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U-995, a typical VIIC/41 U-boat on display at the Laboe Naval Memorial

U-boats were naval submarines operated by Germany, particularly in the First and Second World Wars. The term is an anglicized version of the German word U-Boot [ˈuːboːt] , a shortening of Unterseeboot (under-sea boat), though the German term refers to any submarine. Austro-Hungarian Navy submarines were also known as U-boats.

U-boats are most known for their unrestricted submarine warfare in both world wars, trying to disrupt merchant traffic towards the UK and force the UK out of the war. In World War I, Germany intermittently waged unrestricted submarine warfare against the UK: a first campaign in 1915 was abandoned after strong protests from the US but in 1917 the Germans, facing deadlock on the continent, saw no other option than to resume the campaign in February 1917. The renewed campaign failed to achieve its goal mainly because of the introduction of convoys. Instead the campaign ensured final defeat as the campaign was a contributing factor to the entry of the US in the First World War.[1]

In World War II, Karl Dönitz, supreme commander of the Kriegsmarine's U-boat arm (Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote), was convinced the UK and its convoys could be defeated by new tactics, and tried to focus on convoy battles.[2] Though U-boat tactics initially saw success in the Battle of the Atlantic, greatly disrupting Allied shipping, improved convoy and anti-submarine tactics such as high-frequency direction finding and the Hedgehog anti-submarine system began to take a toll on the German U-boat force. This ultimately came to a head in May 1943, known as Black May, in which U-boat losses began to outpace their effect on shipping.

Early U-boats (1850–1914)

The first German submarine, the SM U-1.

The first submarine built in Germany, the three-man Brandtaucher, sank to the bottom of Kiel Harbor on 1 February 1851 during a test dive.[3][4] Inventor and engineer Wilhelm Bauer had designed this vessel in 1850, and Schweffel and Howaldt constructed it in Kiel. Dredging operations in 1887 rediscovered Brandtaucher; she was later raised and put on historical display in Germany. The boats Nordenfelt I and Nordenfelt II, built to a Nordenfelt design, followed in 1890. In 1903, the Friedrich Krupp Germaniawerft dockyard in Kiel completed the first fully functional German-built submarine, Forelle,[5] which Krupp sold to Russia during the Russo-Japanese War in April 1904.[6]

At the beginning of the century, the German commander of the Navy Alfred von Tirpitz was building the High Seas Fleet with which he intended to challenge the supremacy of the Royal Navy. He focused on expensive battleships and there was no role for submarines in his fleet. Only when Krupp exported its submarines to Russia, Italy, Norway and Austria-Hungary did Tirpitz order one submarine.[7] The SM U-1 was a completely redesigned Karp-class submarine and when the Imperial German Navy commissioned it on 14 December 1906,[8] it was the last major navy to adopt submarines.[7] The U-1 had a double hull and a single torpedo tube. It used an electric motor powered by batteries for submerged propulsion and a Körting kerosene engine for charging the batteries and propulsion on the surface. The 50%-larger SM U-2 (commissioned in 1908) had two torpedo tubes.

The German submarine U-14, showing the kerosene vapour trail.

Because speed and range were severely limited underwater while running on battery power, U-boats were required to spend most of their time surfaced, running on fuel engines, diving only when attacked or for torpedo strikes. The more ship-like hull design reflects the fact that these were primarily surface vessels that could submerge when necessary. This contrasts with the cylindrical profile of modern nuclear submarines, which are more hydrodynamic under water (where they spend the majority of their time), but less stable on the surface. While U-boats were faster on the surface than submerged, the opposite is generally true of modern submarines.

Between 1908 and 1910 fourteen big boats with four torpedo tubes and two reload torpedoes were ordered. These boats used a kerosene engine which was safer than gasoline and more powerful than steam, but the white exhaust of the kerosene betrayed the presence of the U-boats, robbing them of their primary asset, their stealth. Diesel engines did not have that disadvantage, but a powerful and reliable diesel engine was still under development. Finally the U-19 class of 1912–13 had the first diesel engine installed in a German navy boat. Between 1910 and 1912 twenty-three diesel U-boats were ordered.[9] At the start of World War I in 1914, Germany had 48 submarines of 13 classes in service or under construction. During that war, the Imperial German Navy used SM U-1 for training. Retired in 1919, she remains on display at the Deutsches Museum in Munich.[10]

World War I (1914–1918)

Sea mines are loaded in a UC coastal submarine in the harbour of Zeebrugge


During 1914, the U-boats operated against the British fleet: on 5 September 1914, the light cruiser HMS Pathfinder was sunk by SM U-21, the first ship to have been sunk by a submarine using a self-propelled torpedo. On 22 September, U-9 sank the armoured cruisers HMS Aboukir, HMS Cressy, and HMS Hogue. As a result, the British Grand Fleet had to withdraw to safer waters in Northern Ireland. Against merchant ships, U-boats observed the "prize rules" which meant they had to stop and inspect the ship, and take the crew off the ship before they could sink it. On 20 October 1914, SM U-17 sank the first merchant ship, SS Glitra, off Norway. Only ten merchants were sunk in that way before policy was changed on 18 February 1915. On the continent German hopes for a quick victory were dashed and a stalemate had settled on the front. The Germans hoped to break the deadlock by starting an unrestricted submarine campaign against shipping in the waters around the British Isles. This was also cited as a retaliation for British minefields and shipping blockades. Under the instructions given to U-boat captains, they could sink merchant ships, even neutral ones, without warning.[11]

