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  • Writer's pictureMike Shepherd


An embroidery recently discovered in Aberdeen believed to show the conning tower of a German U-boat (possibly made by the men from U-1206)

A German U-boat, U-1206, lies on the seabed of the North Sea, ten miles east of Old Slains Castle near Collieston. It sank on April 13, 1945 - the 50 submariners escaped, most of whom survived.

One of the chapters in my new book North Sea Heroes: true stories from a Scottish shore focuses on what happened to the men when they landed on the Aberdeenshire coast (a heroic story). Rather than repeat it (because I want you to buy the book!), I will focus on a bizarre aspect of the U-boat story, the tale that it sank when one of the toilets flooded. This is an oft-repeated story in books and articles about the stranger aspects of World War II history. But is it true?

Probably not. I’ll give two versions of the story. The first is the toilet story as told by a German naval historian. The second is based on the findings of the Buchan divers who discovered the U-boat ten years ago and who investigated the history of U-1206 with great thoroughness. They believe that the U-boat was deliberately scuttled by the crew.


Walter Brennecke’s book about the men from the U-boats The Hunter and the Hunted was published in English in 1960 to popular acclaim. The author, a German Naval historian and archivist, had clearly written his book based on first-hand accounts of U-boat operations during WWII, although this is not stated. Brennecke devotes a chapter to the sinking of U-1206, and what follows summarises his account of events.

It's April 13, 1945, and the U-1206 lies under the North Sea ten miles from Collieston: We are told that Captain Schlitt goes to one of two toilets in the submarine. This is a new type of toilet, designed so that its contents can be ejected out to sea when the submarine is deep underwater. The new system overcomes the high-water pressure outside the submarine at depth by pressuring up the toilet's contents before ejection. To work properly, the toilet-user is required to turn a series of valves in the correct sequence.

Reading through the detailed instructions twice, the captain uses the toilet as instructed, yet nothing happened. He sends for an engineer to fix the problem. The engineer is tinkering with the toilet mechanism when ‘a column of water as thick as a man’s thigh burst in, thundering and foaming,’ which forcibly throws the men backwards. Nothing could be done to stop the water coming in, the jet was too strong to get anywhere near the valves that would shut the water entry off.

Meanwhile, the Chief Engineer in the control room orders the submarine to be brought up to periscope depth to reduce the pressure of the water gushing in. But too late, the water has already seeped into the submarine’s batteries, resulting in a reaction which releases deadly chlorine gas into the ship. The submarine now surfaces, and the captain opens the hatch to let air into the U-boat.

At which point, two British aircraft launch bombs at the submarine but miss it. The men now took to the life dinghies, four in number, and abandon the U-boat.

German WW2 U-Boat U-534 at Birkenhead Docks, Merseyside (photo: Paul Adams)


It was rare for German U-boats to operate in the North Sea; it was normally too dangerous for them. The British coast swarmed with aircraft and boats on the look-out, and by 1945 new technology had made it much easier to find and destroy U-boats. It was safer for them to be in the middle of the Atlantic where the vast spaces made detection more difficult. Even so, at the close of WWII, 75 per cent of all German U-boats had been destroyed or reported missing.

U-1206 had been dispatched from Kristiansand in Norway with orders to attack shipping convoys on the east coast of Scotland. And on that fateful day for the German U-boat, Friday, April 13, 1945, there was less than a month to go before VE day ended the war in Europe on May 8, 1945. The young Germans, probably all in their twenties, would have been well aware that the war was coming to an end. The Allied and Soviet armies were converging on Germany from west and east. And now these men had been sent to the North Sea on what was almost a suicide mission.

What to do?

I agree with the Buchan divers that the men their captain concurred to scuttle the boat and then take to the dinghies. Once captured they would spend the rest of the war in a British prison-of-war camp, but at least they would still alive with the rest of their lives still ahead of them.

They would have to agree a cover story. It couldn’t get out that they had scuttled the U-boat. For a start, once they were in a prison-of-war camp, the more fanatic Nazis there could have made their life hell (two Germans were murdered in British camps by their fellow inmates, one at a camp near Comrie in Perthshire). And once the men returned to civilian life in a reconstructed Germany, they would not want their deed to be public knowledge.

When the men were captured and interviewed by British Intelligence, they told them that the submarine had hit an obstruction on the seabed, damaging the U-boat. Captain Schlitt had been separated from his men and taken to England. This may explain why the toilet story prevailed, because it was his version of what had happened. This then became the cover story should anyone enquire. When, and if, Walter Brennecke interviewed the men from U-1206 in the 1950s they would have told him this version. Brennecke might not have believed them, but went with the story anyway.

Karl-Adolf Schlitt repeated the toilet story for the rest of his life. A decent man (he returned to Aberdeenshire to thank his rescuers), he became a powerful man in the new Germany, establishing a career in publishing. He later became the district administrator of Oldenberg from 1964 to 1970 - I would guess this is the equivalent to the Chief Executive of a Scottish Council.

When the Buchan divers discovered the U-1206 on the seabed in 2012 they were suspicious. The only damage they could see had been caused by a trawl net which had snagged on the conning tower and the deck gun.

The following is mentioned on the divers’ website: ‘a relative of a crew member has been in touch to state that his father was told, long after the war, by Capt. Schlitt himself, that the officers decided to surrender and created the leak as a cover story to protect them from the reprisals they would suffer in prison camp if the truth was known. We prefer to believe this version of the story.’ As do I.

The complete story of U-1206 is told in my book North Sea Heroes: true stories from a Scottish shore. Out in paperback at £12.95, it is available online, including Amazon, and in bookshops, Enjoy!

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