In the "Battle of the Atlantic" the Germans lost almost 800 of their 1200 submarines (nearly two-thirds) sinking 3,500 Allied merchant ships and 175 warships.

Some 30% these "kills," were accounted for by 30 veteran captains or "aces" who had experience in World War I, while about two thirds of the submarines (800 out of 1200) sank nothing.

One veteran World War I submarine captain was an Austrian named Georg von Trapp. The whole focal point of the "Sound of Music" was whether or not Captain von Trapp would become Germany's 31st submarine ace. (Von Trapp and his wife Maria were real people, and while the "seven children" existed, they were fictionalized by the movie as being younger than they really were, to allow "Maria" to be their "governess.")

Are there any historical accounts or naval doctrines that suggest that "quality is more important than quantity" in submarine warfare? That is, that 100 more "Captain von Trapps" using the same or fewer ships would have been more useful to Germany than 1000 more U-boats manned by random crewmen?

  • 3
    Note: von Trapp did have seven children before being widowed and hiring Maria Kutschera as a tutor, so those things were not fictionalized.
    – mgkrebbs
    May 6, 2013 at 5:28

5 Answers 5


Commander Michel Thomas Poirier, USN wrote a paper/study in October 1999 called Results of the German and American Submarine Campaigns of World War 2.

In it he details many factors of both campaigns; it's well worth a read in its entirety if you are interested in the subject. However, most relevantly to this topic is Appendix 1. In it, the author details the expenditure of both sides in the Battle of the Atlantic on fighting the submarine war. The allies invested $26.4 Billion compared to the $2.86 Billion invested in U-Boats by the Germans.

As a result of this, and considering the other answers, it seems likely to me that the Germans lost the U-Boat war due to a mixture of lack of quantity and quality. Ultimately, the effect of high quality U-Boats would have been severely limited by the amount of escorts and aircraft the allies could put into fighting the battle.



A. Merchant Ships:

  1. Cost of merchant ships lost to sub attack: 14,687,231 tons lost at $420 a ton.(97)

  2. It is assumed that 50% of destroyed ships had cargoes and I have estimated the value of each cargo as equivalent to the price of the ship.(98)

  3. American Maritime Commission constructed 5,777 ships of 39,920,000 tons during the war that cost $14.2 billion.(99) It is estimated that only 2/3 were used in the Atlantic (this accords well with 61% reported in Leighton's Global Logistics 1940-43 (p.662) which was prior to the increase in lift necessary to handle Overlord).

  4. The English and Canadians produced 11.9 million tons during the war.(100) It is assumed their cost of production was as low as in the U.S.(101)

  5. The English started the war with 17,430,000 tons. The Americans started with 8.5 million tons (again only assumed 2/3 used in Atlantic). Additionally the Allies seized 3 million tons of shipping from nations occupied by the Axis.(102)

  6. It is assumed that 33% of the total merchant fleet was lost due to inefficiency of convoying. That is 11.36 million tons at $420/ton.(103)

  7. Repair costs from U-boat attacks were not included.

  8. Total: $14.65 billion.

B. Warships:

  1. The Americans had 140 destroyers stationed in the Atlantic. Each cost approximately $10 million. Additionally, they had 56 frigates assigned to the Coast Guard. I've estimated their cost as similar to a new frigate ($2.3 million).(104)
  2. During the war, the U.S. produced 520 destroyer escorts (DDE) and 96 frigates (FF) for convoy protection. A DDE cost $5.5 million and a FF cost $2.3 million apiece.(105)
  3. The Allies built 61 escort carriers that participated in the campaign at a cost of $12 million a piece.(106)
  4. The English and Canadians built or seized 169 DDEs. I've estimated their costs as equivalent to a Hunt class DDE ($6.4 million).(107)
    They also built 156 frigates, 63 sloops (estimated to cost $4 million), 306 Corvettes, 27 other ASW vessels, and 15 armed merchant cruisers (all estimated at $3 million).(108)
  5. The English employed about 302 fleet destroyers during the war.(109) I've estimated that only 50% of their missions were related to ASW and that they cost the equivalent of an U.S. destroyer (a probable underestimation).(110)
  6. The cost of coastal defense craft and minesweepers used for ASW missions was not estimated.
  7. The cost of major warships sank by submarines was not used in the estimate.
  8. Total: $10.15 billion.