Only 29 U-boats were available for the campaign, and not more than seven were active around the British Isles at any time. The U-boats failed to enforce a blockade but three sinkings of liners, with loss of American lives, outraged the US so that the Kaiser had to stop the campaign in September 1915: on 7 May 1915 SM U-20 sank RMS Lusitania; on 19 August SM U-24 sank SS Arabic; and on 9 September SM U-20 sank RMS Hesperian. Most of the U-boats were sent to the Mediterranean. At the beginning of 1916 54 U-boats were available, and the Kaiser allowed again operations around the British Isles, but with strict rules: no attacks on liners and outside the war zone around the British Isles attacks were only allowed on armed merchant ships. But on 24 March 25 Americans were killed in the torpedoing of the ferry SS Sussex, which was mistaken for a troopship by SM UB-29. The US threatened to sever diplomatic ties, which persuaded the Germans to fully reapply prize rules. In September 1916 120 U-boats were in service, and again some were sent to the Mediterranean. Whilst around British Isles prize rules were observed, in the Mediterranean a new unrestricted campaign was started. The renewed German campaign was effective, sinking 1.4 million tons of shipping between October 1916 and January 1917. Despite this, the deadlock situation on the continent frontlines demanded even greater results, and on 1 February 1917, Germany restarted the unrestricted submarine campaign around British Isles. Germany took the gamble that the U-boat campaign would force the UK out of the war before the US could effectively enter. On 3 February the US severed diplomatic relations with Germany and on 6 April the US declared war on Germany.[12]

German U-boat losses by cause
Surface warships
Merchant ships

Unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 was very successful, sinking more than 500,000 tons a month. With the introduction of convoys in August 1917 shipping losses declined to 300,000 a month on average, which was not sufficient to force the UK out of the war. With deteriorating conditions on the continent, all U-boats were recalled on 31 October 1918.[13] An armistice became effective on 11 November 1918. Under the terms of armistice, all U-boats were to immediately surrender. Those in home waters sailed to the British submarine base at Harwich, after which the vessels were studied, then scrapped or given to Allied navies. Stephen King-Hall wrote a detailed eyewitness account of the surrender.[14]

Of the 373 German U-boats that had been built, 179 were operational or nearly operational at the end of the war. 178 were lost by enemy action.[15] 512 officers and 4894 enlisted men were killed. Of the surviving German submarines, 14 U-boats were scuttled and 122 surrendered.[16] They sank 10 pre-dreadnought battleships, 18 heavy and light cruisers, and several smaller naval vessels. They further destroyed 5,708 merchant and fishing vessels for a total of 11,108,865 tons and the loss of about 15,000 sailors.[16]

The Pour le Mérite, the highest decoration for gallantry for officers, was awarded to 29 U-boat commanders.[citation needed] Twelve U-boat crewmen were decorated with the Goldenes Militär-Verdienst-Kreuz, the highest bravery award for noncommissioned officers and enlisted men.[17] The most successful U-boat commanders of World War I were Lothar von Arnauld de la Perière (189 merchant vessels and two gunboats with 446,708 tons), followed by Walter Forstmann (149 ships with 391,607 tons), and Max Valentiner (144 ships with 299,482 tons). Their records have not been surpassed in any subsequent conflict.


Körting kerosene-powered boats Type U 1, Type U 2, Type U 3, Type U 5, Type U 9, Type U 13, Type U 16, Type U 17
Mittel-U MAN diesel boats Type U 19, Type U 23, Type U 27, Type U 31, Type U 43, Type U 51, Type U 57, Type U 63, Type U 66, Type Mittel U
U-Cruisers and Merchant U-boats Type U 139, Type U 142, Type U 151, Type UD 1
UB coastal torpedo attack boats Type UB I, Type UB II, Type UB III, Type UF, Type UG
UC coastal minelayers Type UC I, Type UC II, Type UC III
UE ocean minelayers Type UE I, Type UE II

Interwar years (1919–1939)

The Finnish submarine Vetehinen in 1930 on the slipways at the Crichton-Vulcan shipyard in Turku, Finland


The Treaty of Versailles ending World War I signed at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 limited the surface navy of Germany's new Weimar Republic to only six battleships, six cruisers, twelve destroyers and twelve torpedo boats. The treaty also restricted the independent tonnage of ships and forbade the construction of submarines.[18] In order to circumvent the restrictions of the treaty, a submarine design office called Ingenieurskantoor voor Scheepsbouw (IVS) was set up in the Netherlands[19] The IVS was run by Krupp and made it possible to maintain a lead in submarine technology by designing and constructing submarines in Holland for other nations.[20] The IVS made designs for small 250-ton U-boats, medium 500-ton U-boats and large 750-ton U-boats.[21]

