German Type 212A U-Boat

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Continuing from last week…

Wilhelm Bauer (December 23, 1822 – June 20, 1875)

Interestingly, the Type 212A was designed and built by Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft (“HDW”) and Italian subcontractor Fincantieri for both the German and Italian Navies. The German firm, HDW, whose roots extend to 1838, actually built its first submarine in 1850. German engineer, Wilhelm Bauer, designed this primitive submersible for the purpose of ending the Danish naval blockade of the coastline of north Prussia, which he observed during one of the periodic dust ups between various German states and the Kingdom of Denmark. (History often comes full circle. In 1957, HDW was sourced to overhaul the Federal German U-Boat Wilhelm Bauer (formerly U-2540).)

In the days of sail, one of the classic ways to breach the blockade of one’s coastline and ports, was to send “fire ships” down wind toward the blockading squadron. A “fire ship” was an old vessel, no longer needed. It was packed with explosives and crewed by a handful of volunteers who would make sail and steer the ship toward the sailing ships of the enemy being used on blockade duty. (They towed a boat which they used if they managed to get away.)

At a certain distance they would set their ship afire, which was easy to do since it was comprised of wood and rope and canvass and paint and tar, all of which burned easily. Since the enemy ships were comprised of the same, fire was a deadly enemy. This is where the volunteer part comes in: the sailors had to stay aboard the now burning “fire ship” long enough to steer it close enough to the enemy ships so it didn’t veer off course. Since the ship was filled with explosives and was on fire, this took a certain amount of brass, especially because the junior officer aboard had no way of knowing the number of minutes which would tick by between setting the ship on fire and having it explode.

The Burning of the Royal James at the Battle of Solebay, 28 May 1672 by Willem van de Velde the younger. The painting shows the use of fire ships by the Dutch against the English flagship.

There are several excellent scenes of fire ships being used in the Hornblower novels by C. S. Forester. I started to flip through them when I was writing this post to find the scenes but started to read the novels instead and after an hour of that I thought I had better get back to writing my blog and other things I’m working on. I’ve read all the Hornblower novels probably 25 times. My dear departed mother gave me a paperback copy of Mr. Midshipman Hornblower when I was in the 7th grade and I read that one and all the rest of them probably ten times before I graduated from college. I re-read them a year ago and realized how much impact C.S. Forester had on my own style of writing. Not that I am comparing myself to him. He was the master of historical nautical fiction and no one else has ever come close. (I’m not a Patrick O’Brien fan.)

Wilhelm Bauer’s sketch of Brandtaucher, which he designed, from a book circa 1895.

Now where was I before I wandered off into the Hornblower novels? Ah, I was writing about the submersible designed by the German, or more correctly, the Prussian, Wilhelm Bauer. His submarine was called, Brandtaucher, which translates from German as “incendiary diver” or “fire diver,” so named because it was thought the submersible would set ships afire by creeping under them and fastening a small bomb to their hulls. The bomb would go off, the ship would catch fire. Hence the navy men of the time thought of it as a type of “fire ship.”

Brandtaucher was originally built by August Howaldt and his first shipbuilding firm, Schweffel & Howaldt, the successor firms of which would go onto build many U-Boats for the German Navy. Having survived two world wars and countless upheavals, the firm continues to be headquartered in Kiel, one of the major German maritime centers on the Baltic. Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft is a combination of two shipbuilders who merged in 1968. Howaldtswerke was active during both World Wars in Hamburg and Kiel and built 64 Type VIIC U-Boats in the second war.

In the years of Allied occupation, they were the only major shipyard in Kiel not dismantled. Deutsche Werft was founded after World War One, and produced 113 Type IX and Type XXIII U-Boats during World War Two. (Just to keep things in the family, HDW is in turn owned by ThyssenKrupp, a conglomerate formed from Thyssen, the major steel supplier in Nazi Germany, and Krupp, which I think most of us know has something of a history in the arms trade.)

[Images courtesy of Wikimedia.]

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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/

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