The First Civilian Submarine

The Birth of the First Civilian Submarine

While we were on our last trip, I stopped by a used book  store and found a book that had been a part of my life growing up. In my Grandfather’s library was a collection of books called “Source Records of the  Great War”. These books were collected documents about the events that were  part of World War 1 from the viewpoint of the actual participants.

Unfortunately, out of all of the books, only the year 1916 was in the store. While I was reading it last night, I uncovered a piece of submarine history  that I was not aware of despite years of reading and presenting submarine  talks. An even happened in 1916 that had the potential to change the way submarines could be used in the future.

On July 9, 1916 the captain of the German submarine Deutschland,  Paul Koenig, docked in the United States. This submarine was very unique since it had been built by a civilian company to transport goods across the ocean. She was truly a merchantman, and therefore carried no munitions or instruments of war. The most significant part of the voyage at that time was the discovery of the German’s newfound ability to send submarines across the Atlantic.

Needless to say, the belligerent nations viewed this event as a significant change in the global picture. Remember that the modern submarine force at that time was still limited in its ability to travel the globe.


The Deutschland was the world’s first merchant submarine.

It was the first time an undersea ship could travel on a long voyage with her own fuel, provisions and a cargo. She was much larger than the submarines of 1914 and more powerful in every way. The facts of her development were considered to be a significant scientific and technological triumph for her builders. Lessons learned form that first of six ships would later be used to construct the horribly awesome German fleets that could have tipped the balance in both World Wars.

She was constructed without armaments, with a wide beam  to provide space for cargo. The cargo capacity was 700 tons (230 tons of rubber  could be stored in the free-flooding spaces between the inner and outer hulls.), relatively small compared to surface ships. Of the seven merchant subs planned only two were completed according to the original design: the Deutschland and the Bremen, which was lost without a trace on her maiden voyage.

While the U.S. government allowed merchant vessels from all warring nations to dock at U.S. ports and to freely trade, in practice Britain’s dominance of the seas ensured that Germany was effectively excluded from the U.S. market. So the arrival of the Deutschland threatened to challenge Britain’s naval blockade, at least so far as trade with the U.S. was

Britain, in a joint statement with the other Allied governments, quickly sent a note of protest to the U.S. government arguing that submarines should not be regarded as merchant vessels. In support of this argument the Allies suggested that as a submarine could not be stopped and inspected for munitions in the same manner as other vessels, her real intentions could not be verified.

The U.S. government – under constant pressure from the German government because of suspected favoritism granted to the Allied nations – responded at the close of August 1916 with a rejection of the Allies’ arguments; unarmed submarines, from whatever nation, were to be regarded as merchant vessels and accordingly permitted to trade.


Reproduced below is Captain Koenig’s initial announcement upon arrival in the U.S. with the Deutschland on 9 July 1916.


“German Submarine Deutschland’s Atlantic Crossing by Captain Paul Koenig

The submarine Deutschland, which I have the honour to command, is the first of several submarines built to the order of the Deutsche Ozean Rhederei G.M.B.H., Bremen. She will be followed by the Bremen shortly.

The idea of the building of this submarine emanated from Alfred Lohmann, then President of the Bremen Chamber of Commerce. He brought his idea in the fall of last year confidentially before a small circle of friends, and the idea was taken up at once. A company was formed under the name of “Deutsche Ozean Rhederei G. M. B. H.,” and the Germaniawerft, Kiel, was entrusted with the building of the submarines.

The Board of Directors is composed of Alfred Lohmann, President of the Board; Philipp Heineken, General Manager of the Nord Lloyd, and Kommerzienrat P. M. Herrman, Manager of the Deutsche Bank. Carl Stapelfeldt, Manager of the Nord Lloyd, has taken over the management of the company.

We have brought a most valuable cargo of dyestuffs to our American friends, dyestuffs which have been so much needed for months in America and which the ruler of the seas has not allowed the great American Republic to import. While England will not allow anybody the same right on the ocean because she rules the waves, we have, by means of the submarine, commenced to break this rule.

Great Britain cannot hinder boats such as ours to go and come as we please. Our trip passing Dover across the ocean was an uneventful one. When danger approached we went below the surface, and here we are, safely in an American port, ready to return in due course.

I am not in a position to give you full details regarding our trip across the ocean, in view of our enemies. Our boat has a displacement of about 2,000 tons and a speed of more than fourteen knots. Needless to say that we are quite unarmed and only a peaceful merchantman.

Our boats will carry across the Atlantic the mails and save them from British interruption. We trust that the old friendly relationship with the United States, going back to the days of Washington, when it was Prussia who was the first to help America in its fight for freedom from British rule, will awake afresh in your beautiful and powerful country.

The house flag of the Deutsche Ozean Rhederei is the old Bremen flag-red and white stripes, with the coat of arms of the town, the key in the corner. This key is the sign that we have opened the gates which Great Britain tried to shut up on us and the trade of the world. The gates which we opened with this key will not be shut again. Open door to the trade of the world and freedom of the oceans and equal rights to all nations on the oceans will be guaranteed by Germany’s victory in this struggle for our existence.”