The IVS constructed three 500-ton medium submarines in Finland between 1927 and 1931, known as the Vetehinen-class. These ships were the prototypes for the subsequent German Type VII U-boat. In 1933 a small 250-ton submarine, the Vesikko. This submarine was nearly identical to the subsequent German Type II U-boat. A fifth very small 100-ton submarine, the Saukko was built in 1933 as well. In Spain a large 750-ton boat was built between 1929 and 1930. After the Spanish lost interest in the U-boat, they sold it to Turkey where it entered service as Gür. German sailors assisted in the trials for these submarines. These secret programs were exposed in by the Lohmann Affair and as a result the Head of the Reichsmarine Hans Zenker had to resign. His successor Erich Raeder continued the policy of secretly breaching the Versailles treaty. On 15 November 1932 a plan was approved for an expansion of the German navy which included U-boats.[22]

The Spanish submarine E-1 in Cadiz
U-534, a type IX U-boat at Birkenhead Docks, Merseyside, England

In 1935, Britain sought to control the increasingly apparent breaches of the Versailles Treaty and it concluded in 1935 the Anglo-German Naval Agreement. This ended officially the limitation of the Versailles Treaty and allowed Germany to build ships in a 100:35 tonnage ratio to the British fleet. For submarines the Germans obtained a parity in tonnage, but promised a 45 percent limit unless special circumstances arose.[23] This allowed 24,000 tons for U-boat building. Only one week after the signature of the agreement, the first of six Type II U-boats, U-1 was commissioned in the German Navy, which changed name from Reichsmarine (State Navy) to Kriegsmarine (War Navy).[24] Within the year, the Germans commissioned a total of 36 U-boats for a total of 12,500 tons:[25]

  • Twenty-four small 250-ton Type II U-boats
  • Ten medium 500-ton Type VII U-boats
  • Two large 750-ton Type I U-boats, based on the design of the Spanish submarine.

Karl Dönitz was appointed as head of the submarine section of the kriegsmarine. He believed firmly that in spite of the Anglo-German Naval agreement and Hitler's policy of avoiding conflict with Britain, the next war would be with Britain. Based on these views he requested that the remaining 11,500 tons be used for building twenty-three medium submarines, which were in his opinion the ideal type for the commerce war against British convoys. Raeder however did not share these beliefs and opinions and opted for a more balanced expansion of the submarine fleet:[25]

  • Eight small 250-ton improved type II U-boats
  • Seven medium 500-ton U-boats. The type VII was designed with a single rudder and this had two drawbacks: as the rudder was not in the wash of the two propellors, the rudder response was not good. The stern torpedo tube had also to be mounted externally as the rudder obstructed the exit of an internal tube. As a consequence, this tube could not be reloaded. Hence the type VII was upgraded to type VIIB with dual rudders to improve maneuverability and to fit an internal stern tube with a reload.[26]
  • Eight large 750-ton U-boats. The Type I was found to be unsatisfactory: not only had it the same single rudder maneuverability problems of the type VII, but it also had a very poor diving time. The gravity center of the U-boat was too forward, so when surfaced the Type I had its propellors exposed when pitching. Whilst submerged there were problems with depth keeping and stability as air bubbles in the fuel tanks wobbled back and forth.[26] Hence a new Type IX design for a large U-boat was made.

Twenty-one of these twenty-three U-boats were commissioned before the start of World War II. In 1937, Britain announced it would expand its submarine fleet from 52,700 to 70,000 tons. Again, Raeder decided that the extra 7,785 tons would be divided between medium and large U-boats:[27]

  • Seven medium 500-ton type VIIB U-boats
  • Five large 750-ton of the improved type IXB U-boats.
A type XB submarine sinking in the Atlantic. On the foredeck the vertical mineshafts are visible.

During 1938, Hitler changed his attitude towards Britain. Whilst he still hoped that Britain would not interfere in his foreign policy, it became clear to him that he needed a Navy that could act as a deterrent. Hitler wanted to invoke the escape clause of the naval agreement and to have 70,000 tons of submarines. Between May 1938 and January 1939, Raeder ordered 52 more U-boats to be completed by 1942:[28]

  • Twenty-one medium 500-ton type VIIB U-boats
  • Eleven large 750-ton type IXB U-boats
  • Three very large type XB minelaying U-Boats
  • Four huge type XI U-cruisers

In 1939, the ambitious Plan Z was launched. It called for the construction of a German Navy capable of challenging the Royal Navy. The plan included 249 U-boats for a total of 200,000 tons. But when World War II broke out only months after the plan was announced, only a handful of the planned U-boats ended up being built.[28]

When World War II started, Germany had 56 U-boats commissioned, of which 46 were operational and only 22 had enough range for Atlantic operations, the other 24 were limited to operations on the North Sea.[29]


A torpedo is loaded into a U-Boat through a torpedo hatch.

Compared to their World War I equivalents, the German U-boat designs of World War II were greatly improved. By using a new steel alloy and by welding instead of riveting, they had stronger hulls and could dive deeper. The diving time was decreased to thirty seconds for a medium U-boat. The power of diesel engines was increased, so U-boats had a greater surface speed. Range was increased by installing fuel saddle tanks, which were on open to the sea on the bottom in order to balance pressure, with the diesel fuel floating freely on the seawater within the saddle tank. Also, a technique was developed for economical cruising where only one of the two diesel engines would be run and would drive the two propeller shafts through a coupling with the two electro engines.[30]

