The submariner who attended his own funeral


Engineer Sebastian Wilhelm Valentin Bauer introduced underwater vessels to the German navy. Jeff Glorfeld reports.


A commemorative coin issued in honour of Wilhelm Bauer.

A commemorative coin issued in honour of Wilhelm Bauer.

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The world's first “practical” submarine was built in 1620 by Dutch engineer Cornelis Drebbel, with the support of England’s King James I. Drebbel built three of the vehicles, according to the BBC History website.

His final model had six oars and could carry 16 passengers. “It was demonstrated to the king and thousands of Londoners on the Thames, and could stay submerged for three hours at a depth of 15 feet. How Drebbel maintained an air supply remains a mystery.”

On February 17, 1864, the H. L. Hunley became the first successful combat submarine, taking part in the American Civil War, sinking the USS Housatonic. After completing its mission, the boat vanished and was lost for more than a century. Its remains were found in 1995.

The builders of the Hunley were inspired by Bavarian engineer Wilhelm Bauer, born on December 23, 1822, in Dillingen, who trialled his own submarine in December 1850.

Bauer had served as an artillery engineer in the first round of conflict in southern Denmark and northern Germany, from 1848 to 1851, over the control of the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein.

Noting how the region’s northern coast had been blockaded by the Danish navy, Bauer came up with the idea for a new ship to help break the blockade.

He began studying hydraulics and ship construction, and eventually received a grant to build a working model and finally a full-scale submarine.

The finished vessel, the Brandtaucher, or “Fire-diver”, was about eight metres long and two metres wide. It was powered by two or three sailors turning large tread-wheels connected to a propeller, and could reach a speed of three knots – although not for long periods of time.

The captain was positioned at the stern of the submarine, operating the controls.

The idea for attack was that, having arrived under the target ship, the captain would reach into a waterproofed glove fixed to an opening in the top of the craft and attach an explosive device to the enemy’s hull.

Unfortunately for Bauer, budget constraints forced him to change designs and cut costs. Originally, submersion was to be achieved by filling several tanks with sea water. But in the changed version the vessel itself was to be partly flooded, rendering it dangerously unstable. Also, the thickness of the hull and the dimensions of the pumps were greatly reduced.

After trials in December 1850, he wanted to make several improvements to the submarine, but was told to produce a public showing on February 1, 1851, in the harbour at Kiel.

After reaching a depth of about nine metres, the vessel’s walls began to crack under the pressure, and the pumps proved inadequate. The submarine slowly sank to the bottom of the harbour.

Fortunately for all aboard, Bauer kept his head. He and the crew waited until enough water had seeped in, increasing the air pressure inside the submarine.

As the story is recounted in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, when the pressure was at last equalised, the hatch was opened and the men swam to the surface, emerging after more than seven hours below – only to find their own funeral services already under way.

Bauer died on 20 June 20 1875 in Munich. But in 1943, towards the end of the Second World War, Germany unveiled its most advanced U-Boat design, the Type XXI. It was not completed in time to see service, and was scuttled after the war.

It was raised again in 1957 and now sits in the German Maritime Museum at Bremerhaven. It’s name? The Wilhelm Bauer.

Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
  1. http://[according to: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/drebbel_cornelis.shtml
  2. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/drebbel_cornelis.html
  3. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/drebbel_cornelis.shtml
  4. https://www.hunley.org/overview/
  5. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sebastian-Wilhelm-Valentin-Bauer
  6. https://www.submerged.co.uk/wilhelm/
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