Life on a Submarine during WWI - History Key

Life on a Submarine during WWI

We are all convinced that war is a terrible situation, but we must also say that in war are some situations that could be considered the worst. Among the pilots and the tankmen who are risking their lives in the control of their complex machines, there is also another context, maybe the hardest to accept or undertake: the submarine.

The Iron Coffin

This time, we won’t talk about the already well-known submarines from WW2, where the German army made a clear statement with its policy related to submarine warfare, but we will present you some insights from the WW1 submarines. We must keep in mind that back then the submarine was pretty much a new battlefield invention, so many of the situations in which it was involved were a sort of live tests.

The German SM U-106 from WW1, 1917
The German SM U-106 from WW1, 1917 © Image Source: www.militaryfactory.com

During WW1, the submarine’s role was slightly different from the one later adopted during WW2. We must consider that initially the submarines were built in order to protect German ports and harbors, without having a clear offensive role. It’s also clear that the technology applied in their construction, could not compare to the one used in the WW2 U-boats. Having that in mind, we would discover that a WW1 submarine had its limits:

  • They were capable of spending five days on war patrol but with only 72 hours air supply;
  • They could be submerged only for two hours at a time, considering that they had to switch from a diesel engine to an electric-powered one;

But we must note also another aspect related to the WW1 submarine warfare: back then, the U-boat entered battles using old-fashioned rules of war, somehow respecting their opponents. After spotting a target, the U-boat surfaced launching a warning signal announcing its incoming attack, in order to grant time for the escape to the merchant crews.

We all live in a “German” Submarine

Overall, its occupants considered the submarine some sort of iron coffin, because there was no escape if something wrong happened. The submarine was not equipped with diving gear, so if it sank on the bottom of the sea, it was forever.

A good example about the conditions in the WW1 submarine warfare is offered by the German U-118, which ended washed ashore on the Hastings beach, in 1919. When the people living in the town of Hastings awoke seeing one German U-boat on their beach it was pretty much a shock. Thousands went to see the submarine, so many that the Admiralty allowed the town clerk to charge a fee for visiting the U-118.

What happened to the German submarine, what made it to shore without any kind of resistance?

Later on, it was discovered that the entire crew from the U-118 died from chlorine gas poisoning, a gas which had been released by the SM U-118’s batteries, causing severe damage to the lungs and brain.

The SM U-118 ashore on the Hastings beach, April 1919
The SM U-118 ashore on the Hastings beach, April 1919 © Image Source: rarehistoricalphotos.com

There are several reports related to the danger of the submarine’s batteries. Here we have a note coming from Johannes Spiess, who served as first watch officer on the U-9:

“The storage battery cells, which were located under the living spaces generated gas ventilation failure risked explosion, a catastrophe which occurred in several German boats. If sea water got into the battery cells, poisonous chlorine gas was generated.”

Even more, problems came for the submarine’s crews. During 1916, a new weapon was developed, one directly related to the submarine warfare: the “Wasserbombe”, widely known as the “depth charge”. The depth charges considerably raised the anxiety level among the crews locked inside a submarine, also considering that these new bombs were very effective.

The first submarine sunk by a depth charge was the UC-19, caught in the English Channel. During 1917 others 12 U-boats were destroyed by depth charges. By the end of the following year, the total doubled, reaching 24 sunken U-boats.

The SM U-118 ashore on the Hastings beach, April 1919
The SM U-118 ashore on the Hastings beach, April 1919 © Image Source: rarehistoricalphotos.com

This new weapon, the “Wasserbombe”, marked a turning point for the submarine warfare: the submarines were still invisible, but at the same time they had no place to hide.

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