Another vast improvement was the introduction of new torpedo types for the U-boats: the classic G7a torpedo propelled by compressed air had a much larger warhead than its WWI equivalent, but more important was the introduction of the electric G7e torpedo.[31] This torpedo was slower and had less range but it left no telltale bubble wake and was, hence, ideally suited for daylight attacks.[30] During WWI the Germans had briefly experimented with magnetic pistols and these were further developed now as the standard pistol for torpedoes. The classic contact pistol required a torpedo to detonate against the ship's hull, whilst a magnetic torpedo could detonate below a ship, resulting in a much more damaging explosion. Thus, it was hoped that one torpedo would suffice to break the back of a ship, and a U-boat could sink many more ships with its supply of torpedoes.[32][33]

All U-boats were now also equipped with long- and short-wave transmitters, which enabled them to communicate with bases ashore and with fellow U-boats at sea. This allowed for better operational information and guidance.[32]

U-Boat design and layout

Cross-section of a Type VII U-boat

From bow to stern, A typical U-boat design comprised these sections:

  • Bow torpedo room. The torpedo tubes were loaded but torpedoes needed maintenance so there was space to unload the tubes. Below the floor plates four spare torpedoes were stored. Two more spares were stored above the floorplates where they occupied much of the available space. The crew responsible for the torpedo maintenance and launching had their sleeping bunks in this compartment, along with the lowest ratings on board. As long as the two spare torpedoes above the floorplates were not launched, living conditions were very cramped here. Once launched, space for extra bunks became available but, anyway, there were not enough sleeping bunks for all the crew, and these were 'hot bunks' which switched occupants as they went on or off duty.[34][35]
  • Crew quarters for officers and chief petty officers,[36] with a battery compartment below decks.[34] The captain had a curtained bunk which faced 2 small rooms: the wireless room and the hydrophone room.[36]
  • Control room. The main large periscope, for general use, was located here. The rudder, diving planes, ballast and trim tanks were operated here with valves and buttons. Below decks, there was space to retract the periscope and to store ammunition for the deck gun. A cylindrical tube with a ladder led to the conning tower.[34]
  • Conning tower. This space protruded from the cylindrical hull but was still within the pressure hull. Here, the angle and depth settings for the torpedoes were calculated with an analogue data solver. During submerged attacks the captain was on station here, operating the second, smaller attack periscope, which generated less wake at the surface. Above the conning tower was the bridge.[34]
  • Aft crew quarters for petty officers, with another battery compartment below decks. The galley and toilet were also located here.[34]
  • Engine (diesel) room. The diesel engines needed air, which was supplied through a pipe outside the pressure hull from the bridge, as high as possible from sea level. There was no exhaust pipe; in order to reduce smoke the exhaust was mixed with sea water. The diesel engine could drive an air compressor in order to feed air tanks needed for venting the ballast tanks.[37]
    The electrical room
  • Electrical or motor room. The electric motors were driven by the batteries. Alternatively, when driven by the diesel engines, the motors acted as generators for recharging the batteries.[37]
  • Aft torpedo room. Only bigger type IX U-boats had such a compartment. Smaller U-boats did not have aft torpedo tubes at all, or had a single torpedo tube installed in the motor room, with a spare torpedo stored below decks between the engines.[37]

World War II (1939–1945)


During World War II, U-boat warfare was the major component of the Battle of the Atlantic, which began in 1939 and ended with Germany's surrender in 1945. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill later wrote "The only thing that really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril."[38] Cross-Atlantic trade in war supplies and food was extensive and critical for Britain's survival. The continuous action surrounding Allied shipping became known as the Battle of the Atlantic.

U-boat pens in Saint-Nazaire, France

As convoying had been key in the defeat of German submarines during World War I, the British began organizing convoys at once in September 1939. The most common U-boat attack against convoys during the early years of the war was conducted on the surface and at night. During 1939 the Germans made a few attempts to attack convoys with their new 'wolfpack' tactic, but these were not successful. The invasion of Norway in April 1940 halted temporarily all U-boat operations against merchant shipping. During the invasion many technical problems with the German torpedoes were exposed and only in August 1940 could the campaign against convoys be revived. There were now fewer U-boats operational than at the beginning of the war, but thanks to the new bases in France and Norway U-boats could reach their operation grounds far more easily. During the following months the U-boats put their 'wolfpack' tactic against convoy in practice with spectacular results. This period, before the Allied forces developed truly effective antisubmarine warfare tactics, was referred to by German submariners as "die glückliche Zeit" or the First Happy Time.[39]

In the beginning of 1941 British countermeasures began to take effect: in March 1941 the three leading U-boat aces were sunk during convoy battles. In May 1941 the British were able to break into German secret naval Enigma communications and could henceforth reroute convoys around U-boat concentrations.[40] When American warships started to escort Atlantic convoys, the U-boats were restricted in their operations as Hitler wanted to avoid possible conflict with the US.[41] The campaign against merchant shipping received further impediments when Hitler interfered on two occasions: first he insisted that a small force of U-boats be kept on station in the Arctic as a precaution against a possible Allied invasion in Norway[42][43] and next he ordered a substantial force of U-boats to operate in the Mediterranean in order to support the Italians and Rommel's Afrika Korps.[44]

When the US entered war, the focus of U-boat operations shifted to the Atlantic coast of the United States and Canada, where no convoys were organized and anti-submarine measures were inadequate. There followed a Second Happy Time when U-boats could extend their successful operation to the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.[45] By mid 1942 an adequate defense was organized in these regions and then U-boats returned to their original and crucial hunting grounds on the North Atlantic convoy lanes.[46] The renewed offensive against convoys reached its climax in March 1943, when two thirds of all ships sunk, were ships sailing in convoys.[47] But the Allies put effective countermeasures into effect and only two months later on 24 May Dönitz had to stop the campaign due to heavy losses.[48]

U-boats operated also off the southern African coasts and even as far east as the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean.