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. IV, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

The First Visit from the American Point of View


Published under the direction of

The Hon. JOSEPHUS DANIELS, Secretary of the Navy



It is not believed necessary to go into the discussion based on opinions or surmises during the early years of the war in Europe as to whether or not an attack by the Germans would be made on the American coast. Therefore, the operations herein described are those which actually took place in the year 1918, with a description of the preliminary cruises made by the Deutschland and the U-53 in the year 1916.

Of course, it must remain a matter, more or less, of conjecture as to what was actually the object of the cruises made by the Deutschland in 1916. Apparently they were both purely commercial voyages. The voyage of the U-53 assumes more a character of a path-finding expedition. This vessel was a strictly combative vessel. It is interesting to note that on the arrival of this vessel at Newport, the commanding officer stated to the American submarine that he did not need or want a pilot to enter Newport, and that he wanted no supplies or provisions or materials of any kind.

There is, therefore, given in the following pages a brief account of the commercial cruises of the Deutschland and the preliminary cruise of the U-53:


The German submarine Deutschland, the first cargo-carrying U- boat, left Bremen with a cargo of chemicals and dyestuffs on June 14, 1916, and shaped her course for Heligoland, where she remained for nine days for the purpose, so her captain, Paul Koenig, stated, of throwing the enemy off the scent if by any means he should have learned what was being attempted.

The Deutschland was manned by a crew of 8 officers and 26 men—the captain, 3 deck officers, 4 engineer officers, 6 quartermasters, 4 electricians, 14 engineers, 1 steward and 1 cook. Because of the danger by way of the English Channel, which was heavily netted, Capt. Koenig laid his course around the north of Scotland, and it was while he was in the North Sea that most of the submergence of the Deutschland (about 90 miles in all) took place.

Usually the U-boat traveled on the surface, but on sighting any suspicious ship she would immediately submerge, occasionally using her periscopes. According to Capt. Koenig’s account, she was submerged to the bottom and remained for several hours.

The Deutschland resembled the typical German U-boat, but carried no torpedo tubes or guns. Her hull was cigar-shaped, cylindrical structure, which extends from stem to stern. Inclosing the hull was a lighter false hull, which was perforated to permit the entrance and exit of water and was so shaped as to give the submarine a fairly good ship model for diving at full speed on the surface and at a lesser speed submerged. The dimensions and some of the characteristics of the Deutschland were as follows: Length, 213 feet 3 inches; beam, inner hull, about 17 feet; beam, outer hull, 29 feet 2 inches; depth, about 24 feet; depth to top of conning tower, about 35 feet; draft (loaded), 16 to 17 feet; displacement, light, 1,800 tons—submerged, 2,200 tons. Speed on the surface, 12 to 14 knots per hour—submerged, 7 1/2 knots; fuel oil capacity, 150 tons normal, and maximum 240 tons.

At 7 1/2 knots per hour she could remain submerged for 8 hours; at 3 1/2 knots per hour, 40 hours; at 1^ knots per hour, 96 hours. Cargo capacity, about 750 tons. The Deutschland was equipped with two vertical inverted, four-cycle, single-acting, nonreversible, air-starting engines of 600 horsepower each; Diesel, Krupp type; diameter of cylinders, about 17 inches; shaft, about 6 inches.

She had two periscopes of the housing type, one in the conning tower and one offset, forward of the conning tower. Her electric batteries consisted of 280 cells in two batteries of 140 cells each. There were two motors on each shaft, each motor being 300 horsepower. She was fully equipped with radio apparatus, installed in a sound-proof room. The radio set was in forward trimming station. Two hollow masts were used, height about 43 feet above the deck; length of antenna, about 160 feet. Masts were hinged and housed in recesses in starboard superstructure. They were raised by means of a special motor and drum.

The interior of the cylindrical hull was divided by four transverse bulkheads into five separate water-tight compartments. Compartment No. 1 at the bow contained the anchor cables and electric winches for handling the anchor; also general ship stores and a certain amount of cargo. Compartment No. 2 was given up entirely to cargo. Compartment No. 3, which was considerably larger than any of the others, contained the living quarters of the officers and crew. At the after end of this compartment and communicating with it was the conning tower. Compartment No. 4 was given up entirely to cargo. Compartment No. 5 contained the propelling machinery, the two heavy oil engines, and the two electric motors. The storage batteries were carried in the bottom of the boat, below the living compartment. For purposes of communication, a gangway 2 feet 6 inches wide by 6 feet high was built through each cargo compartment, thus rendering it possible for the crew to pass entirely from one end of the boat to the other. The freeboard to the main deck ran the full length of the boat and was about 5 1/2 to 6 feet wide.

The cockpit at the top of the conning tower was about 15 feet above the water, there being a shield in front so shaped as to throw the wind and spray upward and clear of the face of the quartermaster or other observer. The forward wireless mast carried a crow’s nest for the lookout.

