Here’s what you need to know: The Nazis had hoped that a new type of submarine would, in theory, fundamentally change the nature of warfare at sea.
On May 4, 1945, one of the world’s most advanced submarines crept up to a British Royal Navy cruiser. U-2511 was one of the new German Type XXI “Wonder” class submarines, and it was looking for Allied ships.
It also represented one of the greatest failures of the Third Reich.
Over 250 feet long and displacing 1,620 tons, the Type XXI contained six hydraulically reloaded torpedo tubes capable of firing more than 23 stored torpedoes. This arsenal could turn a convoy into a sinking and burning wreck.
But the real improvement lay deep in the bowels of the submarine. There was an advanced electric motor that allowed the submarine to travel underwater at significantly higher speeds – and for longer periods of time – than any submarine that came before it.
It was perhaps the world’s first truly modern submarine warship. The engine, radical for the time, allows the boat to operate mainly in immersion. This contrasts with other wartime submersibles, which operated primarily on the surface and dived for short periods to attack or escape.
But for the happy crew of this British cruiser, the war in Europe had just ended. Adolf Hitler committed suicide on April 30. News of the European ceasefire had also reached U-2511. The submarine did not fire its torpedoes at the cruiser, but simply performed a simulated training attack.
Neither the U-2511 nor its sister ship U-3008 ever fired an angry torpedo during the war. But the Kriegsmarine – the Nazi Navy – had put its hopes of winning the naval war on these Type XXI submarines.
What went wrong and the lessons learned from the submarine program is also the subject of new research. It was featured in Adam Tooze’s book in 2006 The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking Up of the Nazi German Economy as an example of what not to do.
Now in a recent article for the quarterly Naval War College Review, Marcus Jones, associate professor at the US Naval Academy, describes the submarine as one of the most prominent examples of Germany’s “irrational faith in technology to prevail. in complex and desperate operational or strategic situations ”.
Desperation fuels innovation:
The Type XXI project dates back to 1943. Germany was well engaged in submarine warfare in the Atlantic and aimed to suffocate and starve the UK of its colonies.
Germany’s goal was to surround the British Isles with hundreds of submarines, preventing anything from entering or exiting. Initially, it was successful. In October 1942 alone, submarines sank 56 ships… and that was right in the passage between Iceland and Greenland.
But those successes turned badly against Germany – and quickly. In 1943, new convoy tactics, radars, and anti-submarine patrol planes caused serious problems with the predominantly Type VII German submarines.
Existing German submarines were now susceptible to detection and sunk in large numbers. Their electric motors, used underwater and recharged with diesel at the surface, were unable to hold a charge for more than a few hours.
And they were slow. Really slow. Many convoys could simply outrun them. If the Allies detected a submarine lurking underwater, they could simply wait for it. In May 1943 alone, the Allies destroyed 43 submarines, or 25% of Germany’s entire operational submarine force.
At this point, Hitler and the main German military commanders realized that “no amount of will or doctrinal ingenuity on the basis of the existing ship types could overcome the collective effects of the countermeasures the Allies employed so well. in 1943, ”Jones wrote.
The result was the construction of a new type of submarine that, in theory, would fundamentally change the nature of warfare at sea.
Designed by propulsion engineer Helmuth Walter, the Type XXI had a unique figure-eight interior that allowed for a much larger electric battery. All he had to do was rarely surface and recharge his battery with conventional diesel.
He was also fast enough to keep up with the convoys. It could run silently for 60 hours at five knots. He could also pick up the pace by riding for an hour and a half at a breakneck speed of 18 knots. In contrast, the Type VII could not travel faster than eight knots underwater, and only for short periods.
As Jones points out, the new design also included “sensors, countermeasures and other devices considered indispensable in the trade war.” These devices included active radar and sonar and more advanced passive sonar to pick up sounds from enemy ships.
But everything about the Type XXI was a mistake.
To put it simply, it was not a winning weapon of war. Worse for Germany, it really didn’t do anything… and probably accelerated the defeat of the Third Reich.
On the one hand, the submarines – only two were operational – suffered from several technical problems that forced engineers to work overtime to resolve them. The hydraulic torpedo loading systems did not work at first. The engines and steering systems were faulty. This made the submarines “significantly less threatening than originally intended,” Jones writes.
Germany has largely solved these problems. But even if the submarines performed flawlessly in the beginning, they are unlikely to have had much of an impact on the outcome of the war.
This is because the submarines were tied to a losing strategy. And in 1945, German naval strategy was a desperate cause.
The Marines expect their submarine commanders to operate independently. But a mission as huge as stopping navigation across the Atlantic requires more than submarines. The Germans were in dire need of maritime patrol planes and air bases. In the harsh, rough seas and stormy North Atlantic weather, this meant the Germans were limited by what they could hear and see from their submarines.
By comparison, Allied patrol planes chased them away.
Although technologically advanced at the time, the Type XXI still existed before the era of nuclear submarines, cruise missiles and nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.
These strategic weapons made Cold War submarines the truly decisive platforms they are today. During World War II, submarines were primarily used to defend friendly coasts, harass enemy warships, and interdict enemy convoys. The Type XXI was intended to perform these same missions, but simply more efficiently.
But in all three areas, Germany had already lost. The German coasts were regularly attacked by Allied bombers. The Allied land armies were already approaching the Rhine. And the Allied convoys were so numerous that Germany would have to build its new submarines by the hundreds to make a big dent. It was not physically possible.
As German ports were no longer secure, engineers had to build the submarines in sections and transport them on a complex system of cranes and barges to their launch points. This made the problem solving, expected on new ship designs, much more difficult to solve.
Another problem is that too much emphasis on miracle weapons distracts attention from practical war efforts. In terms of the steel involved in the project, “the program cost the war effort some five thousand tanks, a very substantial number, and one could say that it precipitated the defeat of Germany on the front. the East, ”Jones wrote.
This mentality amounted to a “sickness”In German war planning, argues Jones. From V1 and V2 rockets, Tiger II super-heavy tanks and jet fighters, Germany built sweeping weapons that would fail to turn the tide against inevitable defeat brought on by economic, political and technological drawbacks. more important.
As the war turned on Berlin, Nazi commanders accelerated the development of new weapons, which diverted attention from other areas. Then the war worsened, further accelerating the development of new weapons in a perverse vicious circle.
However, the Type XXI will last through the Cold War. Some were used for target practice. Others were captured and put into service in the Soviet and French navies. The only surviving ship of its class today is the Wilhelm Bauer, which the modern German Navy has converted into a research vessel. It is now a museum ship in Bremerhaven.
Most importantly, the Type XXI provides several lessons on how technology, while important, does not win wars on its own. It’s also a lesson in how the fanatical pursuit of advanced weapons can make winning wars much more difficult.
This first appeared in WarIsBoring here.
Image: US Navy / Wikimedia Commons