Odd this day

14 April 1945

4 min readApr 14, 2024

Well, as I’m sure you all know, and don’t need me to tell you, today is the anniversary of the day a German U-boat was sunk by a turd. Possibly.

It sounds too good to be true, not least because the incident with the poo payload was the work of the captain, the almost perfectly named Karl-Adolf Schlitt, and the vessel was on its first patrol at the time. So, what follows is part fact-check, but mostly fuck-it-print-the-legend.

A cross-section through the front half of a submarine of the type in question, with a small toilet, roughly in the middle of the image, ringed in red
Illustration from U-boats under the Swastika: an introduction to German submarines, 1935–1945

Kapitänleutnant Schlitt was two days off his 27th birthday, nine days into his mission, 24 days away from VE Day, and just off the coast of Aberdeenshire when he apparently heard the call of nature. Submarines tended to store their sewage in on-board septic tanks — or at least the British ones did, according to this account — but those cunning Teutons had devised an undersea lav that could pump bodily waste directly into the sea. (As we all know now, of course, waterways and coasts are where human ordure belongs. But I digress.)

Unfortunately, for the first few years of U-boat history, this was only possible as long as you were fewer than 25 metres down. As German naval historian Jak P. Mallmann Showell points out, in U-boats under the Swastika: an introduction to German submarines, 1935–1945:

Of course during those early years of the war the boats spent most of their time on the surface, so this situation presented only a few difficulties. Later as the boats were forced to remain submerged for long periods, (those in the Mediterranean often remained up to twenty-four hours ‘in the cellar’), a new special high-pressure toilet had to be installed.

Another account says this system

directed human waste through a series of chambers to a pressurized airlock.

Whatever the details, it was complicated. Back to Mallmann Showell for the full facts:

The operation of this equipment proved to be so difficult that men with technical aptitude were specially trained to learn about the new system. The sailors had a delicate expression for these toilet operators, perhaps the term ‘Toilet Graduate’ might suffice in English.

(Yes, I do rather wish I had enough German to either read about this in the author’s first language, or to speculate about what the compound noun in question might be and how it might literally translate. At a guess, and with a bit of help from Google Translate, it might be Toiletteakademiker, but I think Scheißemaschinist has more of a ring to it, so I’m going with that. Anyway.)

Schlitt tried the levers for himself and had some difficulty in ejecting the contents

…so a Scheißemaschinist was sent to assist.

Somehow, with two brains on the job, the levers were pulled in the wrong order so that the toilet’s contents, plus a thick jet of water, flew into the men’s faces.

I don’t think Mallmann Showell was there to see it, but he is a proper historian, so I’m working on the basis that he went back to primary sources — and perhaps employed a little dramatic licence. They

took the boat up to periscope depth in order to relieve the high water pressure. This enabled the men to shut the valves. However, a large volume of salt water had entered the boat and found its way into the batteries below the toilet. Slowly poisonous chlorine gasses started to fill the boat and Schlitt had no choice but to surface in order to ventilate the interior. (Chlorine gas is produced when the salt from the sea water reacts with sulphuric acid in the batteries.) U 1206 was depth-charged by an aircraft as it broke the surface, making diving and further progress impossible and the boat had to be abandoned.

The men all headed for the dinghies, and four drowned. Forty were rescued by the HMS Nodzu, and spent at least 24 days (presumably longer, because: bureaucracy) as prisoners of war.

So, all seems to be in order. Various forms of bodily waste, seawater, and chlorine all over the shop. A submarine brought down by its Advanced Undersea Bog. Completely true. Well…

Schlitt’s report said

I was in the engine room, when at the front of the boat there was a water leak. What I have learned is that a mechanic had tried to repair the forward WC’s outboard vent. I would say — although I do not have any proof — that the outer vent indicator either gave false readings or none at all. The engineer who was in the control room at the time managed to make the boat buoyant and surfaced, despite severe flooding. Meanwhile the batteries were covered with sea water. Chlorine gas started to fill the boat. We were then incapable of diving or moving. At this point, British planes and patrols discovered us. I let the boat sink.

So it may be complete balls. On the other hand, if I was a ship’s captain whose bodily functions had cost my navy one of its most advanced vessels, I dare say I might not confess to being the perpetrator of the rectal mishap, the colonic nemesis, the turd torpedo, in question either.

We do know that, in 2012, U-1206 was found, 86 metres down, 12 miles off Cruden Bay in Aberdeenshire, that it was in decent nick for something that had been down there 60+ years, and that the story really ought to be true because some prosaic incident with a vent is much less fun.




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