U is for U-boat

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U-boat is, of course, the German term for submarine, usually associated with World War II. The true German term is Unterseeboot, or literally ‘undersea boat’. If we go back further, the father of the modern submarine was a Irishman named John Philip Holland (in the photo below), who designed the first submarine to be commissioned by the US Navy in 1900.

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And on Saturday Aug. 26, 1905, Theodore Roosevelt became the first president (and to my knowledge the only sitting president) to submerge in a submarine. His wife Edith was (similar to her reaction to him going up in an aeroplane) apoplectic. But Holland’s designs, of a boat that ran on internal combustion engine on the surface and batteries below, were the first practical designs of modern underwater craft.

Parallel to this, the Germans developed their own submarines. Their first one sank in 1850 on its first dive in Kiel harbor. After that they got better, of course, and by the time WWI started had a fleet of 28. Overall, in WWI and WWII, the undersea boat was very effective, but ultimately not decisive in the outcome of the war.

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The operational principles are pretty simple. I guess I should have posted this little tidbit under ‘B is for Buoyancy’. All you have to do is remember the basic principle of buoyancy (in water). If something is lighter than its volume of water, it will float. If it’s heavier than its volume of water, it will sink. There are actually woods (such as lignum vitae) that are sufficiently dense (like yours truly) that they sink in water. So the basic theory of the operational submarine is that you start with a pressure hull (that’s the tank with the people inside that resists water pressure) and attach ‘ballast tanks’ to that. When the ballast tanks are full of air the boat floats, when the ballast tanks are full of water the boat sinks. Generally speaking, WWII U-boat ballast tanks were shaped a little like parakeet cuttlefish on the ends (stay with me here, it’s just a rough shape comparison) that were welded alongside the pressure hull (which was usually cylindrical in shape to resist pressure more easily).

The main weapon of the U-boat during WWII was the torpedo, though some ships were sunk using deck guns. They were pretty effective during the war, especially off the coast of North Carolina around Cape Lookout and Cape Hatteras. Historically ships take advantage of the Gulf Stream flow on their way south and either sail closer to the Outer Banks on the way north or further out to avoid the flow. In any case it’s an area of much ship traffic and the U-boats took advantage of it knowing where ships were going to be. There were so many sinkings in that area it came to be known as ‘Torpedo Alley’. All through the war, oil spills, wreckage and bodies were not uncommon along those beaches, especially during 1942, a period the German submariners called ‘The Happy Time’, when they sank almost 400 vessels and over 5000 people lost their lives. There were three submarines sunk by the allies during this period and two of them still lie in about 115 feet of water off Cape Hatteras and south of Beaufort Inlet. One U-boat that survived the war (barely) was U-505, which is now located in her own hall in the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. The photo below shows it as it was being captured. She was the first warship captured on the high seas since the War of 1812. The display in Chicago is a beautiful exhibit and I heartily recommend you see it if you’re in the area. Walking through it shows just how cold, cramped and dirty life was aboard the U-boats.

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The Achilles heel of the U-boat was the fact it had to surface to replenish air and recharge batteries at least once a day for a few hours. The advent of airborne radar took advantage of this and even the development of the snorkel for U-boats did not help them very much. Added to that was the Enigma code machine that was captured on the U-505 that was instrumental in breaking the German’s radio communication code. That code breaking nulified the wolf pack tactics. 28,000 of the 40,000 German U-boat sailors were killed outright during the war. That’s a 70% casualty rate.

Two small points that writers may find interesting: Submarines, no matter the size, are always called ‘boats’ not ‘ships.’ Second, the word ‘submariners’ is pronounced sub-ma-REEN-ers, not sub-MAH-rin-ers. That might seems like a small thing, but when I mispronounced the word when I worked on them at the shipyard, the sailors very quickly disabused me of my initial notion. Something to keep in mind if you ever talk with one.

Next time ‘V’. Gotta think about that one, may have worked myself into a corner here.

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