C. Aircraft:

  1. 2828 U.S. patrol aircraft were used in the Atlantic.(111) I've used either exact prices as given by Holley, or the cost of similar aircraft.(112)
  2. The U.S. used 4719 tactical aircraft in the Atlantic fleet. I've assumed that 50% of their missions were related to ASW.(113)
  3. No costs of the U.S. Army Air Corps or of the Civil Air Patrol (both limited participants in the campaign) were included.
  4. I've used the number of English and Canadian squadrons and CVEs (i.e. 24 aircraft per CVE) to estimate total numbers of aircraft.(114) I doubled the numbers to account for losses etc. The total was 740 patrol aircraft and 850 tactical aircraft. This is probably an underestimation when one considers U.S. aircraft numbers.
  5. The Allies lost at least 200 heavy bombers in attacks on against U-boat bases or production facilities.
  6. To the extent that air operations tend to be expensive relative to the cost of operating ships, allied costs are probably significantly underestimated.
  7. Total: $1.6 billion.

The Germans:

  1. German data was used to determine the cost of submarines.(115) Where cost data on specific types of submarines could not be found (Type XIV, XXIII, Walther), I estimated the price based upon German submarines of similar displacement, accounting for differences in construction man-hours. The exchange rate was based upon wartime U.S. estimates (I used $.50 per mark, the 1942 estimate).(116) Of note, the cost of a U.S. submarine in 1943 was about $3 million.(117) The figures for German submarines are reasonable when compared to U.S. costs and man-hours required for construction.(118)
  2. Type II- 52 boats at $1.03 million.
  3. Type VII- 705 boats at $2.25 million.
  4. Type IX- 194 boats at $ 3.2 million.
  5. Type XB- 8 boats at $ 3.175 million.
  6. Type XIV- 10 boats at $ 3.51 million.
  7. Type XXI- 123 boats at $ 2.875 million.
  8. Type XXIII- 59 boats at $1.03 million.
  9. Walther- 7 boats at $2.13 million.
  10. Only the costs of the 1,158 submarines completely constructed were calculated.
  11. Total: $2.76 Billion

Conclusion: The Allies total investment was $26.4 billion compared to the German investment of $2.76 billion. The Allies spent at least 9.6 times the German investment.

  • 2
    There's a lot of big assumptions in the Allied estimation which could skew the result wildly.
    – Schwern
    Dec 11, 2014 at 19:19
  • 1
    This is actually a very good point. From the viewpoint of "lost investment," the Germans won handily.
    – Tom Au
    Oct 31, 2016 at 13:46
  • @Tom Au - yeah, agreed. The U-Boats were, mostly, fantastically effective.
    – Kobunite
    Oct 31, 2016 at 15:08
  • 4
    Fortunately, "greater lost investment" was not the same as "losing the war." The Allies won "on the curve" because they "beat the spread."
    – Tom Au
    Oct 31, 2016 at 15:59

If you look at ace sinking by year you'll find that aces could only develop their sink counts during "happy times," when a technical and doctrinal superiority favoured mass sinkings. These times often involved unimpeded surface running, surface attacks on individual ships, an absence of convoy systems and loosely protected convoys.

While it may be defensible that certain commanders were more successfully aggressive, the conditions in which their aggression had strategic effect (large tonnage ratios), were ones where they were technically and doctrinally superior to their opposition.

For most of the war, a large body of submarines were necessary to achieve any tonnage.

Secondly, selection on the basis of aptitude could only be accomplished at sea, and it is uncertain whom the selection pool contained.

Thirdly, aces displayed severe fatigue and this fatigue meant that a system dependent on them could not operate successfully.

