The High-Tech Toilet That Sank a German U-Boat
From the problems we are having with the LCS Frigates, DD-1000, and CV -78 one would think that the descendants of these German Naval Engineers now populate the Pentagon. The Captain of the boat was probably at some irrelevant training session and didn’t qualify himself on his command. A lot like today where the emphasis is placed on social training instead of how to operate and maintain the new, questionable technology installed on the ships.
By World War II standards, the German Type VIIC submarine was an advanced hunter of the seas. But one unlucky vessel of its class, the U-1206, sank during its maiden combat voyage after its captain used its high-tech shitter improperly.
Yes, this happened and was an unexpected and tragic consequence of a real marine engineering problem. The cause of the sinking was improper training in the operation of new submarine shitter technology.
For years, crafty German engineers had been busy developing what they thought was the next generation in undersea plumbing. While Allied subs piped their sewage into onboard septic tanks, German U-boats saved precious weight and space by discharging waste directly into the sea.
But pulling off this latter operation posed unique challenges. The system only worked when the submarine floated near the surface, where the water pressure was low. One can only imagine the unpleasant workarounds forced upon the crew when boats had to stay submerged for prolonged periods.
As the war — and Allied anti-submarine technology — progressed, submarines were increasingly dead meat in shallow water or on the surface. But by 1945, Germany’s toilet technology had matured.
Germany’s top minds had produced a newfangled “deepwater,” high-pressure shitter” which allowed them to flush while submerged deep below the waves.
Advanced as it was, the toilet was extremely complicated. First, it directed human waste through a series of chambers to a pressurized airlock. The contraption then blasted it into the sea with compressed air, sort of like a turd torpedo.
A specialist on each submarine received training on proper toilet operating procedures. There was an exact order of opening and closing valves to ensure the system flowed in the correct direction. I wonder if Shitter Operator was a separate rating or was it an assigned collateral duty.
Now meet U-1206 and its proud 27-year-old captain, Karl-Adolf Schlitt. On April 14, 1945, Schlitt and his submarine were eight days into their first combat patrol of the war. The submarine lurked 200 feet beneath the surface of the North Sea when Schlitt had to shit. He decided that he could figure the toilet out himself.
But Schlitt was not properly trained as a Shitter Operator meaning his quals for the safe operation of the equipment hadn’t been signed off. Schlitt, realizing that he didn’t know how to operate the shitter flushing mechanism called an engineer to help, the engineer, also unqualified, turned a wrong valve and accidentally unleashed a torrent of sewage and seawater back into the boat.
The situation escalated quickly. The unpleasant liquid filled the toilet compartment and began to stream down onto the submarine’s large internal batteries — located directly beneath the head — which reacted chemically and began producing chlorine gas.
As the poisonous gas filled the submarine, Schlitt frantically ordered the boat to the surface. The crew blew the ballast tanks and fired their torpedoes to improve the flooded vessel’s buoyancy.
Somehow, it got worse when the submarine reached the surface. “at this point, British planes and patrols discovered us,” Schlitt wrote in his official account.
After taking damage from an air attack, the only option was to scuttle the sub and order the sailors to abandon the Boat.
“The crew reached the Scottish coast in rubber dinghies,” Schlitt added. “In the attempt to negotiate the steep coast in heavy seas, three crewmembers tragically died. Several men were taken aboard a British sloop.
Schlitt survived the war and died in 2009. U-1206 rests on the bottom of the North Sea to this day with the flushing mechanism still incorrectly lined up.