The Working Environment for German Submarine Design in WWII

by Peter Lienau
Updated 02 December 1999

How did the U-boat arm interact with the MA?

Short answer:

Seen through the years 1934 1945:     Different.

Long answer:

Let us first take a look at the general environment before 1933-34.  As a result of the Treaty of Versailles, the building of German warships virtually ended.  Sources differ, but it can be accurately said that about 30 to 50 % of the German shipyard capacities prior to WWI were dependent on building warships.  The so-called "Golden Twenties" ended on Oct.  24th, 1929   Black Friday. The following financial crisis was not felt by the shipyards for approximately one year, as existing orders were not cancelled.  After that, as no new orders were received, the shipbuilding industry was almost idled.  During the period between 1930 and 1933, the yearly tonnage of ships completed decreased from 2,900,000 tons in 1930 to 490,000 tons in 1933.  Accordingly, the number of employees at the yards decreased from 89,200 in 1922 to 9,400 in 1932.

By the Treaty of Versailles Germany was not allowed to have U-boats.  However, the RM (Reichsmarine) was able to stay abreast of the general development of U-boats due to yards set up in the Netherlands and Finland (Suomi).  And, about the time the Anglo-German London Treaty was signed, Germany announced that they would no longer accept this restriction and set about creating a U-boat arm.  In the next ten years, Germany built over 1,000 U-boats

This decade of U-boat building should be looked at in three parts:
    1) 1935 to 1939
    2) 1939 to 1943
    3) 1943 to 1945

1935 1939

After the London Treaty signing, the pressure applied by the political leadership on the Reichsmarine grew constantly larger.  The U-boat arm stood somewhat aside from this; they faced other problems.  And, with the exception that the number of outfitting yards was increased to nine, Plan Z had no further effect on the U-boat building or design.  Instead, the U-boat arm had to care about yard capacities and the specialists for it.  Building U-boats was manpower intensive.  With few exceptions, all of the pre-war U-boats were built at Deschimag, Bremen or Germania, Kiel.

The design of the Type I a, II a-d, III, III mod., IV, V, VI, VII and IX U-boats was done at the MA in the early 30s under a cover project named "Entwicklungsaufgaben auf dem Gebiete des Motoren-Versuchsboot-Wesens", which can be translated to something like "Research on engine-trial vessels".  During this period only the Types I a, II a-d, VII and IX were built.  But, it is interesting to see that during this time Project IV displayed the first thoughts on having "milk-cows" type U-boats and Project V considered the "fast attack submarine" based on the ideas of Hellmuth Walter.

The construction methods used for building these new U-boats was done roughly in the same manner as one did it in WWI.   This process was very lengthy, because the hull was completed first and then everything for the interior, including the engines, had to make its way inside the hull through the narrow hatches.  During this period, it took about 10 months to build a Type VII U-boat.

1939 1943

With the outbreak of WWII, the Plan Z became obsolete.  The leadership of the Reichsmarine decided very early during the war to increase the building of U-boats and many shipyards were modified to do this.  The design efforts increased also, but mainly these were confined to variations of the types already in service, the Type VII and Type IX.

In the late summer of 1939 the MA was rearranged into the K-Amt and the Department of Armament (DoA) was set up, led by Mr. Todt (better known as the creator of "Organization Todt").  His duty was the coordination of the armament industry, but he was killed in a plane crash 1942.  His successor was Albert Speer who was appointed Reich Armaments Minister.

From 1940 1943 the manufacturing time for U-boats was notably decreased.  The shipyards adopted the system of pre-fabrication, first used on a mass basis by the US Navy during WWI for the construction of merchant vessels.  But this was only done with the hull itself.  Outfitting was still done as before.  About 19 shipyards assembled between 24 to 26 U-boats per month of Types VII c, IX c and IX d.  Using this same system to build the new, and quite larger, Type XXI would have meant a build rate of approximately 20 U-boats per month.  This was considered to be too low by the Naval High Command (OKM = Oberkommando der Marine).  An alternative construction method was needed to get the higher numbers needed.

As I said above, the so-called "Walter-subs" were a subject of studies from the early (official) beginning days of the U-boat arm.  This propulsion system was constantly experimented with, but the hydrogen-peroxide fuel (H2O2 and Walter-turbine) proved to be very dangerous and mechanically unreliable with no end in sight.  A design breakthrough came when someone suggested eliminating the Walter-engine and instead simply copying the "traditional" (diesel) engine set-up but use larger E-engines (electric) and batteries.  So, that was the transition from Project XVIII to Project XXI.  This occurred in early 1941.  At that time, everyone expected that the war would end in a few months, so there was no urgency to get this design off the drawing boards.  However, by 1943, with the war still going on and now with Russia and the US as enemies, they thought differently.  The design was dusted off and rushed to completion in late 1943.