The Deutschland made a safe passage through the North Sea, avoiding the British patrols. The rest of the trip was made principally on the surface. The weather was fine throughout. When off the Virginia Capes she submerged for a couple of hours because of two ships sighted of doubtful appearance. She passed through the Capes on July 9, 1916, at 1 o’clock a. m., and as she left Helgoland on June 23, the time of her trip was 16 days. The Deutschland arrived at Baltimore, Md., on Sunday, July 9, 1916. The total distance from Bremen to Baltimore by the course sailed was about 3,800 miles.

Her cargo consisted of 750 tons of dyestuffs and chemicals, valued at about $1,000,000, and which was discharged at Baltimore. The Deutschland remained at Baltimore 23 days and took on cargo for her return trip—a lot of crude rubber in bulk, 802,037 pounds, value $568,854.84; nickel, 6,739 bags, 3 half bags, weight 752,674 pounds, value $376,337; tin in pig, 1,785 pigs, weight 181,049 pounds, value $108,629.40. Goods were billed to Bremen and no consignee was stated.

She left Baltimore on August 1, 1916, and arrived at the mouth of the Weser River at 3 p. m., August 23, 1916. “The Berliner Tageblat,” of August 24, 1918, said:

The voyage was at the beginning stormy; later on was less rough. There was much fog on the English coast, and the North Sea was stormy. The ship proved herself an exceedingly good seagoing vessel. The engines worked perfectly, without interruption. Forty-two hundred (4,200) sea miles were covered, one hundred (100) under water.

She was made ready and reloaded with another cargo of dyestuffs and chemicals for her second voyage to the United States within a week. Her health certificate was issued by the American vice consul at Bremen on September 30, 1916. She was ready to go to sea again on October 1, 1916, but was held until October 10, 1916, for possible word concerning the Bremen. The last voyage to the United States covered 21 days, being somewhat retarded by hard weather.

She arrived at New London, Conn., on November 1, 1916; discharged her cargo of dyestuffs and chemicals and, in addition, securities said to be to the value of 1,800,000 pounds sterling. Her return cargo was said to contain nickel and copper; 360 tons of crude nickel which had come from Sudbury, Canada, and had been purchased in 1914. She left New London, Conn., on November 17, 1916, but half a mile from Race Rock Light in Block Island Sound, R. I., where the tide runs heavily, she rammed the American Steamship T. A. Scott, Jr., gross 36 tons, which sank in about three minutes. On account of the collision the Deutschland had to return to New London for repairs.

She again left New London on November 21, 1916. Her voyage occupied 19 days, arriving at the mouth of the Weser on December. Sometime after her return to Germany she was converted into a warship and furnished with torpedo tubes and two 5.9-inch guns.

Her war activities were continued as U-155.

The experiment did not stand the test of time however.

Within a short time, the United States would come to view submarines as the powerful weapon they truly are because of increases in the hostility between the two nations. All of the remaining subs built by the new company would be taken over by the German Navy, armed and sent to be a part of the fleet.

A third voyage as a merchant submarine, planned for January 1917, was aborted as German-US relations had worsened following the sinking of shipping bound for the United Kingdom, often just outside of US territorial waters. The Deutschland was taken over by the German Imperial Navy on 19 February 1917 and converted into the U-155, part of the U-Kreuzer Flotilla, being fitted with 6 bow torpedo tubes with 18 torpedoes, and two 150mm deck guns taken from the pre-dreadnought battleship SMS Zähringen. She made three successful war cruises, sinking 42 ships and damaging one.

At war’s end U-155 was surrendered, displayed in England, and eventually sold for scrap.

I remember as a boy seeing pictures in Popular Science of merchant nuclear powered submarines. I always thought that it could have never become a reality…


Mister Mac

5 thoughts on “The First Civilian Submarine

  1. Reblogged this on theleansubmariner and commented:

    This was an early post on theleansubmariner (2011) that has been updated with new content and pictures. 100 years ago, the Germans experimented with the first commercial submarine Deutschland commanded by Captain Paul Koenig. König was a captain in the German merchant navy. In 1916 during World War I, he became a reserve Kapitänleutnant in the Imperial German Navy.

    Later in 1916, König became commanding officer of the merchant submarine Deutschland. He took it on two patrols to the United States for commercial purposes. He arrived at Baltimore on July 10, 1916, with a cargo of dyestuffs. While in the United States he was interviewed by newspapermen, was even the recipient of vaudeville offers, was welcomed by mayor of Baltimore and officials. On August 2 he sailed on the return voyage, later making a second voyage and putting in at New London, Connecticut.

    He received the Iron Cross 1st class the same year. Following his return after the second journey, König wrote a book called Voyage of the Deutschland, which was heavily publicized, as it was intended to be used as propaganda.

    König then became commanding officer of a Sperrbrechergruppe (group of blockade runners; 1917), and later was an executive at Norddeutscher Lloyd (1919–1931). He died at Gnadau, on September 9, 1933, where he is buried.

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