First German U-Boat Is Launched

Germany’s launching of its first U-boat led to the development of a submarine fleet that proved to be the catalyst that brought the United States into World War I, ensuring Germany’s ultimate defeat.

Summary of Event

The launching of Unterseeboot-eins (underwater boat number 1), or U-1, at Danzig, Germany, on August 4, 1906, hardly appeared to any observer as an epochal event. The German navy was a relative latecomer in the new era of submarine warfare. The English, the French, the Russians, and the Americans already possessed operational submarine fleets before the architect of the German high-seas fleet, Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, finally consented to divert some of the resources of the German navy to the building of submarines. Despite its unprepossessing beginnings, however, the U-boat had enormous influence on the course of world events. U-boats[U boats]
[kw]First German U-Boat Is Launched (Aug. 4, 1906)
[kw]German U-Boat Is Launched, First (Aug. 4, 1906)[German U Boat Is Launched, First (Aug. 4, 1906)]
[kw]U-Boat Is Launched, First German (Aug. 4, 1906)[U Boat Is Launched, First German (Aug. 4, 1906)]
[kw]Boat Is Launched, First German U- (Aug. 4, 1906)
U-boats[U boats]
[g]Germany;Aug. 4, 1906: First German U-Boat Is Launched[01690]
[c]Science and technology;Aug. 4, 1906: First German U-Boat Is Launched[01690]
[c]Engineering;Aug. 4, 1906: First German U-Boat Is Launched[01690]
[c]Transportation;Aug. 4, 1906: First German U-Boat Is Launched[01690]
Equevilley-Montjustin, Raymondo Lorenzo d’
Laubeuf, Maxime
Tirpitz, Alfred von
William II
Krupp, Gustav

Submarines were not new in 1906. Cornelis Drebbel, Drebbel, Cornelis a Dutch inventor, conducted the first recorded successful test of a submarine vessel in the River Thames in England in 1620. Over the next four years, he successfully navigated his craft approximately thirteen to sixteen feet (four to five meters) below the surface of the river, once (according to tradition) with King James I as a passenger. During the eighteenth century, inventors patented fourteen designs for submersible vessels in England alone.

The first recorded attempt to use a submarine as a weapon of war occurred during the opening phases of the American Revolution. David Bushnell, Bushnell, David a student at Yale University, built an oval-shaped submersible vessel named the Turtle, in which he proposed to approach an English ship in Boston Harbor, attach an explosive charge to its hull, and sink it. The Turtle succeeded in approaching the English ship unobserved, but its one-man crew was unable to attach the charge to the copper bottom of the English warship. The first successful submarine attack on a surface ship also occurred in the United States, during the Civil War. On February 17, 1864, a Confederate submarine named Hunley (after its inventor, H. L. Hunley) Hunley, H. L. attacked and sank the Union vessel Housatonic. The Hunley’s crew used a device called a spar torpedo (a powerful explosive charge attached to a long pole) to dispatch the Union craft. In order to sink the Housatonic, the Hunley had to approach so near to the enemy vessel that it, too, sank in the ensuing explosion.

Interest in submersible vessels grew in Germany during the mid-nineteenth century, spurred by the heroics of Sebastian Wilhelm Valentin Bauer. Bauer, Sebastian Wilhelm Valentin In 1850, Bauer built for the government of Schleswig-Holstein a submarine vessel incorporating all the essential elements of later military submarines. Bauer’s vessel, named Brandtaucher (sea diver), sank during its first test in the Baltic Sea in February, 1851. It remained on the sea bottom until 1887, when the Imperial German government had it raised. After a restoration program that took nineteen years, it was placed on display in the Berlin Naval Museum. Bauer later emigrated to England, where he was instrumental in initiating the English submarine development program. He then went to Russia, where he built and successfully tested an enlarged version of his original Brandtaucher for the Russian navy. The Russians, however, never deployed the vessel in a combat role.

In the 1870’s, the locus of research into development of submersible vessels adaptable to military uses shifted once again to the United States. John P. Holland, Holland, John P. generally recognized as the father of modern military submarines, made several important innovations in submarine design from 1875 to 1900. These innovations included a workable electric engine for driving a submarine while under water, water ballast to facilitate diving, and horizontal rudders to enable the boat to dive. In 1900, Holland delivered to the U.S. Navy the Plunger, a vessel incorporating all of his innovations. The English navy ordered several submarines of the same class as the Plunger, some of which saw action in World War I.

After the unification of the German states into the German Empire in 1871 under the leadership of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, Bismarck, Otto von German military planners assigned a secondary role to the nation’s naval forces. Primarily responsible for coastal defense, the German navy had only limited offensive capability. That situation began to change in the 1880’s with Germany’s acquisition of overseas colonies. German industrialists, in need of raw materials and new markets for their manufactured products, began to pressure the German government to build a high-seas fleet capable of protecting German commerce. Industrialists organized groups such as the Naval League and the Colonial League to propagandize in favor of a massive naval building program. Bismarck opposed these groups with some success as long as he was chancellor of the empire.