1943 1945

The year 1943 saw some major changes in the Navy as a whole as well as the U-boat arm.  Adm. Dönitz was appointed as the successor to Adm. Raeder when the latter resigned.  Despite the fact that Adm. Dönitz saved the large surface ships from the scrapyard, it was plain to see that he wanted greater progress for "his" U-boats.  He managed to secure the highest priority for the U-boat construction from the Führer, but he also knew that Hitler was very generous with such orders (for example, a few weeks previously panzer production had earned the same highest priority level).  So, Adm. Dönitz did what no one would have ever expected.  He removed the K-Amt organization from U-boat production.  Instead, he gave the responsibility for their manufacture to Albert Speer and his Department of Armament.  In effect, Adm. Dönitz traded influence for output.  The design of the new Type XXI, XXIII and Type XXVI U-boats was completed, what was important now was to get them built as quickly as possible.

K-Amt, i.e., Department K IU, was relegated to working only on the requirements for Types VII C, VII D and VII G (which never entered construction).  Soon after this time, further development of Type VII C 42 was stopped.  The rest of the K-Amt was also reduced to only working on new designs.

Everything to do with building and maintaining ships, vessels or subs was given to the DoA.  The new organization inside DoA was named "Hauptausschuß Kriegsschiffbau" (Main Board for Warship Construction) and included 9 special committees consisting of 62 working groups.  These were organized as follows:

- U-boats (5 workgroups)
- Warships (9 workgroups)
- Wooden ships (6 workgroups)
- Merchant ships (5 workgroups)
- Coastal and inland vessels (5 workgroups)
- Amphibious and special ships (7 workgroups)
- Propulsion and Boilers (8 workgroups)
- Ship Diesel engines (4 workgroups)
- Repairs and Refits (13 workgroups)

Additionally, there were also planned to be eight so-called "Länderbeauftragte", local managers in the occupied countries responsible for the executing the orders of the DoA.  This was never effectively implemented due to the lack of resources and to a far larger degree the progress of the Allied armies as they overran those territories.

From the viewpoint of K-Amt, the Department of Armament turned the world upside down.  Albert Speer promised to Dönitz an output of 40 Type XXI and Type XXIII U-boats a month.  The man put in charge of this effort was Otto Merker, a managing director of Klöckner-Humbold-Deutz.  Merker's background was mainly in the manufacture of trucks and fire-engines, but he had the reputation of being a genius in organizing manufacturing processes.

Merker's solution to Speer's promise was to set up a central engineering bureau out of a few hundred specialists that he took from yards and the steel industry.  He decided that these new U-boats should be built like the US "Liberty-ships" in pre-fabricated sections that were then joined together as a final assembly step.  The U-boats were subdivided into sections, with the Type XXI having 8 sections, the Type XXIII 4 sections and the Type XXVI 8 sections.  Merker then created three general building "areas", each including one assembling shipyard, 1 8 section yards and 30 to 40 suppliers (steel, machinery, electric gear and so-on).  These three building stages were as follows:

The first built the pressure and external hull sections, bulkheads and other hull work.  The plating and frames were received at the yards pre-cut and set to the proper shape by the steelmakers.  About 32 shipyards and structural engineering firms were involved were engaged in this stage.

The sections were then transported, generally by water, to other firms, some 16 in number.  In this second stage, all wiring, pipework and main and auxiliary engines were installed.

The third stage consisted of three shipyards welding together the completed sections on the building slip, carrying out dockyard testing and then turning the boats over to the Navy.

