Were U-Boat crews allowed to stretch their legs and get some fresh air when the boat was on the surface during a war patrol?

I mean for recreational purpose, i.e. not when entering or leaving harbor, when operating the deck gun, or when taking on provisions.

  • 1
    All you have to do is look at their navy regulations (by your standard for H.SE questions). Commented Apr 5, 2019 at 11:06

3 Answers 3


For very practical reasons, these pure leisure activities did not take place close to enemy shores, or in climates that were just too uninviting. Close to the "Golden West" of American targets airplanes would be just much too quick to approach and the highest latitudes just too cold and often just too windy to be of any joy.

But the crews did try to enjoy every single opportunity at fresh air, everywhere. "On deck" on a boat means also on the top of the conning tower! Given the cramped conditions, bad smells and comparative darkness in the boats' interiors, this was almost necessary.

As the question is framed, it appears to be about being on the hull of the boat, outside the conning tower. This was done to make repairs, to practice with the secondary weapon, to dispose of waste. Just to name activities still involving duty.

But pure leisurely spare time was restricted to the relative safety of the air gap when look outs could relax somewhat since ships were relatively slow and planes unlikely. A surprising detail might be found in that at night the crew's movement was more restricted than during the day. Clear skies and long range visibility of enemy crafts was the deciding factor.

A map of the air gap shows that the vast majority of the Atlantic was for a long time considered quite safe for U-boats:

Mid-Atlantic Air Gap (1941)
The Mid-Atlantic gap was an area outside the cover by land-based aircraft, those limits are shown with black arcs (map shows the gap in 1941). Bluish dots show destroyed ships of the Allies

One patrol of a particular boat was found completely documented with accompanying pictures:

Taken during the summer of 1942 by an onboard war correspondent, the photographs show a U-boat in action within the Atlantic and Caribbean, as the German submarine service teetered on the brink of what was, with hindsight, the unstoppable downward slide into defeat. However, at the stage of the war at which they were taken, U-boats could still spend time surfaced without fear of Allied air attack within the mid-Atlantic and were raking a harvest of considerable numbers of Allied merchant ships. (p10.)

As evidenced from the above quote leisure activities, fresh air, and keeping fit and stretched was essential and often possible in the first half of the war in the Atlantic.

enter image description here Diving from the bow of U564, Gabler (top left, in the foreground) is dressed in attire known in German naval terminology as a 'peeled banana'. Even Suhren (above and left) took a dip in the warm Atlantic – one of the rare occasions when he divested himself of his red scarf. The Kriegsmarine also developed salt-water soap (below left), used by Teddy and his crew as Webendorfer sprays them with water piped from the engine room. Opinion remains divided over the merits of this soap: Suhren thought it wonderful; others were less than enthusiastic about the waxy residue that it sometimes left on the skin. (p102–103.)

enter image description here […] the cramped, humid interior of a submarine often played havoc with man's physical well-being. A ritual observed by both Suhren and Gabler while within the 'Atlantic Gap' was the morning walk (above). Several lengths of the stern deck every day helped keep them fit, particularly Suhren, who suffered back pain from long stationary periods on the bridge. Moreover, the momentary ability to find solitude allowed the two men to talk without being overheard. (p164.)

enter image description here On 1 September 1942, all available crew were drawn up on the stern deck for the surprise announcement of Teddy's award of the Swords to his Knight's Cross and Oak Leaves, as well as his promotion to Korvettenkapitän. (p 173.)

Pictures and quotes from: Lawrence Paterson: "U-Boat War Patrol: The Hidden Photographic Diary of U-564", Chatham: London, 2004.

Up until 1943, things were going well. The fate of this boat, German submarine U-564 shows that crash dive was not always hampered by crew on deck:

An Armstrong Whitworth Whitley sighted the two U-boats in the Bay of Biscay the following day and shadowed them. U-564 was unable to dive due to the damage already sustained. By 16.45 hours the Whitley was running low on fuel and attacked U-564. The two U-boats damaged their attacker with anti-aircraft fire but the aircraft's depth charges fatally damaged U-564 and she sank at 17:30 hours. The damaged Whitley was forced to ditch, where a French trawler rescued the crew. There were 18 survivors from U-564 including the commander. U-185 picked them up and transferred them to the German destroyer Z24 two hours later.

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    That map could use a lot more labeling. Commented Mar 23, 2018 at 19:06

It seems unlikely. Additional crew on deck would risk a delay if a crash-dive were required.

