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Propaganda and utopia: the merchant submarine GERMANY

During the First World War, merchant submarines were supposed to render the British trade blockade ineffective. Two were built, but only the GERMANY transported trade goods twice.

What were the economic and political interests in the deployment of submarines during the First World War? In a section of the exhibition on the significance of shipping from the foundation of the German Reich in 1871 to the end of the First World War, which is currently being designed, we will examine the close intertwining of civilian and military shipping, which can be well followed using the example of the project to build a merchant submarine fleet.

The collection of the German Maritime Museum contains a model of the merchant submarine DEUTSCHLAND. The DEUTSCHLAND had two periscopes as well as depth rudders and external tanks. The depth rudders are essential for manoeuvring the ship under water, the so-called dynamic diving. The outer tanks, but also the ballast water tanks inside, serve to trim the ship. The high proportion of cargo capacity and the absence of any military equipment, such as torpedoes, are striking. In contrast to military submarines, the lounges and living quarters take up a large part of the ship. The ship model shows the condition of the boat before it was converted into a submarine cruiser in 1917.


From SCUBA DIVER to GERMANY: Submarine construction until the First World War

The DEUTSCHLAND is with 65 m a long submarine. It is 8.9 m wide and has a maximum draught of 4.8 m. It displaced 1440 tons on its maiden voyage in 1916 and had a crew of 29 on board. It could reach a maximum speed above water of 19 km/h and under water of 10 km/h. Its radius of action was 12,000 nautical miles. To supply the ship and crew, 180 tons of fuel oil and 20 tons of water were carried on its first voyage. During the conversion of the DEUTSCHLAND into a naval submarine in 1917, the space previously reserved for the transport of commercial goods was used to accommodate the crew, and the boat could now also carry more fuel oil.

Furthermore it was equipped with torpedo tubes on the outer skin. These changes meant that the boat had less displacement. However, its speed and diving depth had not changed, which put it at a disadvantage compared to other submarines.

The merchant submarine GERMANY was not the first submarine that had been built in Germany. In the development of the prototype, the so-called BRANDDAUCHER, which like the DEUTSCHLAND had been designed and built in Kiel, played a major role. This was tested there in 1851 in the Kiel inner fjord. The engineers succeeded in bringing the 8.07 m long and 2 m wide boat to 7 m diving depth. Then it turned out that it had been insufficiently trimmed because the current conditions had not been taken into account. The ballast shifted inside the hull, water got into the stern of the boat. The boat sank through, more water penetrated through the seams of the hull and through the boarding hatch. The crew of three managed to save themselves.

Despite its failure, the experiment was the starting signal for the further development of roadworthy prototypes. This was not primarily driven by a purely technical and scientific interest, but by the increasing competition from Great Britain and Germany for maritime supremacy.

The two journeys of the DEUTSCHLAND

The first and last commercial freight submarines completed in Kiel were the DEUTSCHLAND and the BREMEN, which left Kiel on August 21, 1916. She sent her last surviving radio message near the Orkney Islands. Since then, it has been considered lost.

The GERMANY completed two voyages between Bremerhaven and Baltimore and New London in Connecticut. The first voyage began on 16 June 1916 in Wilhelmshaven. She transported 163 tons of dyes and pharmaceutical preparations worth 60 million marks. Even though a massive currency devaluation was already taking place at this time, the relation may become clear when one considers that the widow of a simple soldier was entitled to a monthly pension of 33 Marks during this period. The submarine reached the port of Baltimore on July 9 and took on board 348 tons of rubber, 341 tons of nickel and 93 tons of tin - raw materials necessary for the production of weapons - for the return journey. The boat arrived in Bremerhaven on August 25, 1916. Soon afterwards, the GERMANY embarked on a second voyage. Within two months she sailed from Bremen to New London in Connecticut and back again. On November 17, 1916, an incident occurred in the port of New London, which further strained the already tense relations between the USA and Germany: One of the tugboats assisting the submarine on its journey was rammed through the GERMANY. All five crew members died. After the payment of a security deposit of 348,000 marks, she was able to leave the port and returned with 378 tons of rubber, 188 tons of nickel, 146 tons of iron alloy, 76 tons of tin and silver ingots. A third voyage as a cargo submarine could not take place due to the entry of the USA into the war. The submarine was then converted into a submarine cruiser and put into service as U 155 on February 19, 1917. After the end of the war the boat was handed over to Great Britain and four years later it was scrapped in the southern English seaside resort Morecambe together with a large number of other German submarines.


Further literature

Heitmann, Jan
Unter Wasser in die neue Welt. Handelsunterseeboote und kaiserliche Unterseekreuzer im Spannungsfeld von Politik und Kriegsführung
Berlin 1999

Koerver, Hans J
Krieg der Zahlen. Deutscher Ubootkrieg, britische Blockade und Wilsons Amerika 1914-1919
Steinbach 2015

Russell, Bruce
Prize Courts and U-Boats. International Law at Sea and Economic Warfare during the First World War
Dordrecht 2009



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Deutsches Schifffahrtsmuseum
Hans-Scharoun-Platz 1
D-27568 Bremerhaven


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