All About U-Boats

Ironically, World War I was known as the war to end all wars. For many Westerners, it was an experience of hell on Earth. This was largely due to great leaps in technology. It was the first war in which machine guns played a major role. It was also the first war in which chemical weapons were widely used. One major innovation was the use of submarines. While primitive submarine technology actually existed long before WWI and had even been used offensively, this was the first time in history that mass-produced fleets of them were deployed in naval battles.

It was the Germans who lead in submarine technology during WWI. Their early subs, known as U-Boats, silently prowled the seas. Because they traveled well below the water line, merchant vessels and boats used by the British Navy never saw them coming. Even large vessels such as the 421 ton German U-3 Coastal Submarine, which was 51.3 meters long, could travel with impunity. Most ships only realized the U-3 when they were struck by one of its standard-issue 45cm torpedoes. In this new type of warfare, the face of the enemy would never be seen by those unfortunate victims who drown in the murky depths as a result. Other U-Boats struck indirectly with perhaps a more insidious strategy. They laid aquatic mines. Aquatic mines were usually anchored and floated at a prescribed depth. They had pressure sensors and when an object such as a ship connected with them, they exploded. The force was sufficient to tear holes in the hulls of not just immediate enemies but ships unfortunate enough to run into them for years to come.

The losses U-Boats dealt to the British were tremendous. In 1914 alone, 214,201 British ships were sunk by U-Boats with the heaviest losses occurring in September. The worst year for British vessels was 1918 in which 1,694,749 vessels were destroyed. After the war, it was calculated that 7,759,090 British ships and a total of 12,850,814 ships had been the victims of U-boats. With those staggering numbers, it should be no surprise that the U-Boat was Germany's ace during the war. Some of the most famous men to command these vessels were Lothar von Arnauld de la Periere, Walter Forstmann, Max Valentiner, Hans Rose, Otto Steinbrinck, Waldemar Kophamel, Walter Schwieger, Hans von Mellenthin, Claus Rucker, Wunsche, Reinhold Saltzwedel, Steinbauer, Ganser, Robert Moraht, Wilhelm Werner, Leo Hillebrand, Otto Schultze, Rudolf Schneider, Ernest Hashagen, and Kurt Hartwig. In those days, the kill-rates for U-Boat captains was estimated in tonnage. Lothar von Arnauld de la Periere holds the German record for the war, having sunk over 400,000 tons of enemy craft in only ten patrols. This is a tremendous feat considering that Otto Steinbrinck, who holds the record for most patrols at 24, only sunk 210,000 tons of enemy craft.

U-Boats were not invincible though. They often had to surface for supplies or to get a bearing and some were actually spotted by sonar. Many were destroyed during the war as a result. For instance, the UC75 was rammed by a British Destroyer in the North Sea on May 31st, 1918. The UC36 was spotted and bombed by Seaplane 8663, 20 miles northeast of Noord Hinder Lightship on May 20th, 1917. Others simply failed. The UC71 was last known to have sunk off the coast of Heligoland on February 20th, 1919, well after the war ended. Others such as the U20 were sacrificed by their own crew after becoming stranded. Many more such as the U17 were simply broken up in Germany after the war.

Additional U-Boat Resources