DPMA | Wilhelm Bauer (2023)


DPMA | Wilhelm Bauer (1)

GB 590 (1860)

170 years ago: Patent for the first German submarine

Far away from the sea lies the home of the first German submarine builder: Wilhelm Bauer was born in Dillingen on the Danube. He not only built the world's oldest surviving submarine, the "Brandtaucher", but was also a pioneer in wreck salvage.

Sebastian Wilhelm Valentin Bauer, whose 200th birthday was not long ago (22 December 1822), was a trained wood turner who had inventing in his blood. In 1849, he took part in the Schleswig-Holstein War as a soldier in the Bavarian auxiliary corps. There he came up with the idea of inventing a weapon that could attack under the surface of the sea.

Legendary predecessors

Wilhelm Bauer, around 1860

Submarines were not a new idea. Among its predecessors was, for example, the "moving submersible" that Cornelis Jacobszoon Drebbel presented to the English King Charles I in 1626. It is said to have worked, but we know little about this construction today. The German engineer Jakob Chrysostomus Praetorius designed the "Steinhuder Hecht" in 1762, which is said to have dived in the Steinhuder Meer. The "Hecht" (luce) would thus have been the first German submarine, but the sources are uncertain - and the Steinhuder Meer is not deep enough for diving, anyway…

In the American War of Independence, David Bushnell's "Turtle" was used unsuccessfully against an English ship in 1776. Unlike most of its predecessors, it had real underwater propulsion and was moved by hand crank over screws. And even Napoleon is said to have been interested in the "Nautilus", which the American Robert Fulton constructed in 1801.

The seal as inspiration

Construction sketch of the "Brandtaucher"

(Video) German Submarine U-2540 (Wilhelm Bauer) Bremerhaven

How much Wilhelm Bauer could have known about these predecessors is unclear. In any case, he went his own way and studied the natural movements of the seal in Jutland, which he took as a model for his construction. In fact, the shape of his boat resembled a fattened walrus, which is why it was also called the "iron seal".

Back home in Bavaria, Bauer presented his idea to a military commission, but they were not interested (for lack of access tot he sea?). So he went back north, joined the Schleswig-Holstein army and convinced the Navy Ministry of his plans. Bauer then destroyed his demonstration model - he was afraid of imitators, because at that time there was no German patent office to protect inventions. Bauer was ordered to Kiel to build his submarine, but did not receive sufficient financial support. He had to find additional funding.

Fatal compulsion to save money

The "Brandtaucher" today in a Dresden Museum

Together with the engineer August Howaldt from the machine factory and iron foundry Schweffel & Howaldt, he set to work. But the lack of money condemned the "Brandtaucher" to failure practically from the start. In order to save costs, Bauer and Howaldt had to, among other things, halve the wall thickness of the hull, increase the distance between the frames and install a sliding weight made of cast iron for stabilisation instead of the planned trim and ballast tanks.

The "Brandtaucher" had a crew of three. The propeller was driven by two man-sized treadwheels. The Schwengel pumps, with which the ballast water was let in and pumped out directly into the bilge of the hull, were also hand-operated.

The design got its name because it was intended to be used to attach an incendiary bomb or limpet charge weighing about 50 kilos to enemy ships. For this purpose, the hull had small windows and two holes with integrated rubber gloves with which the bomb was to be attached (the first torpedo was not developed until 1865, by Robert Whitehead and Giovanni Luppis).

Disaster in the Förde


GB1281 (1853), the "Brandtaucher" patent

Initial swimming tests were successful, but then the boat sank due to an operating error. It was lifted and refloated for serious testing. Together with the carpenter Friedrich Witt and the blacksmith Wilhelm Thomsen, Wilhelm Bauer undertook the first (and last) test trip with the "Brandtaucher" in Kiel harbour on 1 February 1851.

The first few minutes went well, but when Bauer headed for the deepest part of the harbour basin to dive, the consequences of the need to economise became apparent: water entered, the ballast weight slipped, the diving process got out of control. The boat sank stern first to the bottom of the Kieler Förde.

Detail from GB590 (1860)

At a depth of about 15 metres, Bauer and his companions kept their nerve. They waited for hours until enough water had entered the boat and the pressure was equalised to allow the hatches to be opened. When the helpers and spectators on the shore had long given up all hope, the three diving pioneers climbed out of the wreck and shot to the surface.