The key benefits to the German submarine campaign would be in order:

  • Not having to do it. It was a fool's errand to go to war.
  • Cryptosecurity
  • 300 ocean going boats at the start of the war (this would cause the war to fail in other ways, in the speculative opinion of most counter-factual commentators)
  • Better supply of long range boats for very long range "cruiser" patrols earlier
  • Simply giving up in 1943
  • 1
    Insightful answer! (I think the area below the line needs a bit of revision... is there a word missing? The key benefit to the German submarine.. Cryptosecurity"?
    – MCW
    May 1, 2013 at 19:31
  • 1
    which indeed they didn't after Enigma had, unbeknownst to them, fallen in the hands of the British.
    – jwenting
    Jul 1, 2013 at 5:36
  • 1
    Kriegsmarine U-boats used Enigmas with an extra rotor, making it a much more difficult task to break the code (Ultra, at Bletchley Park). I think the figure given by The Secret War (BBC) was that U-boat codes were typically broken 1 day in 4, with 1 in 2 at best (from memory). This was most useful in finding the "milch cow" supply subs and sinking them, limiting the range and time on station for the other U-boats.
    – Phil Perry
    Apr 21, 2014 at 22:31
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    @jwenting It should be noted that, like any good crypto scheme, simply having the Enigma machine was not enough to break coded messages. It was originally a commercial product and the British bought one for study in 1927. As it was upgraded and militarized, the Poles and British obtained models by various means long before they figured out how to reliably break the encryption.
    – Schwern
    Dec 11, 2014 at 19:28
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    @jwenting Enigma was being quickly and regularly decoded well before the capture of U-559. Bombes were introduced in early 1940 to automate the brute force parts. Bletchley had already worked out the wiring of the new fourth rotor. What U-559 gave them was keys and cribs necessary to get back into Shark (4-rotor naval Enigma) for a while until new Bombes were being manufactured to cope with it.
    – Schwern
    Dec 12, 2014 at 9:35

Not mentioned so far is the Allies' progressively better use of radar. Diesel submarines spent a lot of time on the surface, at least until the Germans developed snorkels. If they could be seen on radar, they were easy pickings. They could also be located by radio triangulation, so toward the end of the war they had to maintain radio silence. In such circumstances the quality of a commander wouldn't help much - U Boats were sitting ducks.

  • 1
    Surfaced wolfpack attacks were abandoned after July 1943 and schnorkels began being fitted at the start of 1944. Radio transmissions could be detected at periscope depth so use of radio did not require surfacing. U-boats only transmitted infrequently. it was the breaking of Enigma traffic which located them. By mid 1944 periscopes and schnorkels were fitted with RAM, Radar Absorbent Materials to reduce their radar signatures. The quality of commanders was vital and made a huge contribution. You should read the voyages of Lowe on U-505 before dismissing leadership.
    – user2357
    Jun 19, 2014 at 12:18

The reasons the Germans lost the Battle of Atlantic:

  • ULTRA: The reason number one, cracking the Enigma. By cracking the encryption the German U-Boats were playing with open cards. The British were devilishly careful to contain the secret, they resisted to attack U-Boats if it was too clear that they must have known the position and preferred to route convoys apart from known U-Boat positions. The lack of British ships could always be explained by bad luck.

  • Missing reconnaissance: Göring was an incompetent leader of the Luftwaffe and he was not able to set up long-range recon high altitude aircraft. A submarine had a viewing range of approximately 20km, an aircraft could see objects over 200 km away.

  • Torpedo crisis: During the first and most important years German U-Boats had the G7a torpedo with failure rates of over 30%. Finally they found out that the increased pressure in the submarines disturbed the depth detection, running the torpedo in the ground or that the magnet detonators weren't working. German commanders said that during the Norwegian war they would have been able to incur catastrophic losses to the British Navy during the retreat.

  • Missing number of U-Boats: General Raeder was not incompetent, but he still wanted a "normal" navy with battleships and cruisers. Those battleships were a strategic threat, but effectively they were hopelessly useless in relation to their cost and allocated resources.

  • Missing insight about the advantages of U-Boats. Until very late the Germans (and also the Allies) were putting bulky cannons on deck. Those could only be used at very moderate swell, needed much care during the operation and were more and more useless when freighters and decoy ships (looking like harmless freighters) were armed. The U-Boat could not use the cannon anymore without risking imminent destruction, but the resistance of the cannon and the necessary deck slowed down the U-Boat to 7 knots underwater and then it was loud as hell. That meant they could not escape easily, especially hunter-killer groups. Torpedo loading was far too slow. Only once the U-Boats were silent and streamlined, they were a real threat, but it was far too late.