By the end of the war, almost 3,000 Allied ships (175 warships; 2,825 merchant ships) had been sunk by U-boat torpedoes.[49] In total 1131 U-boats entered service before the German surrender, of which 863 have executed war patrols, and 785 were lost.[50][51] Of the 154 U-boats surrendered, 121 were scuttled in deep water off Lisahally, Northern Ireland, or Loch Ryan, Scotland, in late 1945 and early 1946 during Operation Deadlight.

Torpedo developments

The U-boats' main weapon was the torpedo, though mines and deck guns (while surfaced) were also used. Early German World War II torpedoes were fitted with one of two types of pistol triggers – impact, which detonated the warhead upon contact with a solid object, and magnetic, which detonated upon sensing a change in the magnetic field within a few meters. Initially, the depth-keeping equipment and magnetic and contact exploders were notoriously unreliable. During the first eight months of the war, torpedoes often ran at an improper depth, detonated prematurely, or failed to explode altogether – sometimes bouncing harmlessly off the hull of the target ship. This was most evident in Operation Weserübung, the invasion of Norway, where various skilled U-boat commanders failed to inflict damage on British transports and warships because of faulty torpedoes. The faults were largely due to a lack of testing. The magnetic detonator was sensitive to mechanical oscillations during the torpedo run, and to fluctuations in the Earth's magnetic field at high latitudes. These early magnetic detonators were eventually phased out. The depth-keeping problem remained problematic, not until January 1942 was the last fault discovered by accident: when ventilating the onboard torpedoes during maintenance, it was possible that the excess internal air-pressure in the U-boat offset the depth setting mechanism in the balance chamber of the torpedo.[52][53]

The pattern running of a FAT torpedo

In order to give U-boats better opportunities against well-defended convoys, several types of "pattern-running" torpedoes were developed. The FAT (Flächen-Absuch-Torpedo or Federapparat-Torpedo) and LUT (LageUnabhängiger Torpedo) was an electric torpedo which ran straight out to a preset distance, then traveled in either a circular or ladder-like pattern through the convoy lanes. This increased the probability of a hit. The torpedo had one setting to regulate the length of the prerun, after which one of four other possible settings kicked in and made the torpedo zigzag towards either left or right and either on short (1200 m) or long (1900 m) legs. When fired, the firing U-boat sent out a warning to the other U-boats in the vicinity so these could dive to avoid being hit by the random running torpedo. The FAT torpedo became available end of 1942 and was in regular use during the convoy battles of March 1943.[54][55]

Germany also developed acoustic homing torpedoes. In February 1943 the first acoustic torpedo, the T4 "Falke", was tested on a small scale with moderate success, but this torpedo could only be used against large, slow ships. The acoustic torpedo ran straight to an arming distance of 1000 m and then turned toward the loudest noise detected. Its successor, the T5 "Zaunkönig", was designed to combat small and fast warships, and entered service in September 1943.[56] The Allies countered acoustic torpedoes with noisemaker decoys such as Foxer, FXR, CAT, and Fanfare.

U-boat developments

A prefabricated segment of a Type XXI U-boat. The cross-section shows clearly the '8'-shaped hull, where the lower part was used to store large batteries hence the name of 'ElektroBoot'

In 1940 the Germans made successful tests with the V-80 experimental submarine featuring a new type of propulsion: on the surface it used the classic Diesel engines but submerged it used a revolutionary hydrogen peroxide air-independent propellant system designed by Hellmuth Walter. With this Walter-turbine a U-boat could achieve underwater speeds of more than 20 knots, much more than the 4 knot cruising and 6 knot maximum speed of electrical engines powered by batteries. Four more experimental Type XVIIA U-boats with Walter turbines were built and tested, but the Germans could not put this design in use for a big frontline U-boat.[57][58] Unlike a classic U-boat that could recharge its batteries with the diesel engines, once a Walter U-boat had consumed its hydrogen peroxide propellant it could not submerge anymore. The Germans did not possess the resources and plants to produce sufficient hydrogen peroxide to operate a fleet of Walter submarines. Despite these limitations, 24 frontline Type XVIIB coastal submarines were ordered, but only three were built and none were operational before the end of the war.[59]

The Walter U-boats had very large hulls in order to store the fuel for submerged propulsion. Once it became clear these Walter U-boats would not be operational in time, the Walter U-boat hull design was reused with a different approach: the space for the hydrogen peroxide tanks was used to store much larger batteries. With the much increased battery power U-boats were also able to reach much higher speeds and endurance when submerged.[60] Based on the design of an Atlantic Walter U-boat, the Type XXI "Elektroboot" was designed to boost submerged performance. Smaller Type XXIII coastal Elektroboote were also taken into production. These Elektroboote were mass-produced, with prefabricated segments constructed at different sites and then assembled at the bigger shipyards.[61][62]

