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German submarine U-1206 (wikipedia.org)
66 points by mmoez on July 11, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 101 comments

First, it wasn't sunk by its toilet, it was sunk by a combination of operator error and allied bombs.

Second, there's a lesson here for design. Correct operation was complicated and required special training, and the implications of failure were potentially fatal. The toilet failed because of operator error, but having a toilet that complicated and in a location where failure put seawater into the battery is a design error. The 'old' system was fine and something similar remains in use. I'm a former submariner-- I've seen myriad shitty things happen from sanitation tank operational errors, but an uncontrolled seawater leak is not one of them.

This "what if this goes wrong" thinking is vital for large scale systems we use DevOps for. (After reading this, if I ever designed a submarine, I'd try to make sure that such spills wouldn't get into the battery.) That said, I bet a large amount of such "thinking" actually happens by investigating what goes wrong after the fact.

The same sometimes goes for exception handling code.

I don't necessarily disagree with your theory on design, but every complex war machine ... has some level of controls that if used improperly could be fatal. They are inherently dangerous systems.

Designing fail safes for such things has to be a sort of balance between added complexity / options for failure, and safety.

In the military there are plenty of "don't touch that, let the person who knows how to do it touch it" and I suspect that is often the right design.

> I don't necessarily disagree with your theory on design, but every complex war machine ... has some level of controls that if used improperly could be fatal. They are inherently dangerous systems.

I would also imagine that if you make a weapon too safe - then it either can cease to be a weapon, or by the time you remove the controls which turns it from "safe" to "unsafe" - you might already be captured/dead.

It's kinda like some initiatives out there to make it so that owners of guns have to store their guns unloaded in gun safes, with trigger locks, and ammo in separate locked containers.

In the (hopefully low probability) event that you need that weapon (perhaps a home invasion or such), by the time you are able to get to it and go through all the steps to make the gun usable - you're probably already dead.

Of course, I understand the logic and want behind such protections (to protect children, curious adults, to potentially keep the weapons out of thieves hands, etc) - but at the same time, I also understand and sympathize with the arguments against such controls.

There needs to be a balance between making such weapons safe, while also letting them become unsafe quickly when needed. In the case of military hardware, this balance also requires thoughtfulness about the destructive capability of the weapons involved; for instance, safety vs usability will be different for a rocket launcher, versus a nuclear missile.

A valid explanation of the trade-offs between safety and usability. But it seems like HN doesn’t like guns or gun analogies. Too bad.

> don’t touch that, let the person who knows how to touch it

Practically, how would that work for a toilet?

"So what did you do in the South Sea conflict?"

"I was a submarine toilet operator, first class, serving aboard the USS Deuce"

It could be designed in such a way that multiple people could use it with reasonable comfort with a small holding tank and then periodically someone comes along and flushes it.

Indeed, that's more or less the current system!

I have to disagree to an extent about the "war machine" bit. This is about a toilet, not a torpedo. Every boat at sea needs a toilet; this is a basic need for supporting human life unless you want to have people relieving themselves over the deck railings (which of course isn't even possible on a submarine).

If you have to have a specialist flush a toilet for you, the design is bad.

It's a new toilet on a complex machine that can't just dump stuff out in the open ocean all the time.

It's not "just a toilet" anymore than a sub should work like a video game.

It's not new: Germany had toilets on submarines for many years before this. Germany had U-boats back in WWI. Did they have toilet problems like this before? If not, then this is a bad design.

See the comment elsewhere in the thread about how (according to the German-language article) Schlitt ignored the requirement that the specialist flush the toilet, causing the incident: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20410849

I'm sure all submarines have certain processes that can cause leaks if there's an operator error - diving with the hatch open, for example - but are there any that happen as often as toilet flushing?

Per [1], it was a special toilet designed to support flushing at depth (I guess it makes sense that it's a tough problem to solve when the sub is under pressure). I guess previous iterations of U-boats had to surface to flush. It does seem like keeping it in a tank until the next surface would be a better solution though. I mean, they have to surface for other reasons too, right?

