Life on a WW1 U-Boat

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 What was life like aboard a WW1 U-boat?

You have probably never pondered this question. Neither had I until I read a book which, as part of the narrative, explained what life was like aboard for the crew of a German sub in the First World War. And it sounds like a nightmare. Hellish, in fact.

Of course, life in any submarine is, or was,  likely to be claustrophobic. In the last century, it’s likely that fresh air was something that wasn’t experienced by the crew for many weeks and the standards of hygiene would – truly – make most people today recoil in horror.

A U-boat’s raison d’etre was to destroy enemy shipping. Comforts for the crews just weren’t considered. Most had 25 to 50 men on board in a cramped space. And worse, assignments would often last for anything between three weeks and six months. (I can’t imagine having no fresh air or sunshine for six months).

The submarines were equipped with just one toilet. (Today, a couple living together expect more than one toilet!) There were no showers and no bathing facilities. The only fresh water available during a mission was for rationed drinking only, not for ‘frivolities’ such as showering or laundering clothes. As water was often scarce, even washing and shaving wasn’t allowed.

And the lack of space aboard meant that crew members couldn’t take a great deal with them so don’t run away with the idea that they could take enough underpants (for example) to last for six laundry-free months. They were issued with one spare pair, ditto socks. They had only one uniform, of course.

As you can imagine the atmosphere (i.e. pong) became very unpleasant after just a couple of days out of port.

For sleeping, the men had hammocks. Because the submarine needed crew 24/7, two or sometimes three men would share each hammock (and therefore, share the bedding). As one man got up to report for duty, the sailor who had just come off duty would use his hammock. Remember – no laundry…..

There was absolutely no privacy. With just one toilet aboard it wasn’t even possible to take a magazine to read on the loo and get five minutes peace – there was always a queue. And remember that we’re talking about an ocean-going vessel here, not a nice flushable toilet. Hand cranking was the order of the day. This was a noisy affair and so banned when the U-boat was stalking the enemy.

To continue being gross, the food served aboard was not of the finest or healthiest. Therefore there were often unpleasant ‘lavatorial emergencies’ which added all the more to the unsavoury atmosphere.

Which of these horrendous factors made life on U-boats truly hellish? I imagine that all of them would.  Awful conditions, a completely unhygienic environment, filth, no fresh air, the claustrophobia … all of these would be largely unbearable. But there is also the fact that:

“Almost half of the WW1 U-boats ended up on the ocean floor taking their crewmen with them. They called them ‘iron caskets’ for a reason.”


Jackie Jackson, also known online as BritFlorida, is a highly experienced designer and writer. British born and now living in the USA, she specialises in lifestyle issues, design and quirky stories. You can see a wide range of articles here, or visit her website Tastes Magazine. See The Writer’s Door for more information.

Author: Jackie Jackson

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