In 1945, a German submarine was sent to the depths after something went terribly, terribly wrong with its toilet.
By Adam Azra'el
Of all the terrifying and deadly technology utilized by the Germans during both World Wars, perhaps none was quite as infamous as the U-Boat. Though it wasn't the first submarine (the earliest one known to have been built was in the 1600s) nor even the first military submarine (1777....three cheers for America, everyone), its fearsome reputation has carried it through the pages of history books since the first one slipped into the water more than a hundred years ago.
Despite their awe-inspiring power, the submarines were far from invincible. Even the best engineers can only solve the problems in front of them and the ones they can predict; submarine technology was a slow crawl for it's first two centuries or so and U-boats, though much more advanced than their almost comically dangerous predecessors, remained susceptible to any number of mechanical and technical failures on top of enemy attacks.
THE PLUMBING PROBLEM
Sailing a ship underwater raises a number of what we think of as "obvious" questions. How do you keep water out? How do you install an engine? How do you see where you're going? What if whales try and mate with you? All of these are important issues which (we assume) somebody raised along the way.
Alongside the obvious questions are some which aren't the first things we think of, but which are undoubtedly of extreme importance. Chief among them is this: a submarine contains many submariners. They all eat food. Where do they poop?
That's stupid, you say, they obviously do it in a toilet.
You aren't wrong; submariners do, in fact, chop a log in a toilet. And on a ship, that's a fairly straightforward game: the end destination of the bum bomb is "the ocean" and really regardless of how many pipes it travels through in order to get there, it's going to get there and then it's going to be a problem for the fish.
On a submarine, though, there's a wrinkle: a toilet is, at the end of the day, a hole in the side/bottom of the hull. On a ship floating on top of the water, that's not really a huge issue; you just have to make sure that the "outward" pressure in the pipe is greater than the pressure of the water (or the air, depending on how high up the end of the pipe is). On a submarine, you need the same thing but it's way harder to get there because, as it turns out, the ocean is pretty damn big and when you're underneath the surface of the water, the pressure is enormous. Poking a toilet hole in the hull of your submarine pretty much guarantees that Poseidon is going to deliver your freshly-baked mud loaf right back to you at high speed (and then drown you).
CAUGHT WITH TROUSERS DOWN
No problem, said at least a hundred years' worth of engineers, just hold in your dookies and then when you surface, everyone can drop the kids off at the pool. And so it was, and that was perfectly fine....right up until those bathroom stops began turning submarines into sitting ducks (or, more aptly, squatting ones). It may surprise some people to learn that when an entire submarine crew has to launch a torpedo that they've been holding in for hours, they become ever so slightly less vigilant about things like enemy ships and airplanes....and a U-Boat sitting on top of the water is really nothing more than a slightly unwieldy boat.
Obviously this presented a problem for a Germany which, for all its might, could still not afford to lose a submarine every time some galley hand needed to make a deposit at the porcelain bank. A team of engineers was set to work on a solution, and in 1944, at the height of WWII, they finally nailed it.
On March 16th, 1944, the submarine U-1206 entered service in the German navy. It came equipped with all the latest Nazi toys: a supercharged diesel engine, double-acting electric motors, a full complement of deadly new torpedoes, as many as sixty anti-aircraft guns, and a really cool new toilet.
That last one may not sound as impressive as the rest of the list, but it was a big deal: for the first time in history, a submariner could release a payload without the necessity of being perched dangerously on top of the water. We can only imagine the contentedness and ease with which German sailors strolled to the privy, the latest issue of Nazi Digest in hand, knowing that their offering to the white throne wasn't going to happen at the risk of the Allies bombing the literal sh*t out of them.
A BAD DAY IN THE WATER
The trouble is, like any new technology, this übertoilet had a pretty steep learning curve. Operating it required specially-trained technicians to carefully manipulate a series of high-pressure valves which kept the chocolate exports heading out without the ocean coming in. Alas, the best-laid schemes of mice and men are just sprinkles on history's vengeful donut and on April 14, 1945, human error in the flushing process caused the unfortunate U-1206 to take on seawater and the captain was forced to surface the sub.
Being on the surface wasn't necessarily an immediate death sentence, but the same couldn't be said for the U-boat's location; at the time, it was gliding quietly underwater about 9 miles off the coast of Scottland. A quick check of the 'friend-or-foe' lists will highlight the ensuing problems to even the most novice researcher: when a German U-Boat suddenly appeared on the water less than ten miles away, the British had a fairly predictable response. Without so much as a cheerio or an offer of tea and crumpets, they attacked in full force and dropped a very different and non-euphamistic payload on the injured sub. The Germans were forced to scuttle the U-Boat, and the attack ended with 4 dead and 46 captured.
It's tough to put a finger on the exact moral here. Maybe....don't be a Nazi, but if you have to then don't poop.
Adam Azra'el is the producer of The Lesser Stories podcast, a multi-instrumentalist, and a colossal fan of ham and cheese sandwiches. You can find him around the internet being a general pain in everyone's backside on facebook and instagram, and he has tweeted exactly once.
- Hitler's U-Boat War: The Hunted, 1942-1945 - Clay Bair
- The U-Boat Century: German Submarine Warfare 1906-2006 - Jak P. Mallmann Showell (via Internet Archive)
- Listing: U-1206 (via uboat.net)