The last-ditch U-boat – the Type XXVIIB

If you are a naval buff, Massachusetts certainly has a lot to see. Leaving aside the replica ‘Mayflower II’ at Plimouth Plantation (now in dry dock for repairs), and the USS Constitution, you have the magnificent USS Massachusetts (BB59) a South Dakota class battleship that saw action in WW2, and other historic vessels, at Battleship Cove, Fall River, and the USS Salem (CA-139) a Des Moines class heavy cruiser, berthed at Quincy. It so happens that the USS Salem lies only 40 minutes away from where I live, so I decided to drive down one Sunday, and take a look. However, nice though it would be to spend some time looking over the heavy cruiser, there was something else on display that I really wanted to see.

Here you can can see a portion of the USS Salem in the background of the photograph, showing one of the triple 8″ gun turrets, and ahead of it, one of the twin 5″ turrets. However, the black object in the foreground is what I had come to see! Despite the lack of any markings, the size of this submarine, and the distinctive side cradles for an externally carried torpedo on each side give it away – it is a ‘Seehund’ Type XXVIIB, one of Germany’s ‘last-ditch’ weapons of WW2.

The Allied landings by land and sea in Normandy on the 6th June, 1944, were a great shock to the German forces. Constant, grinding attrition by the Royal Air Force and the USAF had reduced the Luftwaffe to a shadow of its former glory, and five years of combat had ‘hollowed out’ the Kreigsmarine, too. On the Atlantic and Channel coasts there were only the deep-water U-boats, snug in their bomb-proof pens at bases like Lorient, and a few E-boats and destroyers scattered around in various harbours to stand against the Allies. However, there was something brewing. Just as Hitler had promised ‘wonder weapons’ from the air, there was a revolution promised in undersea warfare, too. The extremely advanced Type XXI U-boat, with its ‘autoload’ capacity for its torpedoes and immense underwater range (2 or 3 DAYS before surfacing) was to change the course of the war. In the meantime, the Germans had also come up with the naval equivalent of the simple jet fighter, He 162 ‘Volksjager’, or ‘People’s Fighter’, in the form of the Type XXVII U-boat.

It all started with a successful attack by British miniature submarines, ‘X-craft’, on the German battlecruiser ‘Tirpitz’ at her mornings in Norwegian waters. The X-craft did not use torpedoes, but huge ‘saddle charges’ which they jettisoned underneath their moored target. The Germans were inspired to design a series of unconventional, short-range, one or two man midget submarines, many armed with externally-mounted G7e torpedoes for coastal use. By far the most successful were the ‘Seehund’ or ‘Seal’ class, designed in 1944. Over 1,000 of these two-man craft were ordered. The Allied bombing campaigns strongly disrupted production, which peaked at 70 in the month of December, 1944 and had dropped to just 8 in April, 1945. In total, only 137 of these Type XXVII U-boats were taken into commission by the German Kriegsmarine, beginning with serial U-5001. This miniature warship weighed only 17 tons, and a small diesel engine gave it a surface range of 180 miles at 7 knots, while a 25 hp electric motor could push the submarine along at just 3 knots. It was capable of diving to a maximum operating depth of 165 feet, where it proved to ba a difficult target for Allied ASDIC operators due to its extremely quiet operation. The standard depth charge did not damage the Seehund as much as might be expected, because they were quite light, and were just tossed around. However they could be successfully hunted down by a barrage of thrown ‘Hedgehog’ mortars from destroyers, or a salvo of 3 inch rocket projectiles, carried by many types of RAF aircraft.

Operationally, the Seehund fleet suffered heavy losses, mostly due to being overwhelmed by bad weather, and Allied action. During the period January to April 1945, a total of 142 sorties were made against the Allied fleet and Merchant Marine vessels; they sank only 8 targets, for a total of just over 17,000 tons, and damaged 3 more ships for another 18,000 tons. The Seehund lost 35 of their number. In an attempt to extend the range, several U-boats were given ‘saddle tanks’ and a simplified rudder arrangement. The range went up to 300 miles, and these Type XXVIIIB5 subs patrolled as far as Dungeness in Kent.

The submarine you can see here is a Type XVIIIB, with the shrouded propeller of the original design, the transparent navigation dome for the commander, and empty torpedo cradles. It is likely to be either one of the many examples which were captured on the dockside at Ijmuiden, Holland by the advancing Allies, or found in the assembly plant at Kiel in Germany. I have seen photographs of this Seehund when it was painted light grey (as it would have been in service), with the number ‘075’ and a German ‘Balkenkreuz’ on the short conning tower. However, it was suffering badly from corrosion, so someone took the decision to give it a shiny coat of black paint all over – unfortunately, without repairing the rust damage, first!

Germany’s midget submarines suffered mightily at the hands of the Allies, but is is particularly ironic that this little submarine’s worst nightmare should come in the form of an ancient British biplane. Yes, the Fairey Swordfish, in its Mark III form, operated not by the Royal Navy but by No 119 Squadron, Royal Air Force, from bases on the Continent. These Swordfish were equipped with ASV radar, and bombs or rocket projectiles and painted all-black and they scoured the coastal waters for enemy shipping and Seehund, alike.

The Seehund – a last desperate throw of the dice by the German Navy.

One comment on “The last-ditch U-boat – the Type XXVIIB”

  1. Seeing this vessel has been on my wishlist for quite some time — thanks so much for the very nice image and describing its context in the overall war. Nicely done. Midget subs in general seemed to offer so much potential though most of it was unrealized it seems (thinking of the the Italian Navy, Royal Navy and Imperial Japanese Navy as well).


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