The first German submarine seemed lost. Bauer built a new model in 1852 for advertising purposes, which can be seen today in the DPMA | Wilhelm Bauer (7) Deutschen Museum in Munich right next to the DPMA. Years later, the "Brandtaucher" was discovered by chance during dredging of the Kiel harbour basin and lifted in 1887. Today, it is on display in the Military History Museum of the German Armed Forces (DPMA | Wilhelm Bauer (8) MHMBW) in Dresden.

Patents in London

Bauer briefing a diver

Bauer drew his lessons from the disaster, did not give up and tried to get royal support for his ideas. At the invitation of Albert, Queen Victoria's husband, he went to London. In the United Kingdom, in contrast to the German countries, there had long been a functioning system of intellectual property protection. Wilhelm Bauer knew how to take advantage of this and registered his inventions with the English patent office from now on. The first patent he filed 170 years ago, on 25 May 1853, was GB1281 (1853): "Vessel to be used chiefly under water, and apparatus for propelling, balancing and steering the same". In principle, this is a concise description of the "Brandtaucher".

(Video) Der legendäre deutsche U Boot Typ XXI-Bremerhaven Havenwelten 01 U 2540 Wilhelm Bauer

Bauer designed a new diving boat in London. But there were legal dissonances around the planning for the construction. Bauer then threatened to offer his invention to Russia. This got him into a lot of trouble, because both countries were fighting against each other in the Crimean War. Bauer had to flee England. The London shipyard then built a submarine without him. It is said to have sunk with all hands during the test run.

Submarine for Russia

Diving suit and airlock: detail from GB590 (1860)

Bauer now went to Russia, where he was welcomed with open arms. His new submarine was called "Le Diable de Marin" ("Sea Devil") and was built in St Petersburg in 1855.

This construction was a success. This time, there was no skimping on materials. Although the "Sea Devil" was still operated by muscle power (by 12 sailors), it had a solid thick iron hull, was twice as big as the "Brandtaucher", could sink and rise independently and had a diving chamber to exit under water. After the first trials in the naval port of Kronstadt, the " Sea Devil " is said to have successfully completed 133 dives before sinking (probably due to an operating error). It is said that the crew was rescued and the boat lifted, but what became of it is unknown.

Salvaging sunken ships with balloons

The "Ludwig" was lifted using this patented method: Detail from GB590 (1860)

The Tsar appointed Bauer as Imperial Submarine Engineer and commissioned him to salvage a sunken warship. This assignment resulted in two inventions, which Bauer got patented in the UK in 1860: GB590 (20,86 MB),, "Apparatus for diving, and raising and lowering heavy bodies", and GB1716, "Diving bell". The detailed drawings in patent specification GB590 provide a fascinating insight into his technical ideas.

Among other things, Bauer designed a diving chamber that could be used to a depth of 500 feet and a salvage system using iflatable balloons. But Bauer again got into conflict with the authorities. In 1858, he left Russia and returned to Munich.

The raising of the "Ludwig“

Bauer's underwater shooting experiments on Lake Starnberg (drawing from "Die Gartenlaube")

(Video) Немецкая подводная лодка U2540 или Wilhelm Bauer

A few years later, he was to be able to test his salvage system in practice, namely on Lake Constance. There, the "Ludwig" had sunk on 11 March 1861. She had been the first iron steamer on the lake, built in Manchester in 1837 and transported in individual parts to Lindau for final assembly. This "Ludwig" had collided with the "Stadt Zürich" in a storm. Incidentally, the accident with 13 fatalities led to the introduction of the international position lantern system for ships that is still in use today - white top light, green lamp on starboard, red on port.

Wilhelm Bauer succeeded in lifting the "Ludwig" from a depth of around 11 metres with his balloon system in 1863. She was refloated, went on a voyage under a new name, later sank again in a storm, was lifted again and eventually scrapped.

The emergence of a dangerous weapon

At that time, the development of submarines was gaining momentum worldwide. In 1864, during the American Civil War, the „CSS H. L. Hunley“ became the first submarine to sink an enemy ship in combat (and got missing in action herself). Submarines slowly became the dangerous weapon they still are today.

Despite the spectacular success with the raising of the "Ludwig", Bauer's career did not really take off again. He briefly entered Prussian service, but returned to Bavaria and continued to experiment. For example, he conducted underwater shooting experiments at Lake Starnberg and developed devices for laying cables under water.

Health problems and strokes of fate overshadowed his last years. On 20 June 1875, the widely travelled engineer and submarine pioneer died in Munich.

