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Off the Normandy Coast, Occupied France · May 29, 1944

The German Kriegsmarine possessed several notable midget sub­marines (Kleinst-U-Boote), one being the one-man Biber (Ger­man for “beaver”) and the other the two-man See­hund (Ger­man for “seal”). Neither U‑boot was parti­cu­larly suc­cess­ful as a wea­pon against Allied supply and troop ships.

Influ­enced by a cap­tured one-man Bri­tish sub­marine, a proto­type Biber was in place in March 1944 and suc­cess­fully tested on this date in 1944. Hastily devel­oped to help meet the im­pending Allied in­va­sion of Europe (Operation Over­lord), which began in Nor­mandy on June 6, the one-man, 6.5‑ton Biber was the smallest sub­marine, at 29 ft long, in the Kriegs­marine. The Biber was powered by dual pro­pul­sion die­sel (sur­faced) and elec­tric (sub­merged) motors. Its top speed sub­merged was 5.3 knots, and it had a range of 100 nautical miles on the sur­face. A con­ning tower con­tained armored glass win­dows to allow the pilot to see out, plus it had a 5‑ft peri­scope. Armed with two exter­nally mounted tor­pe­does, two mines, or one of each, over 320 boats were deliv­ered to the German Navy.

The first Biber oper­a­tion, con­sisting of 22 boats, was launched on August 30, 1944, east of the Nor­mandy beach­heads. Only two boats reached their oper­a­tional area. In Decem­ber 1944 the Bibers were de­ployed to Rotter­dam in the Nether­lands to tar­get Allied traf­fic to Ant­werp, the vital Bel­gian supply port the Allies had recently wrestled away from the Wehr­macht. The first Biber attack took place on the night of Decem­ber 22, 1944, in sup­port of the Ger­man drive through the Ar­dennes Forest known as the Battle of the Bulge (Decem­ber 16, 1944, to Janu­ary 25, 1945). One Allied cargo ship, the Alan A. Dale, was sunk, its 65 crewmen res­cued.

Oper­a­tions through Decem­ber 25 achieved no suc­cess and none of the 14 de­ployed mid­get sub­marines sur­vived. Losses at sea at the end of Janu­ary, com­bined with Royal Air Force bombing of launch sites, pre­vented attacks from being mounted in Febru­ary 1945. The last Biber mis­sion was a mine-laying oper­a­tion and took place on the night of April 26, four days short of Adolf Hitler’s sui­cide. Of the four Bibers that took part in the oper­a­tion, one ran aground and three were attacked by P‑47 Thunder­bolts, which sank two of them. With a loss rate of 69 per­cent, the Biber mid­get sub­marine can truly be described as a sailor’s coffin.

Kriegsmarine Midget Submarines

Beached Biber Damaged Biber on transportation trailer, 1945

Right: The one-man, 6.5-ton Biber, shown beached in this photo, was the smallest of 11 pro­duc­tion and proto­type sub­marines in the Kriegs­marine. Ger­many, Japan, and Italy built approx­i­mately 2,000 mid­get sub­marines (i.e., under­sea ves­sels of less than 50 tons). Crewed by 1–4 men and armed with either torpedoes and/or mines, these miniature submarines per­formed both spe­cial and con­ven­tional oper­a­tions in the Medi­ter­ranean, Black Sea, Indian Ocean, North Sea, the English Channel, and Pacific, including at Pearl Har­bor.

Left: A damaged and abandoned Biber on its trans­por­ta­tion trailer, 1945.

Seehund midget submarine in pen Molch midget submarine at factory

Left: A far more successful under­sea wea­pon than the Biber was the two-man See­hund (pl., See­hunde). At 39 ft long the See­hund had a sub­merged speed of 7 knots (under 8 mph), had dual pro­pul­sion die­sel (sur­faced) and elec­tric (sub­merged) motors, and had a range of 270 or so nau­tical miles. From Janu­ary to April 1945, See­hunde per­formed 142 sorties, during which they sank eight ships (ver­sus one sinking for the Biber) for a total of 17,301 tons and damaged three for a total of 18,384 tons. They lost 35 of their own out of the 138 or so com­missioned into the Kriegsmarine.

Right: The Molch (Salamander) was an 11‑ton, one-man, all-elec­tric boat designed for coastal oper­a­tions. Looking like a large tor­pe­do, the Molch had a small range (40 miles at 5 knots), tra­veled sub­merged, and carried two under­slung tor­pe­does. A total of 393 such boats were deliv­ered to the Kriegs­marine. Molche (plural form) were used in the Medi­ter­ra­nean against the Allied inva­sion of the south of France (Oper­a­tion Dra­goon). On the night of Septem­ber 25/26, 1944, a flo­tilla of 12 neither sank nor damaged any­thing for the loss of 10 subs. The last two subs were destroyed in Allied war­ship bom­bard­ment of San Remo, Italy, shortly thereafter.

German and Italian Sneak Craft. U.S. Navy Film Includes Descrip­tions of Biber and See­hund As Well As Torpedo Boats