[1] https://warisboring.com/the-high-tech-toilet-that-destroyed-...

bro you got somethig wrong info actually it had an accident near scotland and that's why it got sunk

Someone Left a Hatch Open and Crippled India’s $2.9 Billion Submarine Water damage put the submarine out of action for ten months.


>>> Not leaving hatches open that could potentially sink a ship, particularly a submarine, is basic common sense.

Hatches are left open all the time. This sub was not at sea but in harbour. A sub is an enclosed/confined space. While in port it would have been undergoing all sorts of maintenance work. Hatches are left open for ventilation, access, even to run power cords for electric tools. It is not unusual for someone welding stuff inside a ship to require the nearest hatch to be left open for a long period of time.

Do submarines have "lockout-tagout" procedures for this kind of thing?

They are supposed to. Whether such safety procedures are actually used is another matter. Submarines, like everything else in the military, are great at looking very professional on the outside while being total chaos on the inside.

> Someone Left a Hatch Open

There's strong suspision that it was an act of sabotage. Not sure what turned out post the inquiry.

The nebulous, shadowy axis of "Sabotage", "Malingers" and "Wreckers" is what captains and admirals love to blame, when they want to cover their ass. It pushes some private under the bus, and absolves them of any organizational failures.

It's interesting how the english version only notes the official report, and puts the alternative story in a single sentence. The german versions also reads (before citing the official report):

"When the Commander, Lieutenant Captain Schlitt, operated the flushing of the toilet on April 14th, he ignored an order according to which the flushing was to be triggered exclusively by the specialist on board.

Sea water, mixed with Schlitt's excrement and urine, poured into the submarine at high pressure through the open valves.

The toilet specialist was no longer able to close the toilet closures. According to reports of a survivor, the boat sank 'like a stone' into the depths."

To the incident itself: Shit happens. (scnr)

They needed a toilet specialist?

reminds about enterprise systems, at least the ones i've worked with and the roles i've performed. The Sales and the high PMs and suits helicopter in and take a huge [censored] what we're supposed to deal with. Since the early morning today has been doing emergency plumbing on 3 Fortune500 class battleships from corporate navies across the world (and clock). Probably should update my LinkedIn with such an informative title.

You should add that to the English wiki!

Or Schlitt happens.


> On 28 March 1945 the submarine departed from Kiel for its first training patrol in the North Sea, returning on 30 March.

I find it amazing that at this point in the war when the end was imminent, they were still going through the motions of doing training patrols.

I would imagine it was less of a "training patrol" and more of a 2 day shakedown to ensure that there were no critical issues before sending it into combat. It's the nautical equivalent of a test drive or QA.

Consider that the same process usually takes months for a modern warship, even of a proven design.

Indeed - clearly the training was cursory and did not effectively cover at least one important issue...

That whole period was full of this sort of contradiction. German war production peaked in 1944, very late in the piece. This probably says a lot about the value of area bombing as well abilities of Speer.

There were three separate naval engagements in Long Island Sound overnight May 5/6 1945, and after the surrender German submarines surfaced off of New Jersey.

Basically the war was fought until the last minute.

Similar to HMS M2, which was a submarine aircraft carrier. Likely cause of the sinking was opening of the hanger door to try and beat their personal best for launching an aircraft. This wreck is accessible to scuba divers.


See also the thresher, one of the reasons us nuclear subs are so safe today they can be run mostly by 24year olds


Only semi related:

If you are ever in Chicago, find time to go to the Museum of Science and Industry and pay extra to go on U-505, she's beautiful and if you like technology and engineering at all it's well worth the cost to walk through her. Even just walking into the cavernous room she's in, is an awesome experience itself.

About 3/4 of the way down this post I have a phone of her in the massive room https://www.ryanmercer.com/ryansthoughts/2019/3/4/21ad-after...


> The site survey performed by RCAHMS suggests that the leak that forced U-1206 to surface may have occurred after running into a pre-existing wreck located at the same site.

I was wondering about that. Did they run into the wreck and then make up the toilet story for a scapegoat?