In 1888, William II ascended the German throne as emperor (kaiser). Whereas his grandfather, William I (r. 1871-1888), had been content to delegate the responsibility for governing the German Empire to Bismarck, William II was determined to rule as well as reign. Naïvely enthusiastic about colonial expansion, William clashed with Bismarck on that and other issues; their disagreements ultimately resulted in Bismarck’s dismissal in 1890. After the old chancellor’s departure, William immediately abandoned Bismarck’s diplomatic strategy, which had virtually assured that there could be no general European war. The new emperor enthusiastically began to cooperate with industrialists who advocated the creation of a German high-seas fleet and the expansion of German colonial holdings into a worldwide empire rivaling that of England. The naval rivalry with England and William’s new “world policy” were important links in the chain of events that led to World War I.

By 1905, the German naval building program reached a level sufficient to represent a legitimate threat to English naval hegemony. The British Admiralty’s position at the time was that the English fleet must be at least as large as the fleets of the three next-largest naval powers in Europe combined in order to ensure the security of the home islands and English commerce. Because of the expanding German navy, English government officials were compelled to increase their own naval building program in order to comply with the Admiralty’s position. Faced with the massive expansion of the English navy, Tirpitz agreed finally in 1905 to support the development of submarines capable of offensive operations. Because of Gustav Krupp’s efforts, very little time expired before Germany had an operational submarine fleet.

Raymondo Lorenzo d’Equevilley-Montjustin, a Spanish engineer, had approached the Krupp firm in 1901 with plans for a double-hulled submarine capable of long-range offensive operations. D’Equevilley-Montjustin actually had offered his designs to the French government first, but the French navy bought and developed an almost identical design offered by a Frenchman named Maxime Laubeuf, who had worked closely with d’Equevilley-Montjustin in Paris. Which of the two men actually designed the submarine is uncertain. The Krupp firm approached Tirpitz for financial support to develop the submarine, but Tirpitz declined, voicing the opinion that submarines could never compete in offensive operations against surface vessels. Consequently, the Krupp firm began development of d’Equevilley-Montjustin’s design using its own resources in February, 1902.

Krupp completed the prototype of d’Equevilley-Montjustin’s vessel on June 8, 1903, but financial constraints had forced abandonment of many of the original features of the submarine. Krupp’s boat measured 42.65 feet (13 meters) and was capable of a surface speed of 4 knots. Driven by a 65-horsepower electric motor, the boat could make 5.5 knots submerged. Krupp invited the emperor to observe tests of the vessel in 1904. Both William II and his sons displayed considerable interest in the boat, but Tirpitz remained opposed to spending scarce naval funds for further development of a vessel unproven in combat.

With the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, Krupp managed to convince the Russian government to buy not only his prototype but also three more boats of the same design (which came to be called the Karp class). During the building of the submarines for the Russian navy, Krupp’s engineers greatly improved on the original model. Tirpitz was finally won over by the improved submersibles, and in 1905 he agreed to appropriate 1.5 million marks for submarine development and agreed to purchase several of the vessels for the German navy.

Tirpitz’s decision resulted in the launching of the U-1 on August 4, 1906. The U-1 measured 137.8 feet (42 meters) and displaced 234 tons; it carried a crew of twenty men and officers. Armed with an 18-inch (46-centimeter) bow torpedo tube with three self-propelled torpedoes and a 3.5-inch (88-millimeter) deck gun, the boat could make 10.8 knots on the surface and 8.7 knots submerged. With a cruising range of 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers), the U-1 had definite offensive capabilities. The German navy had acquired an important new weapon.


The launching of the U-1 made no particular impression in 1906, even on the other naval powers of the world. The Germans entered the race to develop submarine technology late, for military purposes, and progressed slowly. When World War I World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];submarine warfare began, Germany was well behind the other Great Powers, both in numbers of submarines and in submarine technology (France had 123 submarines, England had 72, Russia had 41, the United States had 34, and Germany had only 26). Nevertheless, the German submarine fleet quickly became controversial.

On September 22, 1914, the U-9, commanded by Kapitanleutnant Otto Weddigen, Weddigen, Otto sank three English armored cruisers in a naval engagement lasting less than one hour. Weddigen’s demonstration of the offensive capabilities of submarines and their effectiveness against surface vessels revolutionized naval strategy. The engagement forced the British Admiralty not only to acknowledge the vulnerability of its surface warships and change the way they were deployed but also to face the inevitability of submarine attacks on English commercial vessels. Because England had been importing most of its food for more than a century, the specter of certain defeat loomed if the German submarines could sufficiently curtail the number of merchant ships that were able to reach the British Isles.