The need to keep crew on watch to a minimum is mentioned by Timothy Mulligan in his book Neither Sharks Nor Wolves: The Men of Nazi Germany's U-boat Army, 1939-1945. If essential watch crew were kept to a minimum when the U-boat was on the surface, it is unlikely that crew would be allowed on deck for relaxation, except perhaps in very exceptional circumstances where the risk to the U-boat was considered minimal.

In addition to ASDIC, the Royal Navy had ship-mounted radar even before the war broke out in 1939. The type 79 radar was installed on Navy vessels from 1936, and had a surface range of up to 6 nautical miles.

This was superseded by the type 281 radar, which had a significantly increased range, from late 1940.

Thus, even early in the war, a U-boat captain would have been concerned about the risk of detection if there was the possibility of Royal Navy ships in the area, and the consequent possibility of the need to perform a crash dive.

At night, the risk of detection by radar / ASDIC would remain, and there was also the increased risk of losing personnel overboard in all but the calmest seas. Providing lights on deck would have posed an unacceptable risk of detection as well as damaging the night-vision of crew on-watch.

However, it appears that, while U-boat crews were aware of the risks posed by Royal Navy vessels, early in the war they were not necessarily aware that merchant vessels were accompanied by escorts. The U-boat "U-70" was sunk on 7 March 1941. The report on the interrogation of survivors makes exactly this point:

"Several of the crew honestly believed that British convoys were unprotected, that it was an easy matter for a U-boat to attack a convoy and that the risks they ran were small."

Given that attitude, we can't discount the possibility that some captains would have permitted crew members to get fresh air on deck when they believed they were relatively safe. That situation couldn't have lasted for long however.

Certainly, by the time that U-664 was sunk in August 1943 the attitude of U-boat crews was very different. While the interrogators of the crew of U-70 remarked on the high state of the morale of the survivors, the interrogation of the crew of U-664 noted:

"The exceedingly low morale aboard U-664 no doubt facilitated the interrogation, and more than one prisoner was willing to cooperate fully with the interrogation officer."

One factor the interrogators noted that contributed to the low state of morale on U-664 was the regularity of crash-dives on each voyage. Under such circumstances it is extremely unlikely that recreation on deck would have been permitted. Presumably, the only time crew were permitted on deck would have been when they were on watch.

(Another reason for the low morale mentioned in the report was the number of other U-boats known to have been lost.)

There are some interesting resources, including records and photographs, available on the web site U-boat Archive.

  • 1
    What about at night, and early in the war?
    – RonJohn
    Commented Nov 14, 2017 at 19:06
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    @RonJohn I've extended the answer. Commented Nov 14, 2017 at 20:19

Yes, I've seen many movies made on board U Boats in which the crews were enjoying themselves on deck. Obviously this happened a lot more in the tropics (which were relatively save waters for U Boats) than in the icy waters of the Arctic and the north Atlantic (which were also highly dangerous waters for U Boats to be in). It happened, one can assume, only when the tactical situation (and the weather) allowed for it. At night would be out of the question. Far too dangerous. Besides, U Boats preferred to work in the dark. They had other things on their mind.

Those movies were made by the crew themselves or a member of the propaganda ministry. I've seen people swimming, sunning, do some games (jumping in bags, biting for sausages).

You can watch many of those movies if you do a search on Youtube about U Boat documentaries.

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    I'd be highly suspicious of anything filmed. The crew themselves would be extremely unlikely to bring a camera on board, given how little space they had for personal effects. And anything a war correspondent might have filmed might well be staged (in the "come join the navy, we have cake" sense). But yes, I can see where boats in the tropics (and away from Allied air power) might be a bit more relaxed about things.
    – DevSolar
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 8:12
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    I'm not too sure if crew members couldn't bring cameras on board. Obviously, not professional movie cameras. But small cameras? I don't think that was a problem. Most of the crew wouldn't, cameras were quite expensive back then. But movie enthusiasts or officers? I don't see any reason why they couldn't bring a camera on board.
    – Jos
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 8:57
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    I am not talking about "being allowed", although that would also be a question, or "being able to afford". I am talking about being able to stow such a thing on board. This is a period film camera. The space for personal effects was about 0.5x0.5x1 foot...
    – DevSolar
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 9:10
  • 1
    @Jos Did those films reflect actual operational practice, or just propaganda? Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 10:11

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