Word on the Water, London's only floating bookstore was also sunk by its toilet https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/29/world/europe/london-canal...

"misuse of the new toilet caused large amounts of water to flood the boat"

Misuse of available tools and then sinking the whole product sounds like a quite familiar story in software engineering.

For those interested in a book about both management AND nuclear submarine safety I highly recommend this book:


One great example: Junior folks kept hitting the wrong buttons during safety evaluations so the crew instituted a "positive action" e.g. "I am about to turn on this device" before they did anything.

During the safety review, the reviewers came back and said:

"You performed fewer errors than anyone we've ever tested. Actually, we take that back, your crew was ABOUT TO make as many mistakes as normal but the verbal call out meant that everything was double checked leading to such a lower error count"

Sort of like Japanese train operators who point at everything. I guess it works well.

The History Guy has done an episode on this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pfr0nsh0Ghc

> When submerged, the boat could operate for 80 nautical miles (150 km; 92 mi) at 4 knots (7.4 km/h; 4.6 mph); when surfaced, she could travel 8,500 nautical miles (15,700 km; 9,800 mi) at 10 knots (19 km/h; 12 mph)

I always pictured submarines would spend most of their time submerged, but how is that possible if its maximum submerged range was 92 miles?

Was it really possible its surfaced range was over 100 times greater? Or was it just that it needed to surface occasionally then it could submerge again?

You are thinking of nuclear submarines.

Submarines of this era would have a bank of batteries, using 1940's technology, which they could use to run the boat whilst submerged. Once they were flat, they would have to stay at or near the surface long enough to charge them again(they could run at the surface using a 'snorkel' to bring in air for the engines.

They would submerge only to attack or to hide. So looking at it from a range perspective is perhaps not the best way. They could have stayed submerged under water for a long time, but they couldn't be cruising flat out whilst doing it.

Which explains the shapes of submarines in the two eras: they're optimized for their preferred mode of operation. Diesel submarines were shaped approximately like a regular ship, with a angled and tapered prow to cut the waves. Nuclear subs are shaped like a torpedo, roughly cylindrical with a rounded prow, to move through deep water.

The shift in thinking about submarine hulls occurred at about the same time as changes in propulsion, but they were separate developments. USS Albacore was the first to prototype the hull shape. A short-run class of diesel-electrics were designed to that shape before being completely overtaken by nuclear propulsion in the US.

All modern submarines, including AIP, diesel-electric, and nuclear, use hull forms optimized for underwater operations.

There are some neat ones employed by Sweden that use Sterling engines powered by liquid oxygen and diesel which is pretty neat and makes them really quiet.

And later in the war radar made even the semi submerged operation via snorkel pretty dangerous because the snorkels would show up on radar. If they were discovered while doing that they'd be at a pretty stark disadvantage because they wouldn't have a full set of batteries to submerge and avoid the submarine hunters.

AFAIK, at least in WWII and for the German submarines of the VII class, the normal mode of operation was surfaced. The submarines would only submerge (go on a "Tauchfahrt") if it was absolutely necessary. Don't forget that these boats still operated with Diesel motors or on batteries when submerged. It was later possible to use the Diesel motors submerged with a snorkel [0], but this would of course only work very close to the surface.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Submarine_snorkel

Back than submarines were more like diveable torpedo boats, early in the war the still used their small deck mounted guns quite regularly. The first true subs came late during the war with the Types XXI and XXIII which looked a lot like modern Diesel-Electric subs.

>The submarine was powered by two Germaniawerft F46 four-stroke, six-cylinder supercharged diesel engines

they have to come to surface to recharge the batteries and to take in oxygen.

I think battery tech was the limit back then. They couldn't run the diesel motors while being submerged.

I think later on they had snorkels but that still didn’t allow them to stay submerged for a long time.

These submarines only dove when close to the enemy. They spent most of their time as regular ships.

WWII Submarines were really surface ships that could dive and operate submerged for short periods of time. They weren't really submarines and weren't really designed to operate submerged. The data listed is roughly correct from what I've read.

