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!



The War Took Them to Hell Below

It was an exciting week at our Parallax offices. After months of hard work, the first episode of our news series, Hell Below was broadcast in Canada on Smithsonian Channel Canada. We started production last May in Cleveland, OH aboard the USS Cod, a vintage, World War II era submarine that is now a Museum. It was a thrill to climb down through the hatch and down the ladder, listening to the metal echo with each step. The smell of hydraulic fluids and diesel infuses your clothes if you spend enough time there. To serve abroad the sub with a crew of more than eighty men seems incomprehensible. Visiting is an experience we’d recommend for everyone.

Commander Dudley Morton and Executive Officer Richard O'Kane Play Cribbage Aboard USS Wahoo
Commander Dudley Morton and Executive Officer Richard O’Kane Play Cribbage Aboard USS Wahoo

It was amazing to be there as we filmed the dramatic recreations for our shows. The young men in uniforms, crowded into the Conning Tower, raising and lowering the periscopes. The Museum maintained its regular operations while we filmed and the patrons also seemed bemused by our “sailors”.

“Make a hole and make it wide!” someone would yell to let the groups pass our cast and camera crew. We sat at the Ward Room table in what you’d consider the Officers Mess planning scenes and brainstorming shots. A faint shiver went up my spine when we turned on the record player and we dropped on an album imagining the crew doing the same thousands of miles from home and far out at sea.

Over the summer our crew also travelled to Laboe, Germany which is home to U-995 a rare example of a serving U-Boat, which we were also lucky enough to film aboard.

U-995 in Laboe, Germany
U-995 in Laboe, Germany

Smaller than its American counterpart, the Type VII’s were the most widely produced submarine just before and through World War II. Life aboard the U-Boats was definitely more austere. Their fresh water was essentially only used for drinking. Shaving, showering and laundry waited until the crew was ashore after their 60+ day patrols. Halfway through the submarine Commander would have the sheets turned over for the return trip home.

Each of the episodes of Hell Below tells the story of a different submarine patrol or in the case of one episode, a convoy battle. We join the adventures of USS Wahoo in our episode America Fights Back, USS Tang in Fatal Voyage, USS Harder in Destroyer Killer, U-99 in The Wolfpack, U-123 in Hitler’s Revenge and the attacks on Convoy HX-229 in Atlantic Showdown. You can check our the series title sequence below:

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!