DPMA | Wilhelm Bauer (16)

GB590 (1860)

Text: Dr. Jan Björn Potthast; Pictures: DEPATISnet / Archiv DPMA, unkonwn author / Public domain via Wikimedia Ccommons, Pudelek CC by SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons, unknown author / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons Bildquelle Deutsches Museum, via Wikimedia Commons

Last updated: 25 May 2023


Who first invented the U boat? ›

Early U-boats (1850–1914)

Inventor and engineer Wilhelm Bauer had designed this vessel in 1850, and Schweffel and Howaldt constructed it in Kiel. Dredging operations in 1887 rediscovered Brandtaucher; she was later raised and put on historical display in Germany.

Who invented U boats in ww1? ›

Sebastian Wilhelm Valentin Bauer, (born Dec. 23, 1822, Dillingen, Bavaria [Germany]—died June 20, 1875, Munich, Ger.), German pioneer inventor and builder of submarines.

How many U-boats are still missing? ›

The German Unterseeboot, or U-boat, was a submarine that appeared seemingly out of nowhere to destroy both military and commercial ships. Despite their prevalence during World War I and World War II, only four U-boats remain intact today. (Others rest on the ocean floor.)

When was the last U-boat sunk? ›

The U-boats would be lost at a steady rate the entire war with the last one, U-183, being sunk by the USS Besugo on April 23, 1945, only 2 weeks before the German surrender.

How long would a German U-boat stay at sea? ›

for long periods, up to 48 hours. In case of emergency a submarine could run submerged say at 8 knots for 2 hours, 5 knots for 12 hours, 4 knots for 24 hours, or 2 knots for 48 hours.

What does U-boat stand for? ›

These U-boats (an abbreviation of Unterseeboot, the German word for “undersea boat”) prowled the oceans in search of prey and could attack ships 20 times their size from both above and below the surface with their deck guns and torpedoes.

How many ships did U-boats sink? ›

The damage inflicted by U-boats during World War I was powerful. Their ability to submerge and to surprise enemies led to massive casualties: Germany and Austria-Hungary sank almost 5,000 merchant ships during World War I, killing approximately 15,000 Allied sailors.

Who destroyed the most U-boats? ›

Captain Frederic John Walker CB, DSO and three Bars, was a Royal Navy officer noted for his exploits during the Second World War and was the most successful anti-submarine warfare commander who sank 20 German U-boats under his command, which is more than any other British or Allied Commander during the Battle of the ...

What was the last U-boat found? ›

The SM U-111 was one of five German U-boats from World War I that were sunk in U.S. waters (there are also eight from World War II) and it's the last to be rediscovered.

Where are the 4 remaining U-boats? ›

U-534 is one of only four German World War II submarines in preserved condition remaining in the world, the others being the IXC boat U-505 in Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, the VIIC/41 boat U-995 at the Laboe Naval Memorial near Kiel and the XXI boat U-2540 in Bremerhaven.

Did any U-boat crews survive? ›

Of 39,000 U-boat crewmen who went on patrol during the war, 27,490 of them did not come back, a fatality rate of 70.4 percent. And of the 11,500 lucky ones who evaded death, 5,000 – nearly one-half – survived only because the Allies rescued them after their U-boats were sunk.

How many German subs were sunk in WWII? ›

In World War II Germany built 1,162 U-boats, of which 785 were destroyed and the remainder surrendered (or were scuttled to avoid surrender) at the capitulation.

Has a submarine ever sunk another sub? ›

German submarine U-864 was a Type IXD2 U-boat of Nazi Germany's Kriegsmarine in World War II. On 9 February 1945, it became the only submarine in history to be sunk by an enemy submarine while both were submerged.

Did U-boats have air conditioning? ›

It was only in the Type XXI U-Boats, built at the end of the war, that there was a refrigerator, air conditioning, and a decent air filtration system. A pantry, a freezer, and a refrigerator were located under the galley. The refrigerated room was located down the companionway stairs, like a basement.

Were there showers on U-boats? ›

The U-505 had two bathrooms, one of which was used to store food for the first part of the voyage. For the entire two months at sea, the crew never bathed and instead cleaned themselves by swabbing with alcohol.

What was the closest a German U-boat got to America? ›

The only documented World War II sinking of a U-boat close to New England shores occurred on May 5, 1945, when the German submarine U-853 torpedoed and sank the collier Black Point off Newport, Rhode Island. When Black Point was hit, the U.S. Navy immediately chased down the sub and began dropping depth charges.