I've been wondering for a while, is there a reason that U-boats all had numbers instead of names? German surface warships had names, as far as I know.

As I heard it once it was an order by Kaiser Wilhelm II. He didn't like them much and thought they were cowardly weapons and did not deserve names.

Wonderful talk on engineering failures from Pete Cheslock on the Vasa:


https://vimeo.com/221068308 - direct video link.

Engineering fails on seafaring vessels is a very old thing.

>> U-1206: The Nazi submarine that was sunk by its toilet.

Iiiish. More precisely, the leak forced it to surface and it was sunk by allied bombs once on the surface.

Edit: And like lgrebe says, the toilet may not have been the sole reason for the leak - they may have struck an older wreck.

The boat was very likely not an SA assault troop nor an SS secret police unit (both paramilitary branches of the Nazi party), but rather a normal Wehrmacht naval unit. So a "German U-boat", instead of a "Nazi U-boat".

Someone will perhaps reply with their more encompassing definition of Nazis, etc., but I don't mean to engage with whatever discussion that generates. I only point out the standard terminology that you'll see in most books, etc.

EDIT: Looks like someone has changed the title from "Nazi U-boat" -- thanks!

A boat designed, built, and operated at the order of the Nazi government is a “Nazi boat”. Even if most of the crew weren’t party members.

Similarly, many American military bases around the world are built and staffed by mostly locals. But this is done at the direction of the American government (usually with the incentives of payments to and defense of the local government). But we still call them “American bases” because the Americans exercise most of the control.

Right, we call them "American bases" rather than "Republican bases" or "Democrat bases" depending on which party is in power at the time. That's the point the GP is trying to make.

Okay so this would be a “Third Reich boat”? Because the nation wasn’t really anything resembling “Germany” at that point.

It was officially called the German Empire or Greater German Empire, and the usual adjective was "German". So normally this would be a "German boat". In the same way, for example, the HMS Belfast would be a "British ship" even if it was built outside Britain or some of its crew came from the rest of the British Empire.

The country was officially called Germany (original "Deutsches Reich/Großdeutsches Reich") at that point. In English it was called "Nazi Germany" to represent Germany over the '33-'45 period but that sounds as accurate as calling US now "Republican USA" (insert ideology here). Nazism is an ideology and it was never an official part of the country's name. People use it to easily distinguish periods but it doesn't make the naming any more accurate.

So I'd guess "German Army", "German Navy", "German Air Force" if you want to use translated names. Otherwise "Heer", "Kriegsmarine", "Luftwaffe" if you want the originals. Or generically "Wehrmacht".

Nitpicking, I know, but there is some substance to the point.

That’s only because the US isn’t under the total control of a single party. If, say, the Democratic Party took over complete control such that it became almost synonymous with the nation, I’d expect “Democrat base” to become fairly common terminology.

Well, no. I made a point about the terminology that gets used today, and explicitly did not come in on either side of an abstract debate about whether that norm is appropriate or should be changed. Nor do I mean to.

"Nazi soldiers", etc., was common during the war years and immediately afterwards, especially in ideologically charged material, but "German soldiers" took over by the 1950s, and has continued.

They are actually Extraterritorial parts of the USA based on the UK experience

sorry to burst your bubble, but a U-boat in the Kriegsmarine under Nazi Germany makes it a Nazi U-boat. If there was a swastika on their flag, they're Nazis. A German U-Boat would more accurately describe those put to sea during WWI.


Not sure how that applies, but I'm pretty sure that's not true. Where outside the USA is that still a commonly held belief?

> e.g. Majority of world* still believes Iraq had WMD

I honestly can't believe that for a moment. At least in my country its widely known they didn't and we mainly went to war to secure Uncle Sam some cheap oil reserves.

"I honestly can't believe that for a moment."

I can't speak for the majority of the world.

In rural Texas, it is a widely held belief that there were WMD's found by the US in Iraq during the 2003 war (IME, anecdotally, YMMV, IANAL, whatever... I have no hard numbers just my lifetime of living there).

