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GORDON WILLIAMSON, illustrated by IAN PALMER
A Type VII U-boat in heavy seas, seen from the flak platform of another of the same class.
Amongst the many onerous terms of the Armistice that Germany signed in 1918 was a demand that all German U-boats were to be surrendered to Great Britain and additionally that all boats still under construction were to be destroyed or dismantled. Germany was also prohibited from building any other submarines, to include merchant vessels, in the future. These demands were subsequently ratified in terms of Articles 188, 189 and 191 of the Treaty of Versailles signed on 28 June 1919. Existing U-boats at the time of signing were distributed to Great Britain, the United States, France, Italy and Japan, where they were the subject of intensive study.
Fortunately for Germany the Allies, though demanding the surrender of all U-boats, seem to have overlooked the huge repository of technical expertise and knowledge represented by the documentary records of the German submarine construction industry. There had been no demand for these records to be surrendered. These essential records were subsequently transferred to the new submarine section of the Torpedo and Mine Inspectorate of the new Reichsmarine - the navy of the Weimar Republic and from there ultimately to the Reich Archives.
Before long, though prohibited from actually building submarines, Germany was actively marketing her expertise in this field, selling U-boat designs to Japan and working in cooperation with shipyards in Argentina, Italy and Sweden. In order to avoid political problems that might come from being seen to be acting against the spirit of the Versailles Treaty, a cover firm, NV Ingenieurskanntor voor Scheepsbouw (IvS), was set up in Holland in July 1922. Although legal technicalities prevented the opening of the company's office in The Hague until 1925, the Firm was run until that time directly from Germaniawerft;s office in Kiel.
U-9 running on the surface. Her crew is dressed in the leather clothing widely worn by U-boat crews. Note in this photograph that the Iron Cross motif, carried by U-9 in honour of the original U-9 of the Imperial Navy, has been fitted to the tower.
Secretly funded by the German Navy, IvS manufactured two submarines for Turkey, the design of which was closely based on the Type UBI1I of the Kaiserliche Marine. Both were launched in 1927, with the contracts worded in such a way that IvS personnel were involved with crew selection and training, and were permitted to take part in the boats' service trials. The Germans thus gained first-hand knowledge of how their design behaved in practice.
In 1932, the Germans decided on a reconstruction programme designed to provide the nation with a modern navy. This programme included provision for a small fleet of eight medium-sized (500-ton) submarines, though this number was later increased to 16. A year later, in 1933, a school for training U-boat crews was established, ironically under the title of 'anti-submarine defence school' (Unterseebootsabwehrschule) at Kiel.
Three mine-laying submarines were also ordered by Finland, again based on an earlier design, this time the Type UCIII, but greatly improved. The boats were built in Finnish shipyards, but with intensive involvement of German technicians who once again participated in their sea trials. Two further orders were received from the Finns, one for a small 115-ton vessel, and one for a larger 250-ton boat, very similar to what would become the MVBII. The last of these, the Vesikko, launched in May 1933, had her hand-over to the Finnish Navy deliberately delayed until January 1936 so that she could be used for the purpose of training future U-boat crews. The Vesikko is still preserved today.
Germany now began to develop designs for submarines for her own navy. These projected designs, for the purpose of subterfuge, were referred to as Motorenversuchsboote (MVB) or 'Experimental Motor Boats'. Deutsche Werke in Kiel was selected to build the new boats, and a new U-boat base was to be constructed at Kiel-Wik.
Component materials began to be surreptitiously gathered at Deutsche Werke's Kiel base, ready for the order to begin production. The programme envisaged the following types being built:
1934 - two large 800-ton boats and two small 250-ton boats
Stern view of the Type IIB. Just abaft the conning tower is the crew access hatch into the interior. On the second boat from snore, a crewman can just be seen exiting from this hatch. The stem flagstaff is held in a fitting that also contains the stern navigation light.
Each small boat was costed at between I and 1.5 million marks, including preparation costs, and each large boat at between 4 and 4.5 million marks. The larger boats were designated as MVBIA and the smaller as MVBIIA.
The Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1934 had agreed a proportional parity of 3:1 between the two countries. With Great Britain's submarine fleet totalling just over 50,000 tons, this would allow Germany (had the construction of U-boats been permitted at all) a fleet totalling around 17,500 tons. This was initially perceived as being 20 of the MVBIA type and six of the smaller MVBIIA type. In fact, however, naval theory was much in favour of large numbers of the smaller type being more effective than a smaller number of large boats. A figure of around ten of the larger boats and 18 of the smaller was arrived at, still leaving Germany well within her theoretical tonnage allowance.
All of this was somewhat academic, however, as Germany still was not in a position where she was allowed to build submarines of any type. Hitler, who had come to power in January 1933, still harboured hopes of an accord with Great Britain and did not wish his political plans to be upset by any discovery that Germany was building prohibited U-boats. Permission to begin construction was therefore withheld for the time being.