Introduction to German U-boats
The term U-boat is the Anglicised version of the German word U-boot, which is an abbreviation of Unterseeboot (literally "undersea boat"). It is used to refer to German submarines which were operated in World War I and, to a larger extent, in World War II. Austrian submarines were also known as U-boots, but they only saw action during WWI as the country became landlocked following the conflict.
The German U-boats were used very effectively in strikes against merchant shipping convoys bringing essential supplies, armaments and troops from the British Empire and the USA to Great Britain. Their success was largely due to a lack of appropriate Allied air cover over vast parts of the Atlantic Ocean.
About 380 U-boats were commissioned by the German Navy during World War I. Most of these were long-range torpedo-carrying submarines, though specialised coastal and mine-laying units were also built.
In comparison, WWII saw around 1250 U-boats being put into service,of which 4 were captured by opposing parties. This article all but provides a brief account of their remarkable stories.
U-110 by the British Royal Navy
U-boat along with secret documents seized
U-110 was a Type IXB U-boat of the German Kriegsmarine which was captured by the Royal Navy on the 9th May 1941 under the code name "Operation Primrose". The seizure became invaluable to the Allies and was to be one of the biggest secrets of the war: It is reported that even President Roosevelt was only informed of the coup seven months after the event.
The reason for secrecy?
The crew of the U-boat had failed to follow procedures by destroying secret encrypting documents before abandoning ship, but the German military command assumed that they had.
The sequence of events was as follows:
U-110 together with U-201 had been attacking convoy CB-318 in the North Atlantic when a torpedo failed to launch from U-110. Her commander, Captain Lemp was momentarily distracted by this, which allowed the British escorting corvette, HMS Aubretia, to locate and drop depth charges on the submarine's location.
U-110 survived the attack, but was seriously damaged. She was eventually forced to surface and Lemp ordered the crew "Abandon ship". As the crew made their way onto the U-boat's deck they were fired upon by two destroyers, HMS Bulldog (pictured) and HMS Broadway. Several of the German crew were killed or injured by the gunfire which stopped, once the British realised the sub was being abandoned.
Lemp had ordered the vents to be opened and told the radio operator to leave the codebooks and Enigma encoding machine where they were, as he believe the submarine would be scuttled. When he realised that this was not happening he attempted to swim back to it, but he was never seen again. Including Lemp, 15 men were killed in the action and 32 captured.
Bulldog's crew then boarded U-110 and stripped it of everything portable on the spot, including her secret documents and equipment. U-110 was taken in tow back toward Britain, but sank en route to Scapa Flow.
The documents captured from U-110 were passed on to the Bletchley Park codebreakers, who used them to solve the Reservehandverfahren, a reserve German hand cipher.
The film U-571 was partially inspired by the capture of U-110
U-571 Movie Trailer
U-219 by the Japanese Navy
Captured, then recycled into service
Following Germany's surrender, U-219 was seized by the Japanese at Djakarta on 8 May 1945 and on 15 July 1945 was placed into service with the Imperial Japanese Navy as I-505.
She was eventually captured at Surabaya in August 1945 by the Royal Navy, and scuttled in February 1946 off the Sunda Strait.
U-505 by the US Navy
More codebooks secretly confiscated
U-505 was commissioned on 26 August 1941 and is a Type IXC U-boat of the German Kriegsmarine.
She was captured on 4 June 1944 by the US Navy and all but one U-505 crewman was rescued. The submarine was taken to Bermuda where the crew was interned in a prisoner of war camp. During their detention no communication to the outside world was permitted as the event was classified top secret by the US government. This ensured the German military command would assume the submarine had successfully been scuttled.
The codebooks and other materials which were taken from this U-boat helped the Allies to decode enemy war messages.
The rather grainy photograph - courtesy of Wikimedia Commons - shows Captain Daniel V. Gallery, USN, Commanding Officer, Guadalcanal and others standing on the conning tower of U-505. The United States flag is flying above the German Navy ensign. This capture on the high seas was the first for the U.S. Navy since 1815.
Tour of U-505 at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago
U-570 by the British Royal Navy
More recycling of enemy vessels
U-570 was a Type VIIC vessel of the German Kriegsmarine before she was captured and commissioned into the Royal Navy on 27th August 1941.
She was renamed HMS Graph and was used in active duty until 20th March 1944, when she ran aground and was damaged beyond repair during a storm. She was subsequently broken up in the 1960s.