A second and slightly less widespread belief is that "knowing what they knew at the time, thinking there were WMD in Iraq was a reasonable conclusion".

I don't hold that second belief, but it seems more rational than the first even if I find it suspicious and unsupported by the facts.

In any case, I can attest that the first belief is in the majority in rural Texas and between both beliefs I'd guess that 95% of the population holds one or the other.

Republican stronghold believes Republican propaganda, no surprise there.

This can’t be extrapolated to the rest of the world. The vast majority of the rest of the world didn’t believe it at the time and nothing ever happened to change their mind.

That's probably why one of the first oil companies started working in Iraq was Russian Lukoil?


Why would anyone believe that? Because there's substantial evidence, perhaps? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_interference_in_the_20...

So what messages were employed to sway the electorate? Should be possible to give examples even if it was targeted.

If these important questions are omitted, the seriousness of the investigation should indeed be questioned.

It just looks that people tried and failed to dig up some dirt. Standard political procedure and you would find something like this for any political candidate. It was just scandalized by media.

The article is a disgrace to Wikipedia and I do see many parallels to the WMD stories. There was never any evidence of their existence as well as there is no evidence of any collusion.

Not even the hacking could be attributed without any doubt. Even though that is a tool governments are ready to employ.

> Obama emphasized that Russian efforts caused more harm to Clinton than to Trump during the campaign.

True. He also said that Putin isn't our friend. Also true. But it isn't that hard to see that there is basically nothing here.

My opinion? A substantial part of the electorate voted Trump because they were sick of fairy tales.

Have you looked at the Mueller Report? There’s no doubt Russia interfered. If there was no conspiracy with the Trump campaign, it’s only because the campaign was too incompetent to make it happen.

5000+ ordnances were found: "roughly 5,000 chemical warheads, shells or aviation bombs"

Do you consider it "no WMD"?


These were old stockpiles manufactured by western companies, apparently with full knowledge of Washington. It's questionable whether they were still usable. Certainly not a reasonable justification for invading Iraq.

"All of the weapons found, however, were produced prior to 1991 as part of a crash program started in the 1980s and meant to be used against neighboring Iran during an eight-year war between the two countries. "In five of six incidents in which troops were wounded by chemical agents, the munitions appeared to have been designed in the United States, manufactured in Europe and filled in chemical agent production lines built in Iraq by Western companies," the Times says."

> These were old stockpiles

So there were WMDs. Case closed.

the ship laid down on 12 JUNE 1942 at danzing and then went to service on 16 march 1944 & the boat's emblem was whte stork on a black shield with green break & legs.and it wasn't sunk by allied bombs it had accident near scotland & sum of them survived.

16 days in operation, no victories. Should be in a book of greatest enterprise failures.

It's important to note that most of the advanced technology that Germany gets credit for in WWII was designed, built and destroyed all in a matter of a decade or two.

The Bismarck is another good example. It was the largest, heaviest, strongest, most advanced battleship of it's time. There was no single allied ship that could match it's performance or firepower or withstand combat against it for very long.

And the Bismarck was sunk 9 months after she was commissioned. Not by a toilet, not by inexperience; but because the entire British navy identified the gargantuan risk and superflous symbology of destroying the pinnacle of German tech. That, and it sunk the symbolic HMS Hood (arguably second best warship at the time) battleship in an almost comedic display that lasted mere minutes. The Titanic took hours to sink but the Hood, a ship of similar size and weight, was gone in mere seconds after being hit by the Bismarck's deck guns. After that the Bismarck was the only thing Britain cared about.

The reason German tech didn't last wasn't because the tech was inferior. It was because for every one unit Germany built, there were 5 allied units with crosshairs trained on it. The hunting was simply better for the allies than it was for Germany towards the end of the war, after Germany had been crippled by allied carpet bombing.


”The Titanic took hours to sink but the Hood, a ship of similar size and weight, was gone in mere seconds after being hit by the Bismarck's deck guns.”

