World War Two German U-Boats Almost the Same as Great War U-Boats

In his magisterial work, Neither Sharks Nor Wolves: the Men of Nazi Germany’s U-boat Arm, 1939-1945, naval historian Tim Mulligan writes about the very small differences between German U-Boats in World War One and World War Two. I came across this last night when I was re-reading Mr. Mulligan’s book and it quite surprised me. During the first war, the Germans designed a type of submarine they designated the: Ms-Boote class. Three of these submarine were launched in the summer of 1916. This design became the prototype for the Type VIIC which formed the backbone of the German U-Bootwaffe in World War Two. According Mr. Mulligan, the only difference between the two was the Type VIIC had more powerful diesel engines. He gives the following statistics and I must say the similarity between the two types is shocking. It’s as if nothing changed in the ensuing 24 years between the end of WW One and the beginning of WW Two.

Ms-Boats (WW 1) Type VIIC (WW 2)
Surface Displacement (tons) 768 769
Length (meters) 67 67.1
Beam (meters) 6.3 6.2
Max Surface Speed (knots) 16.5 17.7
Max Submerged Speed (knots) 8.4 7.6
Range (nautical miles/knots) 11,400/8 8500/10
Torpedoes Tubes (bow/stern) 2/2 4/1
Fuel Capacity (tons) 128 113.5
Diving Time (seconds) 30 30

At the end of World War One, the German Navy was substantially ahead of the Allies in submarine technology. Under the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was forced to divest herself of her U-Boat fleet. According to Mr. Mulligan, the US Navy and the Royal Navy took their share of the German U-Boat fleet and studied the boats with great care noting all areas where the German boats were superior to Allied submarines. Those technologies in which the Germans were superior were incorporated into new Allied submarine designs.

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

4 thoughts on “World War Two German U-Boats Almost the Same as Great War U-Boats”

  1. Interesting comments as always. One of the things which happened to the Germans after World War One was the collapse of most of the large ship yards which had the expertise required to build a warship, which includes U-Boats. The highly skilled labor force was let go and scattered to the winds. Putting their naval construction infrastructure back in place proved a difficult task. When compared to the UK and especially the US, the Germans could not come close. There was a huge shortage of skilled labor in Germany particularly among metal workers, engineers and other highly skilled jobs such as welders. Regardless of their special skills, most of these men were drafted into the army and the Kriegsmarine had to go find them and get them back–over the objections of the army.

    I respectfully suggest we as Americans keep this in mind when we discuss closing shipyards which build warships and submarines for the US Navy.

    Doenitz refused to match the technology to the mission. He just came up with the mission and sent in the UBoats long after it was apparent they were obsolete. He was a weak man, lacking in moral character and totally abrogated his responsibility to his men–the cardinal sin of a commander in my opinion. He was promoted far above his capabilities and as a commander of a huge military campaign he can’t hold a candle to his nemesis: Admiral Sir Max Horton, Commander in Chief Western Approaches who controlled all ASW assets in the Royal Navy.

  2. What about the research done between the wars at the submarine design firm that Germany set-up in Holland? Did they not make any difference?

  3. In my humble opinion, the minimal differences between U-boat characteristics between the World Wars owes much to two factors.

    1. The minimal amount of time that Germany had to develop its U-boat arm after the First World War. Germany was forbidden to have a U-boat force by the Treaty of Versailles, until Hitler decided to re-establish the arm, and the rest of the world let him do so. But even so, the Germans only had about 4 years in which to train a whole new generation of submariners, reinstate training regimens, and experiment with its U-boat design. And with 20 years since the First World War, a whole new generation of U-boat designers had to start from the very beginning when they started making a new U-boat fleet. So, naturally, they drew from what worked in the First World War, and gradually developed better U-boats, such as the Type XXI, by the end of the war. In contrast, the United States fully utilized the 20 years between the world wars to experiment with various submarine designs, and then incrementally improve the design of the fleet submarine over a ten-year period from 1930 to 1940. Additionally, this uninterrupted period allowed the U.S. Navy to develop, tinker with, and standardize its training pipeline to maximize graduation of reasonably competent would-be submariners.

    2. The strategic outlook of Admiral Dönitz. A number of historians, such as Holger Herwig and Clay Blair, have noted that Dönitz remained pretty fixated on one major strategic concept – encircling and cutting off the supply lines to Great Britain through sheer numbers of U-boats around the British Isles. Consequently, he envisioned a U-boat that didn’t need to have long range or endurance – in short, something like his First World War U-boats. But as his U-boats were increasingly pushed into the Mid-Atlantic “air gap” to avoid RAF anti-submarine patrols, they increasingly showed themselves to be of limited range, speed, and endurance. A U-boat commander might be able to enjoy two of the three named attributes, but never all three for more than a very short period. By adopting a strategy and never really revisiting it based on the realities facing his U-boat arm and their own weaknesses, Dönitz set himself up for failure. Instead, he kept trying to use incremental technological fixes to solve what was ultimately a strategic issue. The Type XXI U-boat may have been able to solve his problems, but it was too little and far too late.

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