Antwerp, Belgium · December 22, 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‑boat was partic­u­larly suc­cessful as a wea­pon against Allied ships and merchant­man. Influ­enced by a captured one-man Brit­ish sub­marine, a proto­type Biber was in place in March 1944 and success­fully tested on May 29, 1944. 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 (three weeks instead of the opti­mal eight), the crude sub­marine never posed a threat to Allied ship­ping. Armed with two exter­nally mounted 21‑inch tor­pe­does, two mines, or one of each, over 300 Bibers were deliv­ered to the Kriegs­marine. The first Biber opera­tion, con­sisting of 22 boats, was launched on August 30 1944, well past the Allied landings on Nor­mandy’s beaches in June and July (Opera­tion Over­lord). Only two boats reached their opera­tional area. In Decem­ber 1944 Bibers were de­ployed to Rotter­dam in the Nether­lands to tar­get traffic to and from Ant­werp, the Bel­gian supply port now in Allied hands. The first attack com­menced late on this date in 1944 in sup­port of the Ger­man drive through the Ar­dennes Forest, known as the Battle of the Bulge. One Allied ship, the Alan A. Dale, a car­go ship, was sunk in the Scheldt Es­tu­ary near Ant­werp. All 65 men on board sur­vived the sinking. Of the 18 Bibers dis­patched on the mis­sion, only one returned. Opera­tions through the 25th achieved no suc­cess and none of the 14 deployed sub­marines sur­vived. Semi-sui­cidal losses, com­bined with RAF bombing of the cranes used to move the Bibers into and out of the water, pre­vented attacks from being mounted in Febru­ary 1945. The last Biber mis­sion took place on the night of April 26, 1945, four days before 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.

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Kriegsmarine Midget Submarines

Beached BiberDamaged 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 tor­pe­does, mines, or both, 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 penMolch 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 (pl. 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.

World War II German and Italian “Sneak Craft,” Including Midget Submarines