The Schnorkel mast and air flows

After the German invasion of the Netherlands in 1940 the Germans captured some Dutch submarines equipped with a Schnorchel (snorkel), but saw no need for them until 1943. The Schnorchel was a retractable pipe that supplied air to the diesel engines while submerged at periscope depth, allowing the boats to cruise submerged on diesel engines and recharge their batteries.[63] It was far from a perfect solution: problems occurred with the device's valve sticking shut or closing as it dunked in rough weather; since the system used the entire pressure hull as a buffer, the diesels would instantaneously suck huge volumes of air from the boat's compartments, and the crew often suffered painful ear injuries. Speed was limited to 8 knots (15 km/h), lest the device snap from stress. Whilst running submerged with the Schnorchel, the Gruppenhorchgerät was useless because of interference with the noisy diesel engines. But the Schnorchel allowed the old Type VII and IX U-boats to operate in waters which were previously denied to them.[64] Finally, Allied radar eventually became sufficiently advanced that the Schnorchel mast could be detected.


  • Type I: first design for a large 750-ton U-boat. Only 2 built as the design was not very successful.
  • Type II: small coastal submarines used mainly for training purposes. The latest subtype IID had saddle tanks which gave it a range to operate in the Atlantic, which it did until 1941.
  • Type VII: the "workhorse" of the U-boats with 709 completed in World War II
  • Type IX: these long-range U-boats operated as far as the Indian Ocean with the Japanese (Monsun Gruppe), and the South Atlantic
  • Type X: long-range minelayers but mainly used to resupply other U-boats
  • Type XIV: unarmed U-boat, used to resupply other U-boats; nicknamed the Milchkuh ("Milk Cow")
  • Type XVII: small experimental coastal submarines powered by experimental hydrogen peroxide propulsion systems, not put into service
  • Type XXI: known as the Elektroboot. The design was taken into mass-production, but only 2 set out for a war patrol before the end of the war.
  • Type XXIII: smaller version of the XXI used for coastal operations. operated on a small scale during 1945
  • Midget submarines, including Biber, Hai, Molch, and Seehund
  • Uncompleted U-boat projects


Throughout the war, an arms race evolved between the Allies and the Kriegsmarine. Sonar (ASDIC in Britain) allowed Allied warships to detect submerged U-boats, but was not effective against a surfaced vessel; thus, early in the war, a U-boat at night or in bad weather was actually safer on the surface. Advancements in radar became deadly for the U-boat crews, especially once aircraft-mounted units were developed. As a countermeasure, U-boats were fitted with radar warning receivers, to give them ample time to dive before the enemy closed in, as well as more antiaircraft guns, but by early to mid-1943, the Allies switched to centimetric radar (unknown to Germany), which rendered the radar detectors ineffective. U-boat radar systems were also developed, but many captains chose not to use them for fear of broadcasting their position to the enemy. Against ASDIC the Germans developed Bold, a chemical bubble-making decoy.

Advances in convoy tactics, high-frequency direction finding, referred to as "Huff-Duff", radar, sonar, depth charges, anti-submarine weapons such as "Hedgehog" and "FIDO", the intermittent cracking of the German Naval Enigma code, the introduction of the Leigh Light, long range patrol aircraft, escort carriers and the enormous US shipbuilding capacity, all turned the tide against the U-boats. At the same time, the Allies targeted the U-boat shipyards and their bases with strategic bombing.

Captured Type VII and Type IX U-boats outside their pen in Trondheim, Norway, 19 May 1945

In May 1941 code books, an Enigma machine and its settings were captured from the U-110 which could be boarded before she sank. A team including Alan Turing used special-purpose "Bombes" and early computers to break new German codes as they were introduced. The speedy decoding of messages allowed rerouting convoys around U-boat patrol lines. In February 1942 the naval Enigma machines were altered and this advantage was lost until the new code was broken in October 1942, when U-559 was boarded as she was sinking, and crucial code books were salvaged.

Post–World War II and Cold War (after 1945)

U-15 and U-17, Type 206 submarines, of the German Navy

From 1955, the West German Bundesmarine was allowed to have a small navy. Initially, two sunken Type XXIIIs and a Type XXI were raised and repaired. In the 1960s, the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) re-entered the submarine business. Because West Germany was initially restricted to a 450-tonne displacement limit, the Bundesmarine focused on small coastal submarines to protect against the Soviet threat in the Baltic Sea. The Germans sought to use advanced technologies to offset the small displacement, such as amagnetic steel to protect against naval mines and magnetic anomaly detectors.

The initial Type 201 was a failure because of hull cracking; the subsequent Type 205, first commissioned in 1967, was a success, so 12 were built for the German navy. To continue the U-boat tradition, the new boats received the classic "U" designation starting with the U-1.

With the Danish government's purchase of two Type 205 boats, the West German government realized the potential for the submarine as an export, developing a customized version Type 207. Small and agile submarines were built during the Cold War to operate in the shallow Baltic Sea, resulting in the Type 206. Three of the improved Type 206 boats were later sold to the Israeli Navy, becoming the Type 540. The German Type 209 diesel-electric submarine was the most popular export-sales submarine in the world from the late 1960s into the first years of the 21st century. With a larger 1,000–1,500 tonne displacement, the class was very customizable and has seen service with 14 navies, with 51 examples being built as of 2006. Germany continued to reap successes with derivations or on the basis of the successful type 209, as are the Type 800 sold to Israel and the TR-1700 sold to Argentina.

