Life aboard German submarines in WWII ranged from uncomfortable to downright hazardous, even when they weren’t dodging depth charges. They were cramped, spartan, and even in the best of circumstances, the air was foul with diesel fumes, body odors, and other smells. Worst of all, there were only two toilets on board to service the needs of its 50-man crew, and one of the “heads” was located next to the galley, so the space was often used instead to store food.
In addition, plumbing on German subs of that era differed from American and British subs in one important respect. German toilets discharged their contents directly into the sea, while those of the allies flushed directly into holding tanks. This design saved precious space, but it came at a price. The toilets could only be used when the submarine was traveling on or near the surface. When the submarine was submerged, the pressure outside the hull was too great for the toilets to flush. This meant that when the sub was submerged, crewmen had to use buckets, tin cans, and anything else they could find to hold the waste until they could surface and once again resume proper flushing. This also added to the aromatic ambience.
In 1944, German engineers redesigned the plumbing system to include a more efficient flushing mechanism. This made flushing at greater depths possible, but the new system was incredibly complex, involving a number of levers and valves. The toilets came with complicated instruction manuals, and of necessity some crew members had to be trained as “toilet-flushing specialists.”
The U-1206 had one of the new-and-improved plumbing system.
On 14 April 1945, 24 days before the end of World War II in Europe, while U-1206 was cruising at a depth of 200 feet about ten miles off the Scottish Coast, first-time skipper Kapitänleutnant* Karl-Adolf Schlitt (1918-2009) had to answer the call of nature. Rather than request the assistance of the toilet specialist, Schlitt tried to follow the instructions in the manual to flush the toilet himself (“how tough could it be?”)
Schlitt got the inside valve open, then ran into trouble. He finally called the toilet specialist for help; that worthy opened the outside valve (the one open to the sea) without first making sure the inside valve was closed. A torrent of water flooded into the sub.
When a WWII submarine was submerged, it ran on electric motors powered by a giant bank of batteries, located in a compartment directly below the malfunctioning toilet. The seawater quickly reacted with the batteries by electrolysis to generate deadly chlorine gas, which began to spread throughout the sub.
As the gas filled the submarine, Schlitt had no choice but to order the submarine to surface so that the gas could be vented and replaced with breathable air. Because they surfaced within sight of the Scottish coastline, they were quickly spotted by Allied aircraft and attacked. One crew member died in the melee that followed; three others fell overboard and drowned.
U-1206 was badly damaged in the attack. Seeing no way to save his submarine, Captain Schlitt ordered the crew into the lifeboats; then he scuttled the ship. Thirty-six members of the crew were rescued by small boats in the area; ten others made it to shore in their lifeboats and were captured.
It’s possible that the toilet that sent the U-1206 to the bottom of the Atlantic may have saved the surviving 46 members of the crew. By the summer of 1943 the Battle of the Atlantic had turned decisively in favor of the Allies, who were now able to sink U-boats faster than the Germans could replace them. The odds of a German submariner surviving the war were slim: 75% of the entire U-boat fleet was sunk during the war, and 30,000 of the submarine service’s 40,000 crew members went to a watery grave with them.
The U-1206 lies on the bottom at a depth of 283 feet. She lay undisturbed until she was discovered in May of 2012. Here’s the Story.
As for the unfortunately-named Capt. Schlitt, he lived to be nearly 91, secure in the knowledge that so far as is known, his is the only submarine in history to be sunk by its own toilet.
*Equivalent to a USN full lieutenant.