  • Convoy protection: The British perfected the convoy system. Inside were the most valuable targets, outside frigates and destroyers were patrolling. Before the convoy were sweepers (also frigates/destroyers) who were very careful that an enemy U-Boat does not hide himself in direction of the convoy. From time to time the convoy were changing the course (zig-zag) to prevent that long-range torpedoes could be fired from far away. Once an U-Boat was detected, the destroyer was responsible to hold the U-Boat under water until the convoy was out of reach (As said, under water the U-Boat was simply too slow). Many German aces like Prien were killed while they tried to attack a convoy.

  • Allied aircraft and hunter-killer groups: Once the position of an U-Boat was found, the Allies send aircraft equipped with radar (The Germans first thought it was not possible to build bulky radars in planes). During night the U-Boats felt safe to run over water because they were visually invisible. The plane homed in and at the last moment bathed the U-Boat in floodlight and sent two bombs as present. This was frighteningly effective. Another invention was the hunter-killer group: A group of warships with aircraft which homed in after an U-Boat was sighted. The plane forced the U-Boat to dive so it could not escape with their low velocity. Then the warships came and did not let the submarine out of their claws (Sooner or later an U-Boat must emerge, due to lack of battery power or oxygen).

  • While I agree with the general gist of the answer, I have to nitpick. No matter how much removing the deck cannon "streamlined" the boat, while certainly having an effect on noise, the impact on submerged speed was minimal. We are still talking about ~8 knots top, a crawl compared to surface ASW vessels. -- And as always, I have to point to the Reflektor as being the main cryptographic weakness of the Enigma (resulting in "no character can be encoded to itself"). Realizing that one little detail is probably the juciest "what-if's" of history...
    – DevSolar
    Apr 18, 2018 at 14:53

The type XXI U-boat manufactured during 1944, but not ready until too late was qualitatively far superior to any submarines anywhere.

Even older type VII and Type IX U-boats adopted advanced technologies with schnorkel, acoustic torpedoes, NAXOS, TUNIS and SAMOS radar warning receivers. By mid 1944 two dozen U-boats had FMU-200 Hohenweil radar sets.

It was not the lack of quality, but rather the rapid acceleration of anti submarine warfare techniques, coupled with effective code breaking which destroyed the U-boat's chances.

During Black May in 1943 the u-boat arm was crippled by the loss of 43 U-boats due to the coupling of ULTRA intelligence against U-boats to predict their movements and stalk them with radar equipped patrol aircraft.

The Germans could not understand why the Allies were so successful and withdrew from the Atlantic conflict for a few months to reassess tactics but never regained their previous supremacy after this.

Thus it was not the inadequacy of U-boats but rather radar technology coupled with effective code-breaking which destroyed the U-boat arm.

  • 4
    The quality problem was always more in the people than the equipment. German naval training was lacking, and getting worse as the war progressed (there was simply nowhere left to train except parts of the Baltic, not a good place to train for submarine warfare).
    – jwenting
    Jun 18, 2014 at 10:41
  • 1
    That is a load of opinionated clap trap. The Kreigsmarine learned from experience in the First World War and kept training crews to the very end. They also had the practice of forming new crews around a nucleus of older more experienced crewmen. U-boat crews began to form even before their boats were launched and trained on their boats up to a year before putting to sea on operations. I would appreciate it if you knew something before commenting.
    – user2357
    Jun 18, 2014 at 21:28
  • 2
    @user2357 First, please keep personal derogatory remarks out of both answers and comments. Second, your answer is opinionated as well. Any answer in History.SE without linked sources can only be assumed to be the opinion of its author.
    – CGCampbell
    Jul 22, 2014 at 17:54
  • 1
    Actually it is the opinion of Peter Cremer, "U-Boat Commander: A Periscope View of the Battle of the Atlantic" (1984), but i suppose you being such an expert know better than a wartime U-boat commander?
    – user2357
    Jul 22, 2014 at 23:39
  • 3
    No, I do not. Why not add a link to that source in your answer. An un-sourced answer can only be considered opinion. As I have repeatedly pointed out to you.
    – CGCampbell
    Jul 23, 2014 at 23:11

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