On October 14, 1914, the U-17 sank an English steamer. Despite the agreement reached between the Great Powers at Geneva in 1907 regulating submarine warfare and prohibiting surprise attacks on civilian ships, the German high command declared a submarine blockade of the British Isles and proceeded to sink ever-increasing numbers of commercial vessels into 1915. Desperate to combat the submarine campaign that threatened to take England out of the war, the British Admiralty launched a propaganda campaign in the United States against the German actions. The German government, anxious to avoid American entry into the war on the side of its enemies, tried to avoid doing anything that might antagonize the United States.

On May 7, 1915, a German U-boat sank the English passenger liner Lusitania, Lusitania (ship)
Ships;Lusitania and 1,198 civilian lives were lost. Among the casualties were 124 Americans, despite the fact that the German embassy in the United States had taken out a full-page advertisement in The New York Times prior to the Lusitania’s departure warning potential passengers that the Lusitania was carrying matériel of war into a zone of war and was liable to be attacked by German submarines. English propagandists in the United States made much of the incident, even insisting that the U-boat had deliberately launched a second torpedo into an already sinking vessel while the civilians were trying desperately to abandon ship. In actuality, the second explosion resulted from the ignition of the ammunition being carried illegally by the Lusitania. The vehement American protest about the Lusitania incident and several similar occurrences during 1915 ultimately resulted in the German abandonment of unrestricted submarine warfare out of fear of antagonizing the United States.

By 1917, Germany’s military situation became desperate. General Erich Ludendorff Ludendorff, Erich and Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, Hindenburg, Paul von the virtual military dictators of Germany by that time, decided to chance American entry into the war in a risky gamble designed to force England to capitulate. They hoped that a resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare could knock out England before the United States could be mobilized sufficiently to affect the outcome of the war. Accordingly, the German navy resumed unrestricted attacks on all vessels sailing in proximity to the British Isles in February, 1917.

After the sinking of three American merchant vessels, the U.S. government broke off diplomatic relations with Germany. A month later, when President Woodrow Wilson asked the U.S. Congress for a declaration of war against Germany, he cited the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare as the primary cause. The entry of the United States into the war ensured Germany’s ultimate defeat. The lasting antagonism between the two nations engendered by wartime propaganda was a major factor influencing U.S. entry into World War II, again ensuring defeat for Germany. Thus the seemingly innocuous launching of the first U-boat in 1906 was an integral factor in the outcomes of two of the greatest conflicts that shaped the political and social organization of the contemporary world. U-boats[U boats]

Further Reading

  • Botting, Douglas. The U-Boats. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1979. An entertaining account of U-boat development from its beginning to the end of World War II. Includes numerous photographs and tables showing the dimensions and specifications for most U-boats.
  • Friedman, Norman. Submarine: Design and Development. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1984. Places German submarine development into context with that of other nations of the world. The section on pre-World War I U-boat evolution is short but informative.
  • Gibson, R. H., and Maurice Prendergast. The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. 1931. Reprint. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2003. A surprisingly objective account of the U-boats in World War I, including an estimate of their effectiveness in the conflict. A lengthy section discusses the development and evolution of the U-boat before World War I and speculates about the effectiveness of submarines in future conflicts.
  • Keatts, Henry, and George Farr. U-Boats. Kings Point, N.Y.: American Merchant Marine Museum Press, 1986. Enjoyable reading for anyone interested in the development of submarine warfare. Pays particular attention to German submarines sunk in U.S. waters, including accounts of amateur and U.S. Navy efforts to explore their wreckage. Replete with rare photographs and specifications for most German submarines launched between 1906 and 1945.
  • Manchester, William. The Arms of Krupp, 1587-1968. 1968. Reprint. Boston: Back Bay Books, 2003. A scholarly chronicle of the evolution of the Krupp firm into the world’s largest producer of arms. Contains a short but illuminating section on Krupp’s role in the development of the U-boat and places it in the context of the firm’s other activities.
  • Möller, Eberhard, and Werner Brack. The Encyclopedia of U-Boats: From 1904 to the Present. London: Greenhill Books, 2005. Comprehensive reference volume covering the full history of the German U-boat. Includes detailed information on individual boats’ service records, crew strengths, locations, and more.
  • Rössler, Eberhard. The U-Boat: The Evolution and Technical History of German Submarines. Translated by Harold Erenberg. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1981. Intended for readers with an interest in very specific technical details of German U-boats. Laden with figures concerning cruising speed, thickness of armor, engine specifications, number and explosive power of torpedoes, and the like. Many rare photographs.
  • Tall, Jeffrey. Submarines and Deep-Sea Vehicles. San Diego, Calif.: Thunder Bay Press, 2002. Highly illustrated history of submarines includes discussion of Germany’s U-boat fleet. Features bibliography and index.

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