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, North­western 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. 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. 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 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 (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