U-570 was the only German U-boat to be taken into Allied service and to see active service with both sides during WWII.
U-boat Facts and Stats
- 37,000 men trained were trained for U-boat service: 6000 survived the war
- mainly based in reinforced concrete bunkers in the French ports of Bordeaux, Brest, Lorient, La Rochelle and St. Nazaire
- typically carried around 20 torpedoes and deck-mounted anti-aircraft guns
- 3 remain preserved: U-995 in Germany, U-505 in Chicago and U-534 in Liverpool
- U-boats spent most of their time above water since their diesel engines required air to work. These engines also charged batteries used by electric engines when the boat was submerged, though these suffered from endurance and performance issues, From 1944 some U-boats were modified to include a special mast known as a snorkel, which allowed diesel engines to draw air while the vessel was submerged. However, the technology was in its infancy, so was largely ineffective and came too late to change the course of the war
Deciphering the Terminology
This is a mansion in an estate near the town of Bletchley, in Buckinghamshire, England. During World War II, the site hosted the British Government Code and Cypher School where enemy radio messages were intercepted and decrypted.
An Enigma machine (pictured) is an electro-mechanical machine used for the encryption and decryption of secret messages.
In March 2012 two Enigma machines which had been used during the Spanish Civil War were discovered and donated to the head of GCHQ (a secret services establishment in the UK).
The Kriegsmarine was the operating name of the German Navy during the Nazi regime (1935-1945). It was formerly called the Reichsmarine and the Kaiserliche Marine during WWI. The Kriegsmarine was one of three branches of the Wehrmacht, the global name for the armed forces of Nazi Germany.
This was a German Naval WWII hand-cipher system used as a reserve system when no Enigma machine was available.
Scapa Flow is a body of water in the Orkney Islands, Scotland. It covers about 312 square kilometres and is one of the great natural harbours of the world, with enough space to hold a number of vessels. It is best known as the site of the UK;s main naval base during WWI and WWII.
U-Boat Resources on the Internet
- Comprehensive information on all German U-boats.
On this site you will find all the German U-boats of both World Wars, their commanding officers and operations including all Allied ships attacked, technological information and much more. You can also browse our large photo gallery and thousands of
- Map of lost U-Boats
Timothy Mulligan describes 25 of the most historically significant U-boat losses.
Your Thoughts Please
Joanna McKenna from Central Oklahoma on October 16, 2014:
I've actually been inside the U-505 at the Science and Industry Museum in Chicago! Can't say I was all that impressed other than men could survive living together in such tight quarters for days or weeks at a time.
Being somewhat of a student of WWII history, I'm fascinated that Germany's technology was far ahead of England's and America's at the beginning of the war, but Germany still managed to lose - BIG! - after we caught up, more by human determination and thinking outside the box than tecno-breakthroughs, RADAR and breaking the Enigma code being two exceptions.
Thank you for such an informative and well-written hub! Upped and shared! ;D
MacPharlain on August 10, 2013:
Excellent overview of captured U-boats. I didn't know the Japanese had captured one, too.
Risteard O'Marcahain from Wales on February 12, 2012:
fullofshoes on December 18, 2011:
really interesting lens; great reading.
hlkljgk from Western Mass on May 10, 2011:
this lens is informative and looks great.
anonymous on April 28, 2011:
Excellent information and pictures on the German U-boats! I've always wondered what that meant, "Unterseeboot". My Dad use to talk about the U-boats now and then. Very well done!
Charles Nullens (author) from London on April 11, 2011:
@TonyPayne: I had heard about Q-Ships - thanks for reminding me about them as my 9 year old son is very interested in Word War history. For once he was lost for words when I explained what their purpose was! Very brave men indeed.
reasonablerobby on April 06, 2011:
I learned to scuba dive on a scuttled Boat just outside Falmouth UK
Tony Payne from Southampton, UK on April 05, 2011:
Excellent lens and one that most of us guys really love to learn about. I have seen the U-Boat in the museum in Chicago. My Grandfather served in WWI on Q-Ships, armed trawlers that tried to lure submarines to the surface, which enabled them to fire on them. I do have several photo albums of his from on board.
thesuccess2 on March 29, 2011:
Thiws is my type of lens
Dianne Loomos on March 16, 2011:
Enjoyed reading about the U-Boats.
oktalBlizzard on March 10, 2011:
The pictures were also nice!
Keep it up writing great lenses!