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Franco Plata
Franco Plata

U-boats in History and Culture: From the Brandtaucher to Das Boot

U-boat: The German Undersea Weapon in World Wars I and II

U-boats were naval submarines operated by Germany, particularly in the First and Second World Wars. Although at times they were efficient fleet weapons against enemy naval warships, they were most effectively used in an economic-warfare role (commerce raiding) and enforcing a naval blockade against enemy shipping. The primary targets of the U-boat campaigns in both wars were the merchant convoys bringing supplies from Canada and other parts of the British Empire, and from the United States, to the United Kingdom and (during the Second World War) to the Soviet Union and the Allied territories in the Mediterranean.


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The term U-boat is an anglicised version of the German word U-Boot, 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.

In this article, we will explore the origins and development of U-boats, their campaigns in World War I and World War II, their impact on world history, and their legacy for today.

The Origins and Development of U-boats

The First German Submarines

The first submarine built in Germany was the three-man Brandtaucher, which sank to the bottom of Kiel Harbor on February 1, 1851 during a test dive. Invent or Wilhelm Bauer designed and built the submarine, which was later recovered and exhibited in Germany. The first functional submarines were built by the Irish inventor John Philip Holland in the United States, and the first one to be purchased by the Imperial German Navy was the U-1 in 1906. The U-1 was followed by 23 more submarines of the same class, which were mainly used for coastal defense and training.

During World War I, Germany realized the potential of submarines as offensive weapons against the superior British Navy, and developed several types of U-boats with different capabilities and missions. Some of the most notable ones were:

  • The U-9, which sank three British cruisers in less than an hour on September 22, 1914, causing a shock in the British public and a boost in the German morale.

  • The U-21, which was the first submarine to sink a warship by using a self-propelled torpedo, on May 25, 1915.

  • The U-35, which was the most successful U-boat of World War I, sinking 224 ships for a total of 539,741 tons.

  • The U-53, which demonstrated Germany's ability to reach the Atlantic coast of the United States by sinking five ships off Nantucket on October 7, 1916.

  • The Deutschland, which was a merchant submarine that made two voyages to the United States in 1916, carrying cargo and passengers.

The U-boat Types

The German Navy classified its submarines into several types based on their size, range, speed, armament, and crew. The main types were:


UBSmall coastal submarines with a single torpedo tube and a deck gun. They were used for reconnaissance, minelaying, and commerce raiding.

UCSmall minelaying submarines with no torpedo tubes but up to 18 mines. They were used to disrupt enemy shipping lanes and harbors.

UMedium-sized submarines with two or four torpedo tubes and one or two deck guns. They were the most common type of U-boats and were used for commerce raiding and fleet operations.

UDLarge ocean-going submarines with four or six torpedo tubes and two or three deck guns. They were used for long-range commerce raiding and special missions.

UELarge minelaying submarines with four torpedo tubes and up to 42 mines. They were used for laying minefields in distant waters.

UFGiant submarines with six or eight torpedo tubes and four deck guns. They were designed for long-range commerce raiding but only two were completed before the end of the war.

The U-boat Campaigns in World War I

The Early Successes and Challenges

The first U-boat to see action in World War I was the U-15, which was sunk by the British cruiser HMS Birmingham on August 9, 1914. The first U-boat to sink an enemy ship was the U-21, which torpedoed the British cruiser HMS Pathfinder on September 5, 1914. The first U-boat to sink a merchant ship was the U-19, which sank the British steamer Gloria on October 20, 1914.

The U-boats soon proved to be a formidable threat to the British Navy and its supply lines, as they could operate stealthily and strike unexpectedly. The British had no effective countermeasures against them at first, as their sonar (called ASDIC) was still rudimentary, their depth charges were insufficient, and their patrol boats were slow and poorly armed. The U-boats also enjoyed the advantage of operating in familiar waters, using secret bases in Belgium and Germany, and receiving intelligence from spies and radio intercepts.

However, the U-boats also faced some challenges and limitations in their operations. They had limited range, speed, endurance, and visibility underwater. They had to surface frequently to recharge their batteries, communicate with their headquarters, and use their deck guns. They were vulnerable to attack from enemy ships, aircraft, mines, and nets. They had to deal with mechanical failures, human errors, and harsh conditions. They also had to abide by the rules of naval warfare, which required them to warn and spare the crews of merchant ships, unless they were armed or resisted.

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The Unrestricted Submarine Warfare and Its Consequences

In February 1915, Germany declared a war zone around the British Isles, and announced that it would sink any enemy or neutral ship without warning. This was a response to the British blockade of Germany, which aimed to starve the Central Powers of food and war materials. The Germans hoped that by cutting off the British lifeline, they would force them to sue for peace.

The policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, however, proved to be a double-edged sword for Germany. On one hand, it increased the effectiveness and efficiency of the U-boat campaign, as the U-boats could attack more targets with less risk and less hesitation. On the other hand, it provoked the outrage and hostility of neutral countries, especially the United States, which had many citizens and interests involved in transatlantic trade. The most notorious incident was the sinking of the British liner Lusitania by the U-20 on May 7, 1915, which killed 1,198 people, including 128 Americans. The event caused a public outcry in the United States and a diplomatic crisis with Germany, which eventually led to the American declaration of war on Germany on April 6, 1917.

The End of the U-boat Threat in World War I

The entry of the United States into the war was a major blow for Germany, as it meant that more ships, troops, and resources would be available for the Allies. The U-boats tried to prevent the American intervention by launching a renewed campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare in January 1917, but this time they faced a more determined and coordinated opposition from the Allies.

The Allies adopted several measures to counter the U-boat threat, such as:

  • Organizing merchant ships into convoys escorted by warships and aircraft.

  • Deploying more patrol boats, destroyers, cruisers, and submarines to hunt down U-boats.

  • Using hydrophones, depth charges, and Q-ships (disguised warships) to detect and destroy U-boats.

  • Improving their intelligence and code-breaking capabilities to intercept and decipher German radio messages.

  • Building more merchant ships and repairing damaged ones to replace the losses.

These measures gradually reduced the effectiveness and morale of the U-boats, which suffered heavy casualties in 1917-1918. By the end of the war, Germany had lost 178 U-boats out of 360 built, and about 5,000 out of 17,000 crew members. The U-boats had sunk about 5,000 Allied and neutral ships for a total of 13 million tons, but they had failed to achieve their strategic goal of starving Britain or forcing it out of the war.

The U-boat Campaigns in World War II

The Resumption of Submarine Warfare and the Battle of the Atlantic

After World War I, Germany was forbidden to have submarines by the Treaty of Versailles, but it secretly continued to develop and build them with the help of other countries such as Spain and Finland. In 1935, Germany openly announced its rearmament program, which included a new fleet of U-boats under the command of Admiral Karl Dönitz. The new U-boats were more advanced than their predecessors, as they had better engines, batteries, torpedoes, guns, and snorkels (devices that allowed them to run their diesel engines underwater).

When World War II broke out in September 1939, Germany had about 50 U-boats ready for action. Their main target was again the British merchant shipping in the Atlantic Ocean, which was vital for Britain's survival and war effort. The Battle of the Atlantic lasted from 1939 to 1945, and it was the longes


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