Berlin, Germany • January 18, 1944

On this date in 1944 Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz approached his com­mander in chief, Adolf Hitler, with a design for a new midget submarine, much larger than the one‑man Biber (Beaver) sub that was in the proto­type stage. The Hecht (Pike) was a three‑man mid­get based on a British X-class sub­marine that had to be towed to its in­tended area of oper­a­tions by a full-size “mother” sub. The Hecht was powered ini­ti­ally by a 12 hp tor­pedo motor (later ver­sions had a diesel engine for sur­face use and an elec­tric motor for under­water use), had a range of 40 nau­tical miles sub­merged, and carried one hull-mounted tor­pedo or one mine. Fifty-three Hechts were built between May and August 1944, but their un­satis­fac­tory per­form­ance (Hechts had no ballast tanks) pre­vented their seeing action. The two-man See­hund (Seal), a deri­va­tive of the Hecht, proved supe­rior in every way. Enthusiasm for the See­hund was so high that most of the contracts and hull numbers were allocated even before the design was completed. One thou­sand of these mid­get subs were ordered. How­ever, due to labor and trans­por­tation prob­lems, short­ages of raw mate­rial, and con­flicting pri­or­i­ties in Ger­many’s fal­tering econ­o­my no more than 285 were completed before the war ended. Which was for­tunate. Com­pared to its pre­deces­sor, the See­hund had one‑third more range and carried twice the arma­ment. It was, in effect, a mini­a­ture fleet sub­marine and handled well on the sur­face, where its small size made it very hard to detect both visu­ally and on radar. Also, it could crash-dive in less than five seconds, and its quiet en­gine made it dif­fi­cult to detect under­water. From January to April 1945 See­hunde per­formed over 140 sorties, during which they sank 8 ships for 17,301 tons and damaged 3 for 18,384 tons. Although their toll on mer­chant shipping was not ter­ribly great, their sor­ties forced the Royal Navy to deploy about 500 escort ves­sels and more than 1,000 aircraft to counter their oper­a­tions. Their last two sorties were almost comi­cal; namely, resupplying the besieged Ger­man base on the French coast at Dun­kirk with food rations carried inside so-called “butter torpedoes,” which they blasted up the beach.

Kriegsmarine Midget Submarines

Beached Biber Damaged Biber on transportation trailer, 1945

Right: The one-man, 6.5-ton Biber was the smallest submarine, at 29 ft long, in the Kriegsmarine. Powered alternately by an off-the-shelf gasoline motor (surface) and an electric torpedo motor (submerged), the Biber had been hastily developed to help meet the impending threat of the Allied invasion of Europe. Due to technical flaws, a tiny periscope with a limited field of view, handling difficulties, and rushed training of crews, the crude submarine never posed a threat to Allied shipping.

Left: A damaged and abandoned Biber on its transportation trailer, 1945. Armed with two externally mounted 21‑in torpedoes, two mines, or one of each, over 300 Bibers were delivered to the Kriegsmarine.

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), dual pro­pul­sion diesel (sur­faced) and electric (sub­merged) motors, and 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. The Molch was 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 Midget Submarines of World War II: Molch, Biber, and Seehund