Brief History of U-Boats

The U-Boat Story

Kriegsmarine

Allied Shipping Sank

2,779 ships lost / 14.1 million Gross Tons



U-Boats Build / Lost

1,162 U-Boats Built / 785 Sank


October 1, 1933

Unterseebotsabwehrschule founded

U-Boat School Established

October 1, 1933
June 1, 1935

U-1 Launched

June 1, 1935
January 1, 1936

Karl Donitz Commander of U-Boats

January 1, 1936
August 1, 1938

First Type IX U-Boat commissioned

August 1, 1938
September 1, 1939

Liner Athenia sunk by U-30

September 1, 1939
October 1, 1939

Royal Oak sunk at Scapa Flow

Gunther Prien / U-47

October 1, 1939
March 1, 1941

Gunthier Prien KIA

12:33 Pm

March 1, 1941
March 1, 1941

Schepke and Kretschmer KIA

This makes 3 U-Boat aces KIA (including Prien)

March 1, 1941
May 1, 1941

U-110 Captured Intact

May 1, 1941
November 1, 1941

Ark Royal Sinks

U-81

November 1, 1941
November 1, 1941

Launch U-459

First U-Boat Tanker

November 1, 1941
November 1, 1941

Battleship Barham Sinks

U-331

November 1, 1941
July 1, 1942

Convoy PQ17

July 1, 1942
March 1, 1943

Convoys HX229 and SC122

Largest Convoy Battles Ever

March 1, 1943
May 1, 1943

U-Boats Withdraw

U-Boats withdrawn from North Atlantic due to losses

May 1, 1943
April 1, 1944

Type XXIII U-Boat Launched

April 1, 1944
May 1, 1944

Type XXI U-Boat Launched

May 1, 1944

The armistice signed in 1918 prohibited Germany from building or having any submarines. Fortunately for Germany the France and England overlooked the vast amount of submarine knowledge and expertise that existed within Germany. Not Long after WW1 Germany began exporting this expertise to other countries assisting them to build submarines. Germany operated a “front” company out of Holland in 1922 to prevent being charged with breaking the spirit of the armistice.

In 1932 Germany decided to build a program to provide for the construction of submarines for a modern German navy. The first objective was to provide eight medium-sized sumarines (500 tons). This is also the time that a U-Boat school was established. Between 1934 and 1937 Germany produced 24 U-Boats and training crews.

There are many types of U-Boats but the Type VII was the most produced and sank the most ships. Specifically the Type VII C was in essense the Standard U-Boat for the war. Iconic and deadly, over 650 were built. 44 crew members lived in, and most often died, in the cramped and fairly miserable living condition on the Type VII. U-Boats are frequently referred to as “Iron Coffins”. Winston Churchill once said “The threat from the U-Boats was the only thing that really frightened him.”

The battle for the Atlantic was really a six year struggle for control of lines of communication and supply between North America and Britain. Admiral Karl Donitz is primarily resonsible for the development, building, training and employment of the U-Boat Fleets. Donitz believed that he could bring Britain to her knees in the next war if he had 300 U-Boats. Unfortunately for him the war began and he only had 57. Some of the 57 were training and coatal U-Boats and unfit for deep Atlantic warfare. Donitz had to fight a battle of “mindset” to get the resources needed to build his U-Boats. There was in Germany as in Britain, Japan and America a large number of military officers that believe captial ships (battleships and battlecruisers) were the key to victory on the seas. Donitz was out numbered in his view just as General Billy Mitchell was with his view of bombers vs capital ships. Both men had the vision but neither could ever get enough resources to make that vision come true in the time it was needed.

On September 3, 1939, a few hours before Britain decalared war on Germany for the invasion of Poland, the passenger ship Athenia sailed from England to America. With 1400 passengers on board the Athenia was mistaken for a troop ship and sank by U-30. 118 passengers died.

What most people do not realize that that while we speak in terms of “submarines”, in reality most U-Boats, especially in the first few years of the war, are more correctly identified as a “submersible”. The Type VII C travelled on the surface of the ocean nearly 90% of the time. This of course became problematic as Allied defenses improved. Once submerged, the Type VII C depended upon its electric motors rather than its diesal engines for propulsion.

U-Boats experienced tremendous succuss in the first part of the war. Most U-Boat aces commanded a Type VII C. These commanders tended to be younger men, and agressive men. Germany’s top U-Boat aces thrived in the first part of the way but the top three were gone, lost in action by mid 1941.

U-Boat Ace’s performed stunning feats including sinking The HMS Courageous (aircraft carrier) by U-29 (Type VII A – Otto Schuhart) on 17 September 1939. U-47 (Type VII B – Gunther Prien) sank the battleship Royal Oak on 14 October 1939 and Otto Kretschmer sank 44 ships between Septembers 1939 and March 1941 for a total of 274,333 tons.

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