How often are submarines still used?

The small submarine SEEHUND - fascination and horror

The small submarine type XXVII was used in the last year of the Second World War. Discover in our exhibition the background to the fascination and horror of the "seal".

“The“ seal ”is now known to be the submarine type XXVII (sometimes also called type 127). In contrast to the "Biber", it is well constructed and equipped. There is a remarkable resemblance between “Seehund” and the prefabricated submarine types XXI and XXIII, and it appears that it is a miniature version of the last. ”Klaus Mattes, historian and expert on small submarines, here cited a British intelligence report of February 1945. At this point in time, several missions of the "seals" had already been carried out.
From the summer of 1943, the naval high command saw the establishment of a fleet of so-called small-scale weapons as a last resort to disrupt the Allied supply routes during sea warfare and to turn the course of the war.

In keeping with the spirit of the times, the naval development of the German Empire initially concentrated on the construction of capital ships. It was only when the large battleships were destroyed in the course of the war and the regular submarines were easily traceable after the Enigma code had been decoded that a rethink began. A weapon was developed with the aim of creating terror. Due to their size, the small submarines could hardly be seen on the radar and should surprisingly sink the supply ships in the English Channel. The guerrilla tactics would have tied up the attacking forces of the Allies in defensive battles and eased the pressure on the combat units at the front. But the situation developed differently in practice than presented in theory. To characterize the first mission aptly, Klaus Mattes had one of the submarine drivers report:
“On January 1, 1945, the 1st Seal Flotilla with 18 boats was deployed against enemy supplies in the waters off the Scheldt estuary. It was the seals' first patrol. Only two boats came back. One of them was our boat. "


Was the late start of production the cause of the disasters in the submarine war?

What happened? Obviously, the construction of the small submarines should be named as the cause of the losses. The idea of ​​developing smaller submarines had been made long before the war and not only in Germany. The first submarine - the BRANDTAUCHER, developed by Wilhelm Bauer in the 1850s - can also be considered the first small submarine. However, the development of such submarine types was not pursued further in the German Reich. In the UK, on ​​the other hand, it does. Two small submarines of the Royal Navy damaged the 50,000-ton battleship TIRPITZ by installing mines so badly that it could no longer be used during the war. The German production of similar small submarines then began. Types with code names such as “Biber”, “Molch” or “Pike” were constructed. The difficulty for the engineers of the construction office of the Kriegsmarine was to accommodate the technology for successful diving and fighting, which in regular submarines extended over a larger space, in a much smaller area. However, the spatial concentration of the technology was not the only challenge for the engineers.


A truck diesel engine was installed in the "seal"

Due to the damage to the military production facilities, on the one hand the individual submarine parts had to be developed separately from one another and, on the other hand, parts had to be used that were in stock and did not require extensive development. For example, a diesel engine was built into the "seal" that was actually intended for trucks. Nonetheless, the engineers of the marine construction office have developed a well-functioning machine with the "seal".
One of the reasons for this was that by testing previous models, weak points could be repaired. The end result was the “Seehund”, a submarine for two people with a diesel-electric drive that comprised three chambers. Since functionality was the focus, only one chamber was provided for the team. The "seal" was a complex and uncomfortable, but well-constructed submarine.


The crew of the small submarine suffered from mental and physical overload

But if the technology did not fail, how can the catastrophic defeat of the small submarines in the first months of operation be explained? In addition to the technical, the human component in the boat must be considered. The engineer mentioned above says: “I assume that most of the accidents involving submarines - not including the losses due to enemy action - are caused by incorrect assessments of the situation and operating errors. A submarine is a sensitive vehicle […]. It does not forgive mistakes […]! ”If you look at the composition of the teams, the problem becomes clearer. The soldiers deployed were all members of the Navy and some had experience with submarines. But because of the advanced war they were very young. In addition, there was the short training time, which made it possible to get to know the functions of the “seal”, but was not sufficient for in-depth training, let alone the development of a profound wealth of experience.

However, especially for this small submarine, excellent knowledge of the handling of the machines was absolutely necessary. The circumstances forced the naval command to send highly motivated officers who were inexperienced in handling the submarine. The wintry sea and the strong presence of the Allied fleet in the English Channel made the situation even worse for these young men. The days of deployments in the confines of the submarine, in which movement was almost impossible, also strained the crew's nerves. Caffeinated chocolate and the stimulant Pervitin were supposed to help, but the substances often did the opposite. After the first month with 43 missions, almost every third submarine of the "Seehund" type had not returned from the mission. The successes amounted to two sunk ships. The horror that this weapon was supposed to bring was in the end directed against its own crew.


The small submarine "Seehund" is being transformed into an exhibit in the German Maritime Museum

One of these small submarines is in our exhibition today. The exhibition area in question was set up in the 1970s. The boat was found in 1969 in the west port of Wilhelmshaven. Recreational divers discovered three submarines one after the other, on which the torpedoes were still mounted. Since otherwise no war damage to the boats could be discovered and no mortal remains were found, it can be assumed that the command post in Wilhelmshaven had the small submarines sunk so that they would not fall into the hands of the approaching Allied troops. How much the tides had affected the submarines and whether they were completely assembled submarines is difficult to determine today. During the repair, however, changes were made to the submarine, which made the boat "public-friendly". The tower was redesigned, a periscope was inserted and an exhaust pipe was added. The company also cut out parts of the outer shell to allow a view inside through Plexiglas panes. It seems as if the change measures are intended to present the audience with a submarine that appears prototypical and whose technical finesse is visible. But the submarine not only aroused fascination with the visitors at the time. We definitely don't want to see a World War II submarine set up here in Bremerhaven! "Wrote a visitor in 1984 in the visitor book".

Fascination and horror are very close to one another in this exhibition object, both in the past and today. The challenge for the future exhibition will be to convey the horror that this object caused in World War II and yet to show where the fascination lies today.