U-1206. Curious reason for sinking

The crew of the German U-1206 had real bad luck. During their first combat voyage, the toilet on board malfunctioned. Nervous manipulation of the valves caused seawater to seep in and flood the ship with… you know what. The only salvation was resurfacing.

Serving on a German submarine during World War II was a real ordeal. The omnipresent dampness, the enormous cramped conditions that did not allow you to stretch your arms, the stench and lack of access to fresh air, the food covered in mold. In addition to this, the many weeks of combat voyages, during which the sailors rarely saw the sun.

All these inconveniences were still bearable in the first phase of the war, when U-Boats were on the offensive, winning on all seas and drowning Allied ships by the dozens. Later, however, the card turned. The Allies launched a successful offensive, and the U-Boats went from being “hunters” to “game,” pursued at every turn and 24 hours a day.

The British were not only breaking the Enigma ciphers and became increasingly adept at detecting German ships. They also used other modern technological advances, including radar, radio geolocation (called Huff-Duff), and sonar (called ASDIC by the British). Ships hunting U-Boats were equipped with specialized weaponry, such as the Hedgehog submarine bomb launcher, which allowed the enemy to throw dozens of depth charges at them.

From 1943, when victory at sea was already tipping in favor of the Allies, German submarine commanders knew that the best way to survive was to stay underwater as long as possible, preferably at great depths.

However, the U-Boats of the time were not yet submarines in the full sense of the word. Although they could dive, and even swim (at low speed) underwater, but every few hours they had to surface – mainly to recharge the batteries and ventilate the ship (modern submarines can stay underwater for many months – editor’s note). Coming to the surface was a real holiday for the crew. You could smoke a cigarette, a pipe or just take a breath of fresh air. The latter was especially important, because – there’s no denying it – the ship stank terribly.

Underwater and surface toilets

Inside the metal pipe, which in fact was a submarine, there was the smell of sweaty bodies of dozens of sailors, the smell of oil, grease and fumes, the smell of spoiled food and often the stench of chlorine, which escaped from faulty batteries. On top of all this, there was also a “toilet” smell.

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At U-boat There were only two tiny toilets, and one of them – the one at the stern – was usually out of order because it was used as a food storage (yuck). Only in the middle of the voyage, when food was scarce, the toilet was unclogged and could serve the sailors.

So, for most of the voyage, the crew of about 50 sailors had only one toilet at their disposal. Of course, this could not be enough, so buckets were used as “handy” toilets, which were placed in all compartments. The sailors took great care to ensure that their contents did not spill, but such cases did occur. Hans-Rudolf Rosing of FdU West recalled:

“When the threat from the air (Allied planes – note. ed.) didn’t look serious, you could at least go out on the pier and do your business overboard – some did the business standing up, and others even used the specially prepared seats on the crown of the kiosk! On the plunge, we were forbidden to use toilets at depths greater than 25 meters, because the external pressure was greater than the toilet pump and the contents of the toilet, instead of leaving it – could come back – and with great force. So we were left with buckets after being submerged.”

In turn, Max Scheley of U-Boat U-861 described: “When the watch had already taken up positions and confirmed that the ship was in no immediate danger, two ‘lords’ would report with a bucket at the foot of the ladder to the platform, ask permission to go up and pour the ‘honey’ overboard.

A landing party disembarks from a landing barge

Source: Getty Images

U-1206 goes out to sea!

There was certainly no stink on U-1206, which went out on her first combat patrol on 6 April 1945. Just three months earlier, in January 1945, the crew under Captain Karl-Adolf Schlitt had completed their training and the brand-new ship was sent out of the Baltic Sea to Kiel and then to Horten, where she arrived on 30 March 1945.

U-1206, belonging to the Type VIIc units, was a modernized version of the popular U-Boat Type VII, known as “Hitler’s workhorse”. Several technical innovations were introduced on the ship. One of them was the snorkel, i.e. the tube with a valve raised to a vertical position, which made it possible to swim submerged on the internal combustion engine, with only the end of the inhalation tube protruding above the water surface.

Another novelty was a state-of-the-art, high-pressure toilet – the pinnacle of German technology. Thanks to it, after taking care of the need it was possible to remove the waste overboard with the help of compressed air even at great depth. Because it was a very technologically advanced device, a specially trained sailor was assigned to operate it. The crews immediately gave him the not very pleasant nickname “Scheisse-Mann”. This very modern toilet became the cause of the destruction of U-1206.

On April 14, 1945 (so in the last days of the war), the ship was submerged at a depth of 60 meters. She was then about 15 kilometers off the coast of Scotland, where she was to hunt for English ships. The U-boat had technical problems and the crew struggled with malfunctions, but it was so safe and calm underwater.

Under these circumstances, Captain Schlitt decided to use the toilet. However, he did not call for the help of “Scheisse-Mann”, because he thought that he himself could handle the toilet flushing on – after all – his ship. It turned out that he was wrong. Probably, after taking care of the “business,” he opened the valves in the wrong order and seawater rushed into the ship, along with the contents of the toilet, of course. At this point, however, that was not the most important thing.

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Source: public domain

Water and chlorine

It turned out that salt water had flooded a battery bank located near the toilet. A chemical reaction occurred, which resulted in the release of poisonous chlorine. The captain was forced to give the order to surface, because the crew was in danger of fatal gas poisoning.

But there was an enemy on the surface! The emerging ship was spotted by RAF aircraft patrolling the coastal waters. They immediately attacked the U-boat, firing at it with deck guns and throwing bombs at it. After several hits the ship was unable to submerge, and gas was still escaping inside. The unlucky Captain Schlitt ordered the crew to abandon deck and sink the ship. 46 sailors in lifeboats swam to shore, where they were taken prisoner. Three men died as a result of their injuries (Karl Koren, Hans Berkhauer and Emil Kupper).

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Captain Schlitt was also rescued. He died only on April 7, 2009 at the age of 90. The matter of losing his ship in such unusual circumstances must have been weighing on him, because he maintained to the end of his life that he was in the engine compartment at the time of the toilet malfunction, helping to remove the malfunction, and had nothing to do with the manipulation of the toilet valves.

Another version of events, which puts the captain in a better light, is given, which says that Schlitt did indeed tamper with the valves, but eventually called the “Scheisse-Mann” for help. The latter, nervous and perhaps abashed by the presence of the commander, opened the wrong valve, sucking in water instead of shooting the captain’s “two” overboard. What was it like in reality? We will probably never know, but what is certain is that Schlitt’s ship was sunk by a toilet.

U-1206 did not achieve any combat success. The wreck of the ship was found in the 1970s during the construction of an offshore oil pipeline for BP and was rediscovered in 2012 when divers descended to it. It rests at a depth of 70 meters. And the story of the toilet sucking up the outboard water and sinking the vessel itself is not that unusual or rare again. To this day, it sometimes happens to novice sailors and sailors who didn’t pay attention in theory classes on land.

Paweł Szymański – Author hidden under a pseudonym, writes about military history of the twentieth century, secret and unusual weapons, special operations, espionage, cryptology, and Enigma. Favorite topics: Warsaw Uprising’44, Poznan’45, Kostrzyn’45, Berlin’45.

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