The Building areas were as follows:

Area "Danzig" (Type XXI)

Assembling yard:  F. Schichau, Danzig
Section yards:  Danziger Werft, Deutsche Werke Danzig, F. Schichau Danzig
Area "Hamburg" (Type XXI, XXIII, XXVI)
Assembling yard:  Blohm & Voss, Hamburg
Sections yards:  Deutsche Werke Hamburg, Deutsche Werke Kiel, Howaldt Hamburg, Flender-Werft Lübeck
Area "Bremen" (Type XXI)
Assembling yard:  Deschimag, Bremen
Section 1:  Howaldt, Hamburg
Section 2:  KMW, Wilhelmshaven
Section 3:  Bremer Vulkan
Section 4:  Flender-Werft Lübeck
Section 5 & 6:  Bremer Vulkan
Section 7:  Seebeck, Wesermünde
Section 8:  Deutsche Werke, Kiel

This production line proved to be quite effective, in 1944, a monthly outlet of 30 type XXI and 8 type XXIII was reported.  For comparison, the building of a Type IX U-boat (nearly similar in displacement to the Type XXI) took an average of 27 weeks while that of a Type XXI took only 7 weeks.  All in all, the production rate was nearly four times faster.  The total number of U-boats built under these methods looks like this:

Type XXI

Officially ordered:  576
Under construction:  200
Launched:  165
Delivered:  145


Officially ordered:  150
Under construction:  100
Launched:  85
Delivered:  73

In evaluating these figures one should consider that the yards were virtually shutdown after January 1945 as the Allies started to overrun the production areas.


The U-boat projects of Marineamt (MA) and K-Amt (as far as I was able to discover them)

1934 1938
I A Hochsee-Tauchboot (Highsea Diveboat)
II A-D Hochsee-Tauchboot (Highsea Diveboat)
VII - VIIc - VIIc/42  C/42 Hochsee-Tauchboote (Highsea Diveboat)
VIId Minen-Uboot (Mine sub)
VIIf Transport-Uboot (transport sub)
IX - IXd Tauchboot für ozeanische Verwendung (Ocean Diveboat)
Xa - Xb Minen-Uschiff für ozeanische Verwendung (Ocean Mine U-boat)
XI U-Kreuzer (Tauchkreuzer) (Sub-Cruiser)
XII U-Schiff-Projekt (Flotten-Uboot)  (Fleet sub)

1939 - 1945
XIII Kleines Uboot, nur Projekt (small U-boat only project)
XIV XVI Versorgungs-Uschiffe für ozeanische Öltransporte (Maintenance ocean subship)
V 80 Versuchs-Uboot (Test sub)
V 300 Versuchs-Uboot (Test sub)
Wa 201 Versuchs-Uboot (Test sub)
Wk 202 Versuchs-Uboot (Test sub)
XVII Versuchs-Uboot (Test sub)
XVIII Walter-Uschiff (Walter sub)
XIX XX U-(transport)-Frachtschiffe (merchant subs)
XXI Unterseeschiffe (subships)
XXII XXIII Unterseeboote für Mittelmeer und küstennahe Verwendung (subs for the Mediterranean Sea and coastal areas)
XXIV Walter-Uschiff Projekt (Walter subship project)
XXV Elektro-Unterseeboot Projekt für Küsteneinsatz (Coastal E-sub project)
XXVI Hochsee-Walter-Uboot (highsea Walter sub)
XXVI A Alternativ-Projekte zu XXVI (alternatives to XXVI)
XXVI B Alternativ-Projekte zu XXVI (alternatives to XXVI)
XXVI E1 Alternativ-Projekte zu XXVI (alternatives to XXVI)
XXVI E2 Alternativ-Projekte zu XXVI (alternatives to XXVI)
XXVII Kleinst-Uboot "Hecht" (mini-sub)
XXVIIB Kleinst-Uboot "Seehund" (mini-sub)
Projekt K Kleines Tauchboot für Naheinsatz (Diesel-Kreislaufantrieb) (small sub for close combat, diesel recirculation)
XXVIII Projekt, Reines Unterseeboot für Mittelmeereinsatz (indirekter Walterantrieb) (Walter sub for Mediterranean Sea)
XXVIII F Projekt, "Schwertwal" (project)
XXIX A D Studienprojekte zur SKL-Forderung "halbe XXI-Maschinenanlage" (project-study)
XXIX F/GK/H  Studienprojekte zur SKL-Forderung "halbe XXI-Maschinenanlage" (project-study)
XXIX K1 4 Vergleichsentwurf zu XXIX A D (comparative design to XXIX A-D)
XXX w. v. (as above)
XXXII Projekt, Kleinst-Uboot nur Batterie (minisub project, battery only)
XXXIII Projekt, Küsten-Uboot mit Dieselkreislaufantrieb (minisub project, diesel recirculation)
XXXIV Projekt, wie XXXIII jedoch ohne Turm (project similar to XXXIII but without sail)
XXXV Projekt, Uboot für reine Sauerstoffverwendung (project, sub for Oxygen use)
XXXVI w. v. (as above)



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