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Home » U-Boat Weapons » Human Torpedoes

Human Torpedoes

Developed during the Second World War, human torpedoes or manned torpedoes as they were known are underwater attack craft usually crewed by a one or two man crew. Powered by its own propulsion system, the underwater craft traveled slowly and had to be steered to its target by the pilot, who would then deliver its detachable warhead to the enemy vessel.

Many nations pursued the viability of this new submersible weapon including Italy, Great Britain, Japan and Germany, but it was Italy who had used it most successfully. The United States however viewed the potency of this weapon as negligible and decided not to get involved with lengthy experiments. Germany was late to join in the development of the human torpedo, and it never played a significant role during the war.

Some of the more well known battles, such as the attack at Alexandria harbor on the night of December 18 and 19, 1941 which seriously damaged the British battleships HMS Valiant and HMS Queen Elizabeth, a destroyer and a tanker was carried out by Italian human torpedoes. The Royal Navy learnt about these new weapon systems from the attack and developed their own attack craft which was successfully used in the attack on the German battleship Tirpitz on September 22 1943. All six of the attacking craft never returned, but the German battleship was put out of action for months. The Japanese employed these submersible crafts with limited success, and many were used for one way suicidal missions, similar in fashion to the famed kamikaze