How to Dress a Submariner

Hell Below was filmed aboard two Second World War era submarines, the USS Cod in Cleveland, Ohio and U-995 in Laboe, Germany. We had great sets, an incredibly talented crew and a wealth of performers to work with.  In order to really bring the visuals to life, we needed to be as authentic as possible with the period costuming.  Our talented Production Coordinator and Designer Dalila Jovanovic tells us how to dress a submariner.

At first, the insignia, ranking systems, and even the hue of the uniforms, was daunting.  After many hours of research, I breathed a sigh of relief as both the American and German submarine uniform requirements were much less rigid once sailors left port.  The men would pack away their best clothing for their return to base.  On board, they were able to wear whatever made them most comfortable.  For the Americans, this usually meant khakis, t-shirts, undershirts, etc.  Aboard German U-Boats, it would appear that they usually dressed down their battledress.

Sam Dealey and his Crew Aboard USS Harder
Sam Dealey and his Crew Aboard USS Harder

The American costumes were easy enough to replicate.  Our friend Paul Farace at the USS Cod provided us with many of the American khakis seen in the show.  In our Destroyer Killer episode, we borrowed authentic battledress from one of our re-enactors to replicate what a group of Australian commandos might have worn for a rescue mission.   All in all, Cleveland was good to us.

The real challenges came with our German episodes.  While the Kriegsmarine active duty wear was “casual”, we still had to replicate their battledress and source the proper caps for a number of Commanders.  Luftwaffe and SS Officer uniforms are fairly accessible but the U-boat costumes are a truly niche market.  After many sketchy website visits, we started building costumes by U-boat compartment.

There were a number of looks that needed to be replicated.  The Deck Watch crew might wear one of two options.  The first a sleek, grey leather reefer style jacket.  The second being foul-weather wear, consisting of sea-boots, black over-trousers, large waterproof black coats, balaclavas and sou’westers.  This was designed to help crew brave the Atlantic weather on the deck.  Crew below deck often wore sweaters or a “Canadian lumberjack”/ plaid civilian shirt.  The Commander of the U-boat would wear his white peaked cap to show his status.

Production Still from HellBelow: The Wolfpack
Production Still from HellBelow: The Wolfpack

In the end, the Kriegsmarine battledress uniforms were a patchwork of hipster flannel shirts, Dickie’s grey trousers, U-Boat war badges ordered from memorabilia websites, caps hand-sown with various rankings, and custom made battledress ordered from international suppliers.  The deck crew costumes were a medley of strange Ebay purchases from London to Texas, white towels, dollar store balaclavas and Helly Hansen pants and sou’westers.

And it worked.

The power of the German uniform, even at it’s most Kriegsmarine casual, didn’t really hit me until we marched our re-enactors from holding base to our set at U-995.  Heads turned.  Lights came on in the hotel rooms as people stood-by watching.  Something in the air changed. For a few hours each day, we were able to really imagine and feel the weight of it all.

Production Still from Hell Below: Hitler's Revenge
Production Still from Hell Below: Hitler’s Revenge

Hell Below is currently airing on Tuesdays on Smithsonian Channel in Canada. The episodes are available for Canadian viewers online for a limited time after broadcast here.

We look forward to announcing more worldwide broadcast dates shortly. Stay tuned!