Off the Normandy Coast, France May 29, 1944

The German Kriegsmarine experimented with a half-dozen stealthy combat vessels that could send torpe­does crashing into Allied ships. Perhaps the most unusual was the Neger (“Negro,” a play on the name of its designer, Richard Mohr, i.e., Moor). Almost 25 ft long, the battery-powered Neger was shaped like two torpe­does, one atop the other, the lower one being the weapon. The upper part con­tained the pilot’s cramped cock­pit, pro­tected by a water­tight Plexi­glas dome. About 200 were built and saw ser­vice in 1944–1945, first at Anzio, Italy, in April 1944 and three months later off the Normandy inva­sion coast of France. Though not designed as a sui­cide wea­pon, about 80 per­cent of the one-man crews were killed when their craft was dis­covered by air­craft or ships or when the upper section (which did not completely submerge) and lower section failed to separate.

The German Kriegsmarine also 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. The roots of problem may lie in the shoddy or experi­mental nature of the diving boats and in the diving boats’ crew, many of them Hitler Youth volun­teers, draftees, and even mili­tary “defaulters” (shirkers) who were supplied with cocaine-spiked chewing gum and strong meth­amphe­tamine against the sleepless days and nights per mission.

Influenced by a captured one-man British sub­marine, a proto­type Biber was in place in March 1944 and suc­cess­fully tested on this date, May 29, 1944. Hastily devel­oped to help meet the im­pending Allied in­va­sion of Europe (Operation Over­lord), which began in Nor­mandy, France, 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. The poor quality of its peri­scope meant that night­time opera­tions had to be conducted on the surface. 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 from Fécamp harbor in Normandy on August 30, 1944, roughly 100 miles north­east of the inva­sion beaches. 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 from the Wehr­macht (German armed forces). The first Biber attack took place on the night of Decem­ber 22/23, 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). Of the 18 Bibers involved in the oper­a­tion, just one returned. The sole Allied casualty was a cargo ship, the Alan A. Dale. All 65 crewmen were 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 dare­devil 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

German midget submarines: Beached BiberGerman midget submarines: Damaged Biber on transportation trailer, 1944

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. Plans for a two-man version of the Biber were scratched. 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 pint-sized 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: Remains of a Biber midget submarine on its trans­por­ta­tion trailer, aban­doned and set afire by the road­side by retreating German forces near Arras, a city in the Pas-de-Calais in North­western France, 1944. Arras was entered and liber­ated by British soldiers from the 5th Battalion, Cold­stream Guards on September 1, 1944.

German midget submarines: Seehund midget submarine in penGerman midget submarines: 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 German Midget Sub­marines Biber and See­hund As Well As Torpedo Boats