A dirty, sweaty and foul environment
Untrimmed beards were the mark of U-Boatmen who had been long at sea.
Freshwater was rationed and while possible to shave in salt-water few men wanted to take the time to do that. U-Boats such as the Type VII depicted in Das Boot, were not designed for the long range operations they were compelled to undertake so there were few comforts for the men. (Das Boot translates from German as “The Boat.” Obviously not a surprise. “Boot” in German is pronounced “boat.”
crew watching fellow sailor dancing in scene from director’s cut 1997 of Das Boot. The men didn’t have a lot of down time and when they did most wanted to sleep.
Water for drinking was rationed. While the men were given one cup of fresh water every day for personal use such as brushing teeth or washing, most drank the water instead of using it for anything else since they barely received enough water as it was.
Because storage space on a U-Boat was extremely limited, U-Boat crewmen could only bring aboard one change of clothes and two pairs of underwear for an entire war patrol which could last as long as two and occasionally three months. In order to make the dirt less obvious, the men wore black underwear which they referred to as “whore’s undies.”
US Navy fleet submarine USS Gato 1944. Fleet submarines were designed for the long range patrols required in the Pacific and had far more comforts for the men and necessities such as bathing facilities. Not washing for a long period of time is unhealthy for the skin. These boats could make 21 knots on the surface vs the German surface speed of 15/16 knots.
Unlike US Navy fleet submarines, German U-boats were not air conditioned nor did they have heat except for a handful of electric heaters. The boat took on the temperature of the water so if you were in very cold water the interior was very cold and if you were in the warm even the hot water of the tropics, the inside of the boat was hot and steamy.
It would have been like working in a steam room. Crewman often wore nothing but their underwear in conditions like this when the temperature in the boat could go above 100 degrees. (The warmth of the water combined with the heat generated by the diesel engines and other equipment in the boat).
The equipment and torpedoes were the priorities. Crewmen had to squeeze in wherever room could be found for a bunk. Except for the officers and senior petty officers, the crew “hot bunked” that is once a man woke up and went on duty an off-duty man climbed into that bunk and slept.
U-boats did not have facilities for the men to wash themselves or their clothing. The best that could be done was to wash yourself and/or your clothing in a bucket of seawater using special salt water soap issued by the UBoatwaffe. Skin diseases and rashes were common.
In memoirs, veterans of the UBoatwaffe often mention that one thing they could never get used to was how badly the boat smelled. In fact, when boats came in from war patrols and docked, flotilla engineers who went aboard often threw up. That’s how bad the smell was.
These U-Boat crewmen are probably rendering honors to another ship as they come into port. Beginning in 1942, however, the crew were mustered on deck coming into port because more and more U-Boats were being sunk by striking magnetic mines. Therefore, most of the crewmen would be saved if the boat sank. These magnetic mines were constantly being dropped into the approaches to German U-Boat ports on the French Channel coast such as Lorient by RAF Coastal Command.
Armourers “bombing up” an RAF Coastal Command Liberator with 250-lb Mark VIII depth charges. 50% of German U-boats were actually sunk by aircraft, not by Allied escort ships.
U-boat kommandant (identified by his white cap cover) looking down through the main hatchway from the bridge into the conning tower where the helmsman sat, controlling the rudder with push buttons. In the conning tower, there was another watertight hatch.
Ventilating the boat to replace the foul air was difficult. On occasion, the kommandant would allow the two hatches in the conning tower to be opened and all the interior hatches–which were watertight as well— to be opened and the outboard air intakes in the diesel compartment closed. This would cause the diesel engines to start drawing air from through the open hatches and ventilate the boat. This wasn’t highly effective but it did change the air within the boat.
When proceeding on the surface in an area where they could be attacked, most of the interior hatchways would be closed or a sailor stationed close by would have the duty of immediately closing the hatch. Normally, the hatch to the engine room and beyond that the hatch E-motor compartment would be closed and dogged shut, that is they would be sealed and waterproof.
Theoretically, everyone who served in the UBootwaffe was a volunteer but we know from memoirs, post-war interviews, and wartime interrogation reports that this was not the case.