The dangers of the U-boats

German World War 2 submarines are famous today due to their almost nonexistent comfort, nightmarish working conditions and low odds of survival. Not only U-boat submariners had to live inside tin cans with almost no space to move, they also had little chance of returning home alive. As a matter of fact by the end of WW2 Germany lost 793 submarines and about 28,000 submariners, which translates to a casualty rate of 75%.

What very few people know is that there were U-boats even more dangerous and by far more uncomfortable than the ones deployed during World War 2, and these were the World War 1 U-Boats, the original tin can submarine.

The submarines of World War 1

Germany launched its U-boat campaign in 1914 with the intention of heavily limiting the trade and logistics capabilities of the United Kingdom and France. The U-boat campaign lasted for four years and sank about 5,000 merchant ships and 104 warships.

Of the 351 U-boats deployed 217 were destroyed. That’s a very high number if we consider that anti-submarine tactics were in their infancy and quite ineffective. Nonetheless, the most interesting aspect of World War 1 submarines is their crazy complex interiors.

German World War 1 submarine
Interior of a World War 1 submarine, as you can clearly see many of the valves were directly connected to chain mechanisms.

Since a lot of the systems used in these early U-boats were still in their infancy, like for example the ballast and internal pressure control systems, most of their controls weren’t streamlined or even less, standardized. That’s why some systems required ten different levers and control valves. Also each ballast was controlled independently, and the crew in charge of these systems had to coordinate their actions in unison or otherwise risk damaging the vessel.

German WW1 submarine
Inside the German submarine SM UB-110 – 1918.

Most of the photos we can see in this article were from the U-boat designated as SM UB-110, a 1918 and that’s pretty telling since the 1918 models were much more advanced than the ones launched in 1914.

German World War 1 submarine
Torpedo tubes loading bays. On the upper part you can see the T-beam used to support the crane to transport the torpedoes from their storage area to the torpedo tubes loading bays.