Unfair comparison. The Titanic wasn’t shot at, and it didn’t carry tons of high explosives.

Also as far as the Bismarck goes, it really was the end of single battleships (or even a group) operating alone effectively, with the exception of maybe some open ocean raiding here or there.

With carriers and planes... just a matter of time until a battleship is found and not much a battleship can do alone at that point. Thus the effectiveness of subs (and in particular at that time the wolf pack system).

Yup. Air superiority changed naval warfare forever. It was the radar technology given to the American's by the British that closed the blindspot in the center of the Atlantic which the Germans used to hide U-Boats. Once radar was able to shrink the mid-atlantic gap Germany became unable to disrupt allied merchant shipping. The lack of places to hide meant German U-Boat flotilla's were fish in a barrel for allied planes.

>There was no single allied ship that could match it's performance or firepower or withstand combat against it for very long.

This is something of a myth. The Bismarck was roughly comparable to contemporary British battleships (e.g. the KGV class) in terms of protection and firepower. The Hood was a much older design, and the Bismarck got a lucky hit.

In case anyone is wondering about the KGV class:


And the Hood was a Battle Cruiser

Kind of. It's arguably more accurate to call it a fast battleship, as its armor protection was equivalent to that of a post-Jutland British battleship. At the time it was built, the Hood was both fast and heavily armored. Its armor protection scheme was somewhat dated by the 1940s.

With light deck armor, larger plunging shells would drop down from the top rather than piercing through the side (like hood was designed to withstand). Had the fatal shot been lower and closer she might have taken the blow, but alas, they fell right into her magazines.

Also I'm not a history major or anything so there will be inaccuracies in my posts. I'm just the son of a WW2 buff who himself is a WW2 buff, repeating most of this from memory. It's been a fun conversation so far though!

The Hood's deck armor was dated, but the range was too close for that scenario when the fatal shot was fired. The shot must have pierced Hood's main belt (or somehow snuck around it).

Well, going by superiority in tech is putting it very simply. The different sides had very different logistical/tactical concerns. For example, the SCR-536, which was a man portable radio was a bigger technical feat than any tank or battleship.

You don't think that the US, the leading industrial power at the time, couldn't build better tanks. The Sherman got the job done that they needed it to do.

Oh no, I absolutely agree that Americans could build good tanks. But good and better are subjective terms. Best-in-class is something that can be quantified. And quantifiably Germany had, in a one-on-one comparison, the best performing tanks. However, benchmarks aren't the real world. The best tank in the hands of an army with no fuel will always fall to a crappy tank at the hands of an army with plenty of fuel. Attrition, cost, complexity, necessity, resource consumption are all factors in the real world. Russia arguably had one of the shittiest tanks, but they were so crude and cheap that they were able to produce an insurmountable number of them. Hitler even raged about this in a rare recorded conversation towards the end of the war when Germany was bleeding out in Russia. Germany got so stuck on quality in the beginning of the war that the allies, with their massive combined industrial might, were able to simply scale their less expensive forces above anything Germany could counter.

Could you explain in what quantifiable quality German tanks were the best-in-class. You mention performance but German tanks were not the best for mileage, ease of repair or survivability, which make up the holy trinity of tanks: firepower, protection and mobility.

Firepower is also arguable, plenty of Allied tanks could engage German tanks at comparable ranges. For example, after the war, the Soviets tested their tank guns against German ones and concluded that they had similar performance and penetration. Also, in the beginning of the war, the Soviet T-34 and Kv-1 outclassed all German tanks of the early war.

I believe nothing beats the Vasa (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vasa_(ship)) in that regard ...

Sank 1300 m(!) into its maiden voyage.

Tangentially related:


I have a copy. It is a much-beloved source of joy.

> The American version of the book was misprinted by the publishers, who left out half the introduction.

Well, that's just perfection.

I don't think there is anything unusual about that number - the time when there were any easy targets was long gone. And with defeat being inevitable and imminent, I can't blame anyone for being cautious. Over 70% of all U-boat sailors were killed in action over the course of the war.

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