Germany continued to succeed as an exporter of submarines as the Klasse 210 sold to Norway, considered the most silent and maneuverable submarines in the world. This demonstrated its capacity and put its export seal on the world.

Type 212 submarine with air-independent propulsion of the German Navy in dock at HDW/Kiel

Germany has brought the U-boat name into the 21st century with the new Type 212; it 212 features an air-independent propulsion system using hydrogen fuel cells. This system is safer than previous closed-cycle diesel engines and steam turbines, cheaper than a nuclear reactor, and quieter than either. While the Type 212 is also being purchased by Italy[65] and Norway,[66] the Type 214 has been designed as the follow-on export model and has been sold to Greece, South Korea, and Turkey, and based on it would get the Type U 209PN sold to Portugal.

In recent years Germany introduced new models such as the Type 216 and the Type 218, the latter being sold to Singapore.

In 2016, Germany commissioned its newest U-boat, the U-36, a Type 212.

See also


  1. ^ Blair, pp. 10–19.
  2. ^ Blair, pp. 38–39.
  3. ^ Showell, p. 23.
  4. ^ Chaffin, p. 53.
  5. ^ Showell, p. 201.
  6. ^ Showell, pp. 22–29.
  7. ^ a b Blair, p. 6.
  8. ^ Showell, p. 30.
  9. ^ Blair, p. 7.
  10. ^ Showell, pp. 36–37.
  11. ^ Blair, pp. 9–11.
  12. ^ Blair, pp. 10–13.
  13. ^ Blair, pp. 13–19.
  14. ^ King-Hall, pp. 229–242.
  15. ^ Blair, p. 18.
  16. ^ a b Clodfelter, p. 428.
  17. ^ Fischer, p. 16.
  18. ^ Humble, p. 25.
  19. ^ Costello & Hughes, p. 26.
  20. ^ Blair, p. 24.
  21. ^ Blair, p. 31.
  22. ^ Blair, pp. 31–32.
  23. ^ Costello & Hughes, p. 28.
  24. ^ Blair, pp. 34–35.
  25. ^ a b Blair, p. 40.
  26. ^ a b Paterson 2003, p. x-xi.
  27. ^ Blair, p. 45.
  28. ^ a b Blair, pp. 46–47.
  29. ^ Mason, p. 23.
  30. ^ a b Blair, p. 37.
  31. ^ Bekker, p. 129.
  32. ^ a b Blair, p. 38.
  33. ^ Bekker, p. 120.
  34. ^ a b c d e Blair, pp. 57–59.
  35. ^ Paterson, pp. 55–56.
  36. ^ a b Gannon, p. 34.
  37. ^ a b c Blair, p. 62.
  38. ^ Churchill, p. 529.
  39. ^ "Military History Online". www.militaryhistoryonline.com. Retrieved 4 February 2019.
  40. ^ Costello & Hughes, pp. 154–155.
  41. ^ Costello & Hughes, p. 165.
  42. ^ Blair, pp. 357–358.
  43. ^ Mason, p. 68.
  44. ^ Mason, p. 54.
  45. ^ Mason, pp. 72–73.
  46. ^ Blair, p. 654.
  47. ^ Mason, p. 108.
  48. ^ Rohwer, p. 252.
  49. ^ Crocker III, H. W. (2006). Don't Tread on Me. New York: Crown Forum. p. 310. ISBN 978-1-4000-5363-6.
  50. ^ Haskell, p. 14.
  51. ^ Middlebrook, p. 327.
  52. ^ Dönitz, p. 482.
  53. ^ Blair, p. 485.
  54. ^ Middlebrook, pp. 170–171.
  55. ^ Brennecke 1984, pp. 389–391.
  56. ^ Brennecke 1984, pp. 391–394.
  57. ^ Blair Vol2, pp. 10–11.
  58. ^ Costello & Hughes, pp. 284–285.
  59. ^ Blair Vol2, p. 312.
  60. ^ Breyer, pp. 7–13.
  61. ^ Blair Vol2, pp. 312–313.
  62. ^ Costello & Hughes, pp. 285–287.
  63. ^ Breyer, p. 8.
  64. ^ Costello & Hughes, p. 284.
  65. ^ "Naval Technology on the Todaro class". Retrieved 9 March 2019.
  66. ^ Berg Bentzrød.


