Articles, Blog

Kriegsmarine’s Wunderwaffen or Desperation Weapons?


The Kriegsmarine in the late stages of the
Second World War employed several midget submarines and explosive speed boats, these vehicles
are often called “desperation weapons”, like the Biber midget submarine you can see
here. Yet, other navies like the Royal and Italian
Navy made use of similar vehicles as well and earlier. So, is the notion of desperation weapons for
the Kriegsmarine justified? Well, let’s take a closer look. Although the Kriegsmarine possessed battleships,
cruisers, destroyers, e-boats, submarines and even an unfinished aircraft Carrier the
Graf Zeppelin, it was clearly lacking behind in terms of midget submarines and similar
weapons during the Second World War. This becomes even more apparent, since its
ally the Italian Navy employed similar measures very successfully:
“[…] on December 19, Italian frogmen, in one of the boldest operations of the war,
penetrated the British naval base at Alexandria in Egypt, attached mines to the hulls of the
battleships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant, and blew them up.” Although the Germans clearly were aware of
this success by the Italian Navy, there was no interest of the Kriegsmarine’s leadership
in developing similar craft or operations. Yet, this did change over the course of 1943
in which the greatest success and greatest losses of the U-boats were mere weeks apart:
“In the first 20 days of March 1943 the U-boats came nearest to their aim of interrupting
the lines of communication between the Old World and the New when they sank 39 merchant
ships out of four successive convoys.” Yet, only a few weeks later the Battle in
the Atlantic looked quite different: “By any measure, May 1943 was a catastrophic
month for the U-boat fleet. No fewer than forty-one submarines were sunk,
the single highest loss rate of any month in the war. […] On May 24, Dönitz admitted tactical
defeat and recalled the Wolf Packs from the mid-Atlantic.” As such since June 1943 the German Navy thought
about harassing the enemy with small unit operations. This led to the specifications for midget
submarine or one-man-torpedo, which should have had a submerged range of 200 nautical
miles and a crew of 1 to 3 men. Yet, before the Germans could make any use
of their own midget submarines, the Royal Navy struck the Tirpitz in Norway with their
X-craft midget submarines in September 1943. Although the hull of Tirpitz was mostly intact,
the fire control system and machinery were damaged enough to put her out of action for
several months. By Fall 1943 the situation for Germany had
changed severely, as previously mentioned the Battle of the Atlantic shifted in May
1943. Similarly, in May 1943 the Afrika Korps surrendered,
which was followed by the Invasion of Sicily in July 1943, which subsequently lead to Italy
dropping out of the war in September 1943. Meanwhile on the Eastern Front the German
Summer Offensive Operation Zitadelle in July 1943 failed and was followed-up by successful
Soviet offensives. Still, the Germans held on to a large area
with extensive coast lines, something I discuss in more detail in this video, which you can
find on my second channel. Hence, the German leadership was concerned
more and more about defending against Invasions: “On 18 January 1944, the commander-in-chief
of the Kriegsmarine (Ob.d.M.), Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, presented Hitler with the plan
for the construction of small submarines and one-man torpedoes, which were to be used mainly
as defensive weapons against enemy landings. Hitler expressly endorsed these plans.” Soon afterwards, in April 1944 the Kriegsmarine
launched one-man torpedoes against the forces at the Allied Beachhead at Anzio. Now, it is important to understand that the
Kriegsmarine’s one-man torpedoes or human torpedoes were different to the Japanese Kaiten
torpedo. Whereas the Kaiten contained the warhead itself,
the German human torpedoes had a second torpedo attached to them that was the actual explosive
ordnance. Yet, back to Anzio. The results of the operation were lackluster,
of 23 one-man torpedoes used only 13 returned. There were reports of hits on enemy ships,
but those were all wrong. Furthermore, the Allies captured one craft
intact and as such it could be used to devise counter-measures. During the landings in Normandy in June 1944
the Kriegsmarine was not able to use any of these craft, since most did not reach the
front lines in time or at all. The situation after the successful Landing
of the Allies in Normandy lead to an increased use of midget submarines. Not because they were particularly successful,
but at this point it was obvious to the Kriegsmarine’s leadership that due to the naval and air superiority
the only chance to engage the Allied supply shipping was with midget submarines and similar
craft. Additionally, the argument was brought forward
that the Kriegsmarine possessed a large pool of well-trained and highly motivated reserves. Furthermore, the leadership was willing to
tolerate high losses: “[Admiral of the small naval combat forces]
Heye was obviously also prepared to calculate large losses from the outset, as can be seen
from his juxtaposition: ‘If, for example, 30 soldiers are deployed with 30 torpedoes
against an enemy ship and only one hits the target with the weapon, so that the enemy
loses ship and the multiple of our own losses, then this deployment is justified and still
less than that of all [other] weapons’.” Furthermore, the Commander of the small naval
combat forces made a distinction between the craft used, he noted two different kinds:
“a) Weapons, in which a reasonable effort is made to give the operator the opportunity
to come home or save himself. This includes all previous weapons of the
s[mall] [naval] combat forces. The least possibility of coming back is with
the ita[lian] one-man stormboats. b) Weapons, in which the soldier deliberately
sacrifices himself for a worthwhile cause. These weapons could be of much better tactical
qualities and could be much easier to produce than the other weapons under a), but require
the appropriate combatant ready for total commitment.” As such, I think it is quite appropriate to
use the terminology of “desperation weapons” here. Now, a short overview of the different kinds
of weapons used by small naval combat forces. Note that some of them were heavily influenced
by Italian and British designs. First were the one-man torpedoes, as already
mentioned they were different from the Japanese Kaiten torpedoes. There were basically two different ones, both
could carry one torpedo. One could not dive at all, the other one could
only submerge for a short while. In total around 500 of both were built. Next are the midget submarines, these carried
two torpedoes with the exception of the “Hecht” (or Pike in English), which never saw combat
and was only used for training. Most of them only had a crew of one man, only
the “Seehund” (Seal), which was the largest had a crew of two men and could also be used
for transporting goods. Note we take a closer look at one midget submarine
later on. A bit more than 1000 of all these were built. Next are the unmanned explosives boats, there
two variants a command boat and a combat boat. During operations they usually operated in
a group of 3 boats: 1 command boat and 2 combat boats. The combat boats were equipped with an explosive
charge of 300 kg, initially they were manned, but in the last stages the operator would
jump into the water. Then men on the command boat would steer the
radio controlled combat boats into the targets and also rescue the guys in the water. Note that these operations were usually performed
at night. In total around 1150 were built. The manned explosive boats had a crew of 1
or 2 men, some of them were copies of the Italian explosive boats. In this case the men jumped off the boat in
the final stages of the approach. Around 150 of these were built. Now, before we take a look at the operational
use, losses and successes. Let’s take a closer look at the Biber or
Beaver in English, which was a midget submarine. As you can see here this submarine is not
particularly large. Quite interesting is the fact that its propeller
is smaller than those of the torpedoes it carried. The craft itself was likely inspired by a
British Welman submarine that was captured in Norway. The Biber has a length of 9,03 meters and
a width of 1,57 meters. Similar to regular WW2 submarines it had a
diesel engine for surface movement and an electric engine for submerged movement. The respective speeds were around 6.5 and
5.3 knots. The surfaced range at 6.5 knots was 100 nautical
miles, whereas the submerged range was 8.5 nautical miles at 5.3 knots and an additional
8 nautical miles at 2.5 knots. It was equipped with 2 53.3 cm electric torpedoes. The bow of the Biber was intentionally designed
for better stability on the surface. Some of the major drawbacks of the Biber were:
“Control and trim cells had been dispensed with. The ballasting had to be done with fixed ballast
before the start of the ride. Weight and trim changes occurring during the
trip had to be compensated either dynamically or by partial flooding of the diving cells. […] A real underwater trip at periscope
depth hardly possible. An attack could only be carried out during
a surface voyage, the diving process was practically the defensive reaction to attacks.” Another major problem was that the sub was
only operated by one man, who had to perform all kinds of tasks simultaneously. To give you basic idea on what that meant:
“For example, when diving, he [the operator] had to ventilate the front dive cell, ventilate
the rear dive cell, lay down the rudder, turn off the gasoline engine and turn on the electric
motor, close the exhaust and supply-air valves.” And remember diving the submarine was a defensive
maneuver, so there was already quite some distress going on. Now a short look at the various operations
performed by small naval combat forces. For June to August 1944 we have the data for
9 operations. The total number of crafts used was about
8 + 4 + 16 + 12=40 command boats for unmanned explosive boats of which 20 were lost. Note that the reports only give the numbers
for the command boats not the combat boats. In terms of one-man torpedoes 26 + 21 + 58
+ 11 + 42=158 were used with a loss of 106 such craft. And there was only one operation noted with
14 Biber, which had 0 losses. Yet, what about the damage these operations
caused to the Allies, well, in total they sunk:
3 Minesweepers, 1 Trawler, 2 Landing Craft, 1 small steamer. Additionally, they damaged 1 escort destroyer,
1 light cruiser, 2 transport ships and 1 block ship. Now, it is important to note here that war-time
reports included far higher and optimistic numbers, e.g., there is one operation in which
it was reported that 9 ships were sunk, but none of them could be verified. This likely was one the reasons why these
operations were continued until the end of war. “Until the end of the war, there were still
numerous operations of these weapons, whereby the miniature submarines of the ‘Seehund’
[seal] type were even used for supply trips to the Dunkirk Fortress. But overall, their success in sinking remained
limited and by no means met the expectations that Dönitz had placed in this naval weapon
[…]”. To summarize, the Germans were rather late
when it came to development and use of midget submarines, only after the very high losses
U-boats in May 1943 and Germany being on the defensive on all fronts in Fall 1943, was
a strong effort put into the use of midget submarines and similar naval craft. The idea of using them against naval invasions
was good on paper, yet, generally the results were very lackluster. Yet, if we look at other Navies like the Royal
and Italian, there are successful examples in the use of these crafts. I highly suggest you watch Drachinifel’s
discussion on the use of these craft by the different Navies here. And if you are not subscribed to his channel
yet, well, now is the time. Well and if you like well-sourced content
like this, consider supporting me. As always, sources are listed in the description. Thank you for watching and see you next time!

100 thoughts on “Kriegsmarine’s Wunderwaffen or Desperation Weapons?

  1. Erstaunlicherweise wurde in Deutschland die Herstellung von Marine- Kleinkampfmitteln schon Mitte der 1930´er Jahre diskutiert, und zwar
    1.) Um eine Verteidigung der deutschen Küstengewässer/ Ostseezugänge zu ermöglichen, während die Kriegsmarine noch im Aufbaustadium befangen ist.
    2.) Um die Hilfskreuzer damit auszustatten, die dann wiederum überall auf der Welt die Möglichkeit gehabt hätten auch in befestigte/ bewachte Häfen einzudringen und Schäden anzurichten, wie es die Italiener dann ja auch in Alexandria (und Gibraltar) mit Erfolg taten.
    Die entsprechenden Denkschriften wurden zwar positiv aufgenommen, die entsprechende Entwicklung hin zu frontverwendbaren Waffensystemen unterblieb jedoch, bis sie 1943 dann mit aller Hast aufgenommen wurde.

  2. Japan also used midget submarines. They really weren't very successful. Japan attacked Sydney Harbor but they very rarely succeeded in sinking an enemy vessels. I

  3. Notice how the "Small Units" commander referred to combatants as "soldiers," and not "sailors." This whole episode sounds like "The Elbe Squadron goes to Sea."

  4. 8:00 Didn't realize Germany had a large, gray blob problem. Must be annoying to have those things flying around.

  5. Germany being late on the production of so many things (like the development on Diesel engines, an extensive destroyer program, submarines most likely as well though I am not too deep into this topic) is not a surprise when looking at the environment in which the Kriegsmarine had to rebuild itself. The initial stages of the rebuilding were extremely rough, the Treaty of Versailles left the Kriegsmarine with very little manpower and even less technologies to get on par with any of the potential enemies around the Northern Seas. The massive rearmament plan that the Z-plan was built around the assumption that the Kriegsmarine would not be used for Hitler's political goals until 1946. As history taught us, this was not the case.

    Suddenly the Kriegsmarine was needed in the Atlantic to hunt merchants, around Norway to pull of the costly invasion and then to stage countless escorting and mine operations. And like that the time to rebuild the Kriegsmarine to what was planned faded, and cuts had to happen at many corners. The capital ships were the first to be dropped, the cruiser development was severly cut down and so the largest vessels that saw development at the end of the war were destroyers, and even there with gaps.

    It's quite likely that midget submarines and manned torpedoes suffered the same fate. No time or resources available to "waste" on a short ranged weapon like that while uboats are what were desperately needed (until 1943, that is). Not necessarily a desperate move, but rather the shift of the limited resources to meet the new and necessary environment.

  6. Damaged light cruiser mentioned by you was probably ORP Dragon, she was later scuttled as a part of artificial breakwater. Why don't you use proper name "Neger" to name earlier version of "Marder"?

  7. Well, i don´t really see midget submarines as any real kind of good. There are by nature weapons for special operations and the like. Yes, with a few more percent budget for their development they could have been a pretty deadly short-distance weapons. Just imagine a really good beaver for example. But then it would still be a shortrange weapon that is basically useless in any serious strategic efforts. Why would you invest any manhours at all in development of this, if you can also pump into real submarines that can operate all over the Atlantic?

  8. The uncle of my grandfather, Teseo Tesei, invented the famous "pig" torpedo boat, that were used in italy for the attack of the british fleet. in his last attack, decided to set the delay of the explosion at 0 seconds. In this way he could accomplish the mission, sacrifing his life. Medal of Gold at military valour.

  9. Interesting and quite little known topic. For the most of the time – even being quite interested in military history – I was only aware (as most people) of Japanese kamikaze pilots. I was shocked when I saw the Italian demolition boats You mentioned on the display in War Museum on Malta. And now You come with all of this…

  10. Biber meant sitting for hours or days …
    a lot of important tasks and doing all the procedures a crew of 50 did on a type vii or ix .
    crazy … and 1 mistake you have to bail out.

  11. Thank you for this video. It is of particular personal interest, as my Great uncle Walter was on one of those minesweepers. They had actually helped rescue survivors from their sister ship earlier in the day, when they were hit. Luckily Walter survived, but with burnt hands from climbing a superheated metal ladder. He spent his 18th birthday in a naval hospital.

  12. All of these remind me of the Hunley, the Confederate States submarine. Tww complete crews died during testing and training, and the third crew died on it's first mission, in which the Hunley sank a Union ship.

  13. Interesting subjects, useful topical convergence of individual class examinations into a comprehensive look at the concept. Informative. Thanks for posting.
    My spin on it?
    Attack Boats. I call them Mosquito Craft:
    Like the Churchill Tank, the Point Attack Craft was another weapon system concept perfect . . . for the last war. Think of the Entente fleet, sitting off Gallipoli, waiting for a U-Boat, mine, or mosquito attack boat to spoil the soup.
    Mini and Micro Subs:
    From the Italian Chariots to the British X types, operational–not caused by enemy fire–failure rate for the various minuscule submarine naval vessels ranged between 25% and 90% depending on class and mission. Brave men. The sea will give them up someday.
    The Self Sacrifice men:
    Hitler was the first "Man of the Hour". The volunteers who piloted the mosquito craft and the micro subs were the last "Men of the Hour".

  14. I've heard that Midget Submarines has the highest fatality rates committed on the seas while being also operated by certain individuals from the Hitler Youths. Most did not came back alive.

    I call this more as a Desperation Weapon rather than a Wunderwaffe.

  15. The ship HMS Valiant is pronounced Val-e-ent and X is pronounced eck-se. We will have you talking like a 1940's BBC radio announcer before long. Keep up the great content.

  16. Can you do a video on Japanese aircraft carrier submarines plus Hitler final gift to the Japanese. Quantity of U-235

  17. Could you also link the videos you mention in the description, please?
    The overlay box vanishes very quickly, and before the video ends, which makes it kinda tricky to click it in time (also, YT overlays don't work properly in some browsers).

  18. I have a hard time believing the Germans took inspiration from the Italians but took no notice of the usage of these subs by Japan .

  19. The Bieber submarine failed because it was not stealthy. All allied sailors were like "What's that dreadful music I'm hearing suddenly?" and then the Bieber was ussually discovered and killed with fire.

  20. @9:38 there was "some distress" going on in the defensive maneuver? One could even say a "significant emotional event"? 😀

  21. Question, what is the difference between Kampf and Schlacht? I understand both mean battle, but the LW did use it for different meanings. Thx.

  22. One of these in in the naval museum in Brest, France (base of the french atlantic fleet and german U-Boat base in WW2).

  23. Neither H.M.S. Valiant nor H.M.S. Queen Elizabeth were “Blown Up”, both ships were damaged and settled, upright, in the harbour, in fact due to the shallow depth of the harbour it actually looked to Italian air reconnaissance that the attack had actually failed, saying they were “Blown Up” makes it sound as if both ships were destroyed.

  24. 2:41 Is.. Is that a Pizza? Is that a fuckin' Pizza???

    Just kidding, I don't care. Great video. Greetings from Italy

  25. It's not hard to imagine things like these becoming more common, considering modern drone and remote control systems.

  26. I am trying to find the quote, but I seem to recall the RN thought it would have been in trouble had the KM been able to send a few hundred Seehunds against the British east coast since they were very hard to detect with either radar or asdic. I think it was on Rossler.

  27. Not enough pictures of the actual things. Very few cited events instead focusing on raw numbers. The video feels very disconnected and the focus on the "desperation weapon" term is completely unnecessary, feeling obnoxious and defensive.

  28. Damn, I had no idea the Germans operated these subs on such a large scale. 1500 built!?! Would have guessed dozens. And I thought I knew something about WW II.
    Did know about the Italians and Japanese, but have seen multiple mentions of them over the years in many books and films.

  29. Very good production.. I come form Drachinifel's page on midget subs.. I must peruse your site and see more on your history.. Thank you for your share … carry on..

  30. I've read many accounts of German generals committing suicide rather than live with defeat. Assuming these were not "assisted" suicides, does that mesn Germans were more culturally accepting of suicide? I don't think I have heard of any non-Soviet allied generals doing this.

  31. is the Admiral Heye mentioned here the same man who was the capt of Admiral Hipper when she sank the Glowworm?

  32. personally i think https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Type_XVII_submarine this type of coastal submarines would have been more effective

  33. Drachinfel and the tale of "pesky Italian frogmen" brought me here. I had read/heard of successful Italian attacks on British harbors, but not the details. As for German midget submarines and manned torpedoes, the book version of "The Eagle Has Landed" took us into that manpower-gobbling campaign with "Oberst Kurt Steiner."

  34. I find the use of pizza when speaking about Italians bad taste… After all you are a channel of history, but you mainly joke when you speak about italians… 30 seconds before you even cited a sentence which call the operation in Alexandria one of the boldest of the war.
    Please get your facts right and be serious about/with everyone.

  35. A thought to ponder, "What If" the Kriegsmarine has sent a two pronged attack of the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine during the battle of Britain, bomb harbor at night, torpedo anything a float either before or after the first bombs hit. Yes, it would be way more complex than a simple sentence but the thought is provoking!

  36. 1:06 Well, they sorta blew them up. Luckily (or unluckily for the brave Italian seamen) they were lying in a very shallow anchorage, so only settled gently on the bottom, else they would have definitely sunk. The RN even had crew running around the decks to look like "business as usual". They were repaired & rejoined battle.

  37. Love your great videos, the amount of time and detail is amazing. Maybe for a future video you could talk about the Tiger Tanks that fought in Italy. As there's really not much on this lesser know combat the Tigers had.

  38. Hello MHV. You make one important error in your description of the Biber. It was NOT powered by a diesel engine for surface propulsion, but by a 32 hp Opel Blitz petrol engine. This is significant as several of it's operators were apparently lost due to carbon monoxide poisoning, which was normally not a problem with diesels.

  39. Italians: make effective manned torpedoes that don't require suicide missions
    Japanese: I'm gonna pretend I didn't see that

  40. In 1939 around 4000 people in Poland volunteered for 'human torpedo' suicide units in case of the Third Reich's aggression. Thankfully the actual torpedos were never developed.

  41. Designing them to be manned by actual midgets would have drastically reduced the resources necessary to make and operate them, plus improved their ability to evade detection ….

  42. That moment when I was working at that museum the day you were there and I only heard it afterwards. Feelsbadman

  43. A slice of pizza and a cup of tea to represent the Italian and Royal Navies? How entirely ….. yeah, you're pretty much right. Give 'em another hour, though, and the RN'll all be on the cheap lager.

  44. You know this fellow produces video after video trying to belittle the German military during WW2. I know he has gotten a lot of propaganda from his self hating german upbringing, and reading Gantz didn't help him any. That Soviet lover (Gantz) made it seem like Germans were lucky to find Belarus on a map! I guess everyone should have stayed home during WW2 cause France alone should of had no problem beating them back.
    For such inept, loucy, poor fighters, with crappy equipment made by stupid engineers, the untrained tiny armies of Germany sure played hell with europe from 1939 to 1942 and all that with incompetent generals and field marshals that for some stupid reason were admired by their enemies and peers.

  45. hear me out for a second , weired but interesting bit of maths , How many people would it have taken only armed with shotguns to defeat the third reich .

  46. If the Germans had taken time to develop any of these weapons before the war (in peace conditions with technical and scientific resources developed), these would have been war winning weapons.

    Basically, the accurate guiding of weapons has been nearly ALL of the advancement of the last 80 years of war weapon development: if you instead have the guidance system be a person (with the aid of technical developments for finer aiming), you've basically made rockets and torpedoes into modern guided and aimed ones.

    Imagine a hundred modern guided LRASM rockets…except they're guided by people. You could blanket an area with a hundred guided human missiles, with groups of five or ten attacking various targets in a group. Each large carrier or battleship might be hit five or twenty times with 250 to 500 kilograms of explosives. Also, hit from above where there is less armor.

    The problem with these programs is they were final problems: there were few resources or time to develop them, so they didn't have much. But if you took a five or seven year developmental program to begin making them? You could have rockets or missiles that move in groups, slowly as they search for a target. Because their combat radius is the same as their ferry range they can hit far away targets that have been identified by whomever…then you lose 100 men for half a dozen capital ships sunk or on fire: by any calculus a win.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *