts are in sore short supply.

    • #2
    • December 10, 2019, at 4:58 PM PST
  3. MichaelKennedy Coolidge

    Nice post. I have spent some time reading about the origins of WWI. It is far more complicated than the Barbara Tuchman version. France bore some responsibility as it was funding and arming Russia.

    • #3
    • December 10, 2019, at 5:29 PM PST
  4. Boss Mongo Member

    Outstanding. Thank you.

    • #4
    • December 10, 2019, at 6:10 PM PST
  5. The Reticulator Member

    David Foster: If you’ve seen the 1965 move that was based on this play…and who hasn’t?

    I’ve seen good parts of it. Maybe more than half. Does that count? I remember when it came out in 1965. Lots of people around me saw it. 

    • #5
    • December 10, 2019, at 7:18 PM PST
  6. MichaelKennedy Coolidge

    When I lived in New Hampshire, I visited the von Trapp inn in Vermont. There were still some family members associated.

    • #6
    • December 11, 2019, at 8:32 AM PST
  7. Dan Campbell Member

    There is a series of four fiction books that follow the adventures of an Austro-Hungarian Navy officer. The first book, A Sailor of Austria, tells of our hero’s service as a U-Boat commander. Capt. von Trapp is mentioned in passing as a friend of the fictional Otto Prohaska. While the series is fiction, the research that went into writing it is phenomenal. The author, John Biggins, must have read von Trapp’s book. In any case, I highly recommend the series.

    • #7
    • December 11, 2019, at 12:04 PM PST
  8. Barry Jones Thatcher

    Von Trapp ended the war as one of Austro-Hungary’s most successful U-Boat captains credited with over a dozen kills to include a couple of warships (which is HUGE for the Mediterranean theater). His wife(as in the mother of his children portrayed in the movie, Maria had an additional 3) was the granddaughter of Robert Whitehead who was the guy that invented the self propelled torpedo.

    • #8
    • December 11, 2019, at 1:40 PM PST
  9. David Foster Member
    David Foster Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Barry Jones (View Comment):
    His wife(as in the mother of his children portrayed in the movie, Maria had an additional 3) was the granddaughter of Robert Whitehead who was the guy that invented the self propelled torpedo.

    Fascinating…I didn’t know that.

    • #9
    • December 11, 2019, at 2:08 PM PST
  10. Front Seat Cat Member

    I love that movie and watched it again this year. I mentioned to my husband that there are generations who haven’t seen it and don’t know the story. A few years ago we saw a Christmas concert featuring the Von Trapp great-grandchildren who travel and sing. It was so moving to hear their beautiful voices and knowing their history!

    When I lived in Ma, I worked at Babson with a Mr. Bill Cruickshank, a dear man who has since passed away. He and his wife invited several of us for lunch and I learned that he was saved after being wounded in the war by one of the von Trapp boys. Here is the story:

    “Before attending Babson, Cruickshank served with the 10th Mountain Division during WWII, patrolling primarily on skis. He was wounded while serving in Europe and rescued by a member of the Trapp family, with whom he remains friends.”

    I also remember hearing that they escaped by train, not car and walking into Switzerland?

    • #10
    • December 21, 2019, at 5:54 AM PST