  • Bekker, Cajus (1971). Verdammte See (in German). Oldenburg: Gerhard Stalling Verlag. ISBN 3-548-03057-2.
  • Berg Bentzrød, Sveinung (3 February 2017). "Forsvaret kjøper nye ubåter fra Tyskland" [The Armed Forces are purchasing new submarines from Germany]. Aftenposten (in Norwegian). Oslo: Aftenposten AS. Retrieved 9 March 2019.
  • Blair, Clay (1998). Hitler's U-Boat War: The Hunters 1939–1942. Vol. 1. Cassell. ISBN 0-304-35260-8.
  • Blair, Clay (1998). Hitler's U-Boat War: The Hunted 1942–1945. Vol. 2. Cassell. ISBN 0-304-35261-6.
  • Breyer, Siegfried (1996). Wunderwaffe Elektro-Uboot Typ XXI (in German). Podzun-Pallas-Verlag. ISBN 3-7909-0587-9.
  • Brennecke, Jochen (1984). Die Wende im U-Boot Krieg. Ursachen und Folgen 1939–1943 (in German) (2nd ed.). München: Wilhelm Heyne Verlag. ISBN 3-453-03667-0.
  • Chaffin, Tom (2010). The H. L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy. Macmillan. ISBN 978-1429990356. Retrieved 14 July 2016. Bauer's boat made a promising start, diving in tests in the Baltic Sea's Bay of Kiel to depths of more than 50 feet. In 1855, during one of those tests, the boat malfunctioned. The Brandtaucher plunged 54 vertical feet and refused to ascend from the seafloor. Bauer and his crew – leaving their craft on the bottom – barely escaped with their crewmates' lives.
  • Churchill, Winston (1948). The Second World War, Volume 2: Their Finest Hour. Houghton Mifflin.
  • Clodfelter, Micheal (2017). Warfare and Armed Conflicts: A Statistical Encyclopedia of Casualty and Other Figures, 1492–2015 (4th ed.). McFarland.
  • Costello, John; Hughes, Terry (1977). The Battle of the Atlantic. London: Collins. ISBN 0-00-635325-8.
  • Dönitz, Karl (1990). Memoirs: Ten Years and Twenty Days. Naval Institute Press. ISBN 0-87021-780-1.
  • Fischer, Bruno (1960). Ehrenbuch des Orden vom Militär-Verdienst-Kreuz e.V. und die Geschichte der Ordens-Gemeinschaft, Die Ordens-Sammlung (in German).
  • Gannon, Michael (1998). Black May. The epic story of the Allies' defeat of the German U-boats in May 1943. Aurum Press. ISBN 1-85410-588-4.
  • Haskell, Winthrop A. (1998). Shadows on the Horizon. The battle of Convoy HX-233. London: Chatham Publishin. ISBN 1-86176-081-7.
  • Humble, Richard (1974). De Duitse Kriegsmarine (in Dutch) (2nd ed.). Antwerp: Standaard Uitgeverij. ISBN 90-02-12787-1.
  • King-Hall, Stephen (19 May 2021). "A North Sea diary, 1914–1918 / Commander Stephen King-Hall". London: Newnes – via Internet Archive.
  • Mason, David (1994). Duikbootoorlog. Onderzeeboten tegen konvooien (in Dutch). Antwerp: Standaard Uitgeverij. ISBN 90-02-18166-3.
  • Middlebrook, Martin (1976). Convoy. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-016695-5.
  • Paterson, Lawrence (2005). U-564 auf Feindfahrt – 70 Tage an Bord (in German) (3rd ed.). Stuttgart: Motorbuch Verlag. ISBN 978-3-548-26664-0.
  • Paterson, Lawrence (2003). Second U-Boat Flottila. Leo Cooper. ISBN 0-85052-917-4.
  • Rohwer, Jürgen (2005). Chronology of the War at Sea, 1939–1945: The Naval History of World War Two. Annapolis: US Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-1-59114-119-8.
  • Showell, Jak Mallmann (2006). The U-boat Century: German Submarine Warfare, 1906–2006. Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-59114-892-8.

Further reading

  • Abbatiello, John (2005) Anti-Submarine Warfare in World War I: British Naval Aviation and the Defeat of the U-Boats
  • Buchheim, Lothar-Günther. Das Boot (original German edition 1973, eventually translated into English and many other Western languages). Movie adaptation in 1981, directed by Wolfgang Petersen
  • Gannon, Michael (1990) Operation Drumbeat. Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-1-59114-302-4
  • Gray, Edwyn A. (1994) The U-Boat War, 1914–1918
  • Hans Joachim Koerver (2010) German Submarine Warfare 1914–1918 in the Eyes of British Intelligence, LIS Reinisch, ISBN 978-3-902433-79-4
  • Kurson, Robert (2004) Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II. Random House Publishing. ISBN 0-375-50858-9
  • Möller, Eberhard and Werner Brack (2006) The Encyclopedia of U-Boats: From 1904 to the Present, ISBN 1-85367-623-3
  • O'Connor, Jerome M. (June 2000) "Inside the Grey Wolves' Den". Naval History. The US Naval Institute Author of the Year feature describes the building and operation of the German U-boat bases in France.
  • Preston, Antony (2005) The World's Greatest Submarines.
  • Stern, Robert C. (1999) Battle Beneath the Waves: U-boats at war. Arms and Armor/Sterling Publishing. ISBN 1-85409-200-6.
  • van der Vat, Dan (1988) The Atlantic Campaign. Harper & Row. Connects submarine and antisubmarine operations between World War I and World War II, and suggests a continuous war.
  • Von Scheck, Karl. U122: The Diary of a U-boat Commander. Diggory Press, ISBN 978-1-84685-049-3
  • Georg von Trapp and Elizabeth M. Campbell (2007) To the Last Salute: Memories of an Austrian U-Boat Commander
  • Westwood, David (2005) U-Boat War: Doenitz and the evolution of the German Submarine Service 1935–1945, ISBN 1-932033-43-2
  • Werner, Herbert. Iron Coffins: A Personal Account of the German U-Boat Battles of World War II, ISBN 978-0-304-35330-9
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