Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Living Aboard a U-Boat in 1914

This account of life in a 1914 German U-Boat was written by Johannes Speiss, First Watch Officer of the early kerosene powered submarine U-9, captained by Otto Weddigen. U-9 is one of the most famous submarines of all time. It served and survived the entirety of the Great War. On 22 September 1914, U-9 found a squadron of three obsolescent British Cressy-class armored cruisers (HMS Aboukir, HMS Hogue, and HMS Cressy, sardonically nicknamed the "Live Bait Squadron"), which had been assigned to prevent German surface vessels from entering the eastern end of the English Channel. She fired four of her torpedoes, reloading while submerged, and sank all three in less than an hour. Fourteen hundred fifty nine British sailors died. She sank 18 ships, including the three cruisers, before being relegated to training service for the remainder of the war. U-9 and the raider SMS Emden were the only ships which Kaiser Wilhelm II awarded the Iron Cross. 

The original document is in the Royal Navy Submarine Museum and was published in the book Submarines and the War at Sea, 1914–1918, written by Richard Compton-Hall, MacMillan:1991.

Living Aboard U-9 in 1914

U-9 Ready for Sea

Far forward in the pressure hull, which was cylindrical, was the forward torpedo room containing two torpedo tubes and two reserve torpedoes. Further astern was the Warrant Officers' compartment, which contained only small bunks for the Warrant Officers (Quartermaster and Machinist) and was particularly wet and cold.

Then came the Commanding Officer's cabin, fitted with only a small bunk and clothes closet, no desk being furnished. Whenever a torpedo had to be loaded forward or the tube prepared for a shot, both the Warrant Officers' and Commanding Officers' cabins had to be completely cleared out. Bunks and clothes cabinets then had to be moved into the adjacent officers' compartment, which was no light task owing to the lack of space in the latter compartment.

In order to live at all in the officers' compartments a certain degree of finesse was required. The Watch Officer's bunk was too small to permit him to lie on his back. He was forced to lie on one side and then, being wedged between the bulkhead to the right and the clothes-press on the left, to hold fast against the movements of the boat in a seaway. The occupant of the berth could not sleep with his feet aft as there was an electric fuse-box in the way. At times the cover of this box sprang open and it was all too easy to cause a short circuit by touching this with the feet. Under the sleeping compartments, as well as through the entire forward part of the vessel, were the electric accumulators which served to supply current to the electric motors for submerged cruising.

On the port side of the officer's compartment was the berth of the Chief Engineer, while the centre of the compartment served as a passageway through the boat. On each side was a small upholstered transom between which a folding table could be inserted. Two folding camp-chairs completed the furniture.

While the Commanding Officer, Watch Officer and Chief Engineer took their meals, men had to pass back and forth through the boat, and each time anyone passed the table had to be folded.

Further aft, the crew space was separated from the officers' compartment by a watertight bulkhead with a round watertight door for passage. On one side of the crews space a small electric range was supposed to serve for cooking - but the electric heating coil and the bake-oven short-circuited every time an attempt was made to use them. Meals were always prepared on deck! For this purpose we had a small paraffin stove such as was in common use on Norwegian fishing vessels. This had the particular advantage of being serviceable even in a high wind.

The crew space had bunks for only a few of the crew - the rest slept in hammocks, when not on watch or on board the submarine mother-ship while in port.

Crew of the U-9

The living spaces were not cased with wood. Since the temperature inside the boat was considerably greater than the sea outside, moisture in the air condensed on the steel hull-plates; the condensation had a very disconcerting way of dropping on a sleeping face, with every movement of the vessel. Efforts were made to prevent this by covering the face with rain clothes or rubber sheets. It was in reality like a damp cellar.

The storage battery cells, which were located under the living spaces and filled with acid and distilled water, generated [hydrogen] gas  on charge and discharge: this was drawn off through the ventilation system. Ventilation failure risked explosion, a catastrophe which occurred in several German boats. If sea water got into the battery cells, poisonous chlorine gas was generated.

From a hygienic standpoint the sleeping arrangements left much to be desired; one ' awoke in the morning with considerable mucus in the nostrils and a so-called 'oil-head'.

The central station was abaft the crew space, dosed off by a bulkhead both forward and aft. Here was the gyro compass and also the depth rudder hand-operating gear with which the boat was kept at the required level similar to a Zeppelin. The bilge pumps, the blowers for clearing and filling the diving tanks - both electrically driven - as well as the air compressors were also here. In one small corner of this space stood a toilet screened by a curtain and, after seeing this arrangement, I understood why the officer I had relieved recommended the use of opium before all cruises which were to last over twelve hours.

In the engine room were the four Korting paraffin [kerosene] engines which could be coupled in tandem, two on each propeller shaft. [The use of kerosene gave off a large amount of smoke and necessitated the use of a demountable funnel. This funnel was not required in later diesel-powered submarines..] The air required by these engines was drawn in through the conning-tower hatch, while the exhaust was led overboard through a long demountable funnel. Astern of the gas engines were the two electric motors for submerged cruising.

In the stem of the boat, right aft, was the after torpedo room with two stem torpedo tubes but without reserve torpedoes.

The conning tower is yet to be described. This was the battle station of the Commanding Officer and the Watch Officer. Here were located the two periscopes, a platform for the Helmsman and the 'diving piano' which consisted of twenty-four levers on each side controlling the valves for releasing air from the tanks. Near these were the indicator glasses and test cocks.

Finally there was electrical controlling gear for depth steering, a depth indicator; voice pipes; and the electrical firing device for the torpedo tubes.

Above the conning tower was a small bridge which was protected when cruising under conditions which did not require the boat to be in constant readiness for diving: a rubber strip was stretched along a series of stanchions screwed into the deck, reaching about as high as the chest. When in readiness for diving this was demounted, and there was a considerable danger of being washed overboard.

The Officer on Watch sat on the hatch coaming [keeping out the water], the Petty Officer of the Watch near him, with his feet hanging through the hatch through which the air for the gas engines was being drawn. I still wonder why I was not afflicted with rheumatism in spite of leather trousers. The third man on watch, a seaman, stood on a small three-cornered platform above the conning tower; he was lashed to his station in heavy seas.

This was the general arrangement for all seagoing boats at that time of the Types U-5 to U-18 with few exceptions.

Submitted by Dr. Geoffrey Miller  at the WWI Resource Center


  1. Couldn't he have gone to Occupational Health?

  2. With the electric cooking eye and over regularly sho!rting out I wonder how they had confidence in electric pumps

  3. Needless to say claustrophobia was not a trait required for U-boat crews.