The U-boat: The Evolution and Technical History of German Submarines

Author: Eberhard Rossler
Publisher: Cassell
Year: 1974 (German), 1981/2001 (English)
Reviewer: Daryl Carpenter

As strange as it might seem today, Germany was the last Western nation to embrace the concept of the naval submarine. Wilhelm Bauer built his tiny riveted diving boat Brandtaucher in 1853, a few forgettable experimental boats followed over the next 50 years, but besides that - nothing. The German Navy's first submarine, U1, didn't enter service until 1906. Even at the outbreak of World War I, Germany's U-boat fleet was rather small and immature, although it rapidly matured and evolved into a larger force brought upon by the pressures of war. How these boats came to be and were shaped into instruments of war is a fascinating subject, and one usually glossed over by general history. Eberhard Rossler's The U-boat: The Evolution and Technical History of German Submarines is perhaps the technical "bible" for U-boat enthusiasts, a daunting book crammed with detailed information on every built and proposed German submarine design from U1 up through the "Class 209" export boats of the '70s. Bring along your schnorkel - this is no children's book!

The U-Boat, as originally published, was a two-volume, 550 page book titled Geschcichte des deutschen Ubootbaus which included 19 fold-out blueprints. For those of us unable to read German (unsurprisingly, the only German I can understand usually involves "Tauchzelles," "Maschinenraums," and "Luftverdichters!"), we'll have to settle for this 384 page English translation, which doesn't include any fold-out plans, but does include a handy glossary of German technical terms. The U-boat was first published in the US by the Naval Institute Press in 1981, went out of print, became a collector's item, was briefly reprinted in 2001 by Cassell, and has since become hard to find again - a fate which befalls most technical naval histories. Besides chronicling the history of "ordinary" diesel-electric U-boats, The U-boat also delves deep into submarines that never made it past the concept stage, such as the U-Cruisers of World War I, large closed-cycle U-boats designed near the end of WWII, and a seemingly endless number of offshoots of the basic Type XXI design.

Rossler is at his best when discussing the more obscure or highly technical aspects of U-boat design and construction. The sections devoted to single-drive U-boats and the Type XXI and XXIII "Elektroboots" are substantial enough to be separate books in their own right, along with the numerous Walter designs. Considering the influence Type XXI had on postwar submarine design, it's only fair that it receives star treatment here. Rossler's treatment of this design explores, in great detail, the boat's evolution, the sectional construction process, the impact of Allied air raids, the results of initial testing, and the numerous deficiencies of the final design. There are also sections devoted to the evolution of sonar, torpedoes, anti-aircraft armament, and midget submersibles, along with U-boat construction processes and proposed bombproof construction shelters.

For a book published in 1974, it's somewhat ironic that The U-boat devotes so much time and space to the closed-cycle, single-drive submarines envisioned by Professor Hellmuth Walter in the 1930s, and the several small experimental boats built during the war. At the time, the "Walter Drive" was seen as an ideal propulsion system for a true underwater vessel, capable of bursts of high (25 knots and above) speed to evade escorts. The AIP (Air Independent Propulsion) concept has since came back in a big way for modern diesels - not for extreme underwater speeds, but rather in the form of fuel cells for extended silent patrolling.    

One of The U-boat's main draws is the large number of original shipyard plans, reconstructed diagrams, and new drawings depicting unbuilt proposals and prototype U-boats contained within. For the more famous types, multiple hull sections and general arrangement plans are usually shown, along with a hull lines plan. The last section includes plans of eight different U-boats, including a comprehensive set of hull form plans for the Type XXI and detailed deck arrangements for the unbuilt Type XXVI Walter boat. Most of the plans are of very good quality and some include a German-to-English glossary. Unfortunately, some of them are of poor quality, with unreadable labels. There are also hundreds of black & white photographs, showing submarines under construction and undergoing trials.  

As an almost purely technical and managerial history, The U-boat does not concern itself all that much with world events, the conduct of submarine operations, or the policies of the regimes that built them. This is certainly not a "Big Men & Big Battles" history of German submarines, nor is the reader going to find any voluminous anecdotes on miraculous escapes. The U-boat is a very long, dense book, and not an easy to read one, either. The translation by Harold Erenberg is frequently problematical ("an equipment that can be adjusted to the changing velocity of noise in the water by a checking sweep over a measured distance"), and the sections devoted to building programs and various unbuilt projects tend to drag on a bit. I also found it odd that Rossler neglected to mention the almost wholly reactionary nature of submarine development in Nazi Germany, or Hitler's gross ignorance of naval matters for that matter, and his general loathing of his "Christian Navy" for largely political reasons.
The key word here is naturally "data"; lots of detailed information on a huge number of subjects, much of it rough and unpolished. Rare photographs, detailed plans, excerpts of minutes from naval procurement meetings, lengthy discussions of esoteric technical subjects, graphs depicting the distribution of labor at shipyards - all are to be found in abundance in The U-boat. The main question is, then, "will it interest me?" If you're someone with a greater than usual interest in naval architecture and the demands of submarine design, then it probably will. However, if you find popular history an easier pill to swallow, you might want to avoid this one. Despite the book's shortcomings, I found myself frequently riveted (welded?) by The U-boat, and can only hope it someday receives a proper revision and reprinting.


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