U-boats were perhaps the most menacing weapon of World War II. Especially in the early years of the war, German U-boats dominated the Atlantic Ocean, destroying millions of tons of Allied shipping. U-boats were responsible for deadly attacks off the East Coast of the US, not long after Pearl Harbor.
For as famed and feared as the Nazi U-boats were, it can sometimes be difficult to remember that they were complex machines operated by imperfect people. Mistakes did happen. The most embarrassing of these flub ups occurred on April 14, 1945, when a leaky toilet downed a formidable war machine.
A complicated contraption
As the war progressed, Nazi U-boats were forced to dive deeper and deeper to escape Allied patrols. Designers discovered that the typical toilets used at shallower depths didn’t work in deep water, so newer model type VIIC submarines were outfitted with a new toilet that could cope with the high pressures. However, it was a complicated contraption that required a trained engineer–dubbed the “shit-man” by crews–to operate.
The U-1206 was underway, sailing in about 200 feet of water, when Captain Karl-Adolf Schlitt had to hit the head. The proud captain didn’t feel the need to call the shit-man, that is until he couldn’t operate the toilet system. He called the engineer to help, but the engineer opened the wrong valve. Seawater (and other less…pleasant substances) flooded the boat. Soon, the water reached batteries located beneath the toilet (seems like a design flaw), and the boat began flooding with chlorine gas.
Schlitt ordered his men to surface. They began forcing air into the cabin to disperse the fumes. Allied aircraft appeared and began to launch an attack on the stricken boat. Schlitt ordered his men to abandon ship, and the U-boat was scuttled. Thirty-seven crewmen were taken prisoner; three were drowned. To make the debacle worse, it was Schlitt’s first command. Weeks later, the war in Europe ended.
The wreck, found
The wreck of U-1206 was discovered on May 27, 2012, nearly 67 years after the unfortunate incident that led to it being sunk. The wreck was spotted 12 miles off the Scottish coast. It was a rare case where historians actually knew the history of a wreck before diving on it. The story of the U-1206 remains as both an amusing incident in an otherwise horrific war, and as a caution to a tech obsessed culture that, no matter how advanced a gizmo might be, it only takes one tiny mistake to break it.
Long, Tony. “April 14, 1945: Tweaky toilet Costs Skipper His Sub.” Wired.com. April 14, 2011. Wired. August 9, 2014. http://www.wired.com/2011/04/0414toilet-malfunction-sinks-u-boat/
Munro, Alistair. “Found After 70 years, the wreck of U-1206.” TheScotsman.com. May 29, 2012. The Scotsman. August 9, 2014. http://www.scotsman.com/news/scotland/top-stories/found-after-70-years-the-wreck-of-u-1206-1-2323750
“The Hunt for U-1206.” mathison.freeserve.co.uk. Buchan Divers. August 9, 2014. http://www.mathison.freeserve.co.uk/id25.htm