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Basic Information

'U-Boot', or "Unterseeboot', is a German word for Submarine.

'U-Boat' is most commonly used (in English, anyway) to refer specifically to German submarines from World War I and World War II. During the Second World War, the Nazis built over a thousand U-Boats, and used them mostly to attack shipping lanes and convoys in the Atlantic Ocean.

Hot and Stinky

U-Boat interiors were cramped, hot, and smelly. A typical crew of about 60 sailors would share ("hotbunking") the 35 beds on board, for a mission lasting 3 months or longer. There was very little leeway in terms of supplies. They'd carry 12 tons of food for the voyage, and couldn't afford to waste drinkable water on something as frivolous as bathing. So the stench would build up, and be made all the worse by the blisteringly high temperatures of the engine rooms that much of the crew had to work in. By the time the ship made it back to shore at the end of the mission, things were so badly filthy they'd routinely burn the bed linens - they were deemed too soiled to possibly be washed.

Because of the miserable conditions and general stench, U-Boats are sometimes called "Swine Boats" or "Pig Boats". The term is intended to be offensive, although contemporary infantrymen in the Heer referred to themselves as frontschwein ("Frontline pigs").

Partly to alleviate this problem (but equally, from some points of view, to exacerbate it) the Kreigsmarine invented the Type XIV U-boat or milchkuhe - a submersible submarine tender capable of delivering additional fuel and supplies to the U-boats whilst at sea.

The stink wasn't the worst problem with the atmosphere on the boats - all sorts of things could go wrong with the air supply, and some of them, like carbon monoxide build-up, could sneak up on you. Early U-boats, where the problems were still being felt out, were particularly susceptible. In the 1920s - years after the end of WW1 - two separate U-boats washed ashore on the British coast with the entire crew dead of foul air. The other famous way to die was for seawater to leak into the lead-acid batteries that powered the boat and evolve a cloud of chlorine.

Dead Silent

Sonar and related underwater listening devices were the most reliable way to detect a submarine during WWII. So the crew had to be ready for total silence at a moment's notice, and prepared to keep quiet for hours at a time. Silent Running could be easily undermined by someone dropping a tool on the metal decks, or getting excited and forgetting their situation.

Should the power go out (or need to be shut off for silent running), lines of florescent paint at floor level would allow you to dimly make your way to important parts of the ship.


U-505 was a U-Boat captured by the allies during WWII. When the Germans abandoned ship, they opened a scuttling port that started filling the ship with water, and they set booby traps on their way out. In the confusion, however, the plugs were not cast overboard, and the American sailors that boarded the sub were able to disarm all 13 traps and plug the leaks before the ship could sink.

The U-505 now rests in the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago, and you can take a short guided tour of it's cramped interiors to really get a feel for what it might have been like to live and work in one of these nightmares.

Things You Might Find On A U-Boat

U-Boats are packed to the gills with interesting equipment. There's not much room for a melee aboard them, but should one break out, there's plenty of improvised weapons readily available.

  • 12 tons of food, including bread that comes in tins (although the WW1 u-boats were infamous for running mostly on pea soup).
  • Filthy sweat-soaked linens
  • Ginormous over-sized wrenches (used in the engine room)
  • Tauchretter
  • Enigma machine
  • Explosives and related components for making booby traps if you have to scuttle the ship
  • T-5 Acoustic Torpedo


2. Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago, Illinois, has the U-505 on display, with guided tours and interactive exhibits. Their website is here.

Game and Story Use

  • Just because the enemy has surrendered or abandoned ship doesn't mean the encounter is over. Bombs and traps, sabotage, or perhaps a few hidden hold-outs in the bowels of the ship will keep things from being easy for a PC boarding party.
  • Neo-Nazis or a Mad Scientist might have U-Boat docked in their hidden lair, which they use for nefarious covert purposes.
  • U-Boats sew terror on shipping lines during both world wars.
  • See Submarine for more ideas.
  • U-boats are a great favourite for "post war Nazi" scenarios - as befits the last form of transport that had a chance of making it out of Germany come the end. Some people like them to escape in convoy to South America or Antarctica (or South Africa…) full of Nazi superscience1, but equally possible might be the Nazis having invented underwater docking … somewhere on the floor of the Baltic are a squadron of boats, carefully bottomed and full of resources that the escaping Nazis meant to return for (gold, occult treasures, uranium, bioweapons, clones of der Fuhrer … that sort of thing). Thing is, the boat that serviced this operation was sunk in the Western approaches by a Sunderland from Costal Command whilst it was running for South America. Now no-one knows exactly where these boats are, but a variety of people have a fair idea. If the PCs are really unlucky, they're civilian salvers … or even leisure divers or academics … that happen to find the boat park. Hilarity ensues as all kinds of unpleasant people converge on them.
    • For real fun, have unwitting civilians pull up something left over from Mad Uncle Heinrich and one of his packs of meddlers in the occult like Sonderkommando Thule. Gives a whole new meaning to "sealed-evil-in-a-can".
    • A recreation of the 1920s "dead boat" strandings could bring a WW2 boat ashore whenever it is convenient for your plot.
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