Did U-boats have toilets? ›

The ship's toilet was typically placed at the head of the ship near the base of the bowsprit, where splashing water served to naturally clean the toilet area.

Did German U-boats refuel in Ireland? ›

Newly released British Cabinet papers suggest U-boat sightings in 1939 west of the Blasket Islands and near Bundoran, County Donegal. And they also state that, although "there was... no evidence proving the existence of refuelling bases, there was evidence that U-boats were... quite possibly...

What is the highest U-boat number? ›

U-boats designed primarily for deep water service were designated with a U prefix and numbered up to 167.

Which country sank the most U-boats? ›

Of the U-boats, 519 were sunk by British, Canadian, or other UK-based forces, 175 were destroyed by American forces, 15 were destroyed by the Soviets, and 73 were scuttled by their crews before the end of the war for various reasons.

Which ship sank the most U-boats in ww2? ›

With 116,454 tons sunk, the USS Tang sank the most tonnage of shipping in World War II for the United States. Its tonnage was revised from the Joint Army–Navy Assessment Committee (JANAC) report, which initially credited Tang with fewer sinkings.

What defeated the U-boats? ›

The introduction of aircraft carriers, Very Long Range aircraft and roving 'support groups' of warships eventually defeated the U-boats at the end of May 1943.

When was the first U-boat invented? ›

U-boat, German Unterseeboot (“undersea boat”), German submarine. The first German submarine, the U-1, was built in 1905.

When was the first U-boat used? ›

The U-boat fleet made its first strike on September 5, 1914, with an attack on a British light cruiser off the coast of Scotland that killed more than 250 sailors.

What was the first U-boat in ww2? ›

German submarine U-39 (1938)
Nazi Germany
Yard number944
Laid down2 June 1937
Launched22 September 1938
25 more rows

When was the submarine invented? ›

The submarine was conceived by British mathematician William Bourne in 1578, but the first one actually built was that of Dutch inventor Cornelis Drebbel, which dove under the River Thames in 1620.

How many boats did U-boats sink? ›

The damage inflicted by U-boats during World War I was powerful. Their ability to submerge and to surprise enemies led to massive casualties: Germany and Austria-Hungary sank almost 5,000 merchant ships during World War I, killing approximately 15,000 Allied sailors.

How deep could a German U-boat dive? ›

18. What is the maximum depth to which submarines can dive? All modern German submarines are tested for a depth of 197 feet, but for short periods they can go deeper. Cases are known of boats having dived to 250 to 300 feet without injury.

What was the first American ship sunk by U-boat? ›

On October 31, 1941, German U-boat, U-552, sank USS Reuben James (DD-245), which was escorting Convoy HX 156, with a loss of 115 lives. Reuben James was the first U.S. Navy ship lost to enemy action during World War II.

What was the death rate of the U-boat? ›

Life on Board. U-boat submariners had a 75% casualty rate, the highest of all German forces during the war.

How old were U-boat captains? ›

The average age of the U-boat commanders

During the war the average age of commanders on patrol was about 28 years.

What was the U-boats full name? ›

German submarines – or unterwasser boats (U-boats) – were on a mission to destroy merchant vessels carrying supplies to allied forces in order to hinder their war efforts.

What was the last U-boat sunk in ww2? ›

German submarine U-2336
Nazi Germany
Launched10 September 1944
Commissioned30 September 1944
FateSurrendered at Wilhelmshaven, Germany on 15 May 1945. Taken to Lisahally on 21 June 1945 to take part in Operation Deadlight where she was sunk on 3 January 1946 by gunfire from the destroyer HMS Offa.
23 more rows

What was the largest U-boat in ww2? ›

The first Type XB was launched in May 1941. At 2,710 tonnes submerged and fully loaded, they were the largest German U-boats ever built, and they had to sacrifice diving speed and agility.

How many U-boats were lost in WWII? ›

This made it more difficult for the U-boats to succeed in their attacks. Germany built 1,162 U-boats during World War II and 785 were destroyed by the end of the war. The remaining 377 U-boats were surrendered (or scuttled by the Germans).

How did old submarines get oxygen? ›

Well, submarines have special machines that make oxygen from ocean water. They use a process called electrolysis, which means using electricity to break apart H20 molecules to get oxygen.

What is the oldest submarine still in use? ›

USS Bremerton (SSN-698)

How do submarines get food? ›

On fast attack subs, the food is lowered into the submarine at port by hand, one box of groceries at a time. On ballistic missile submarines, food is lowered through the escape trunk opening by crane in aluminum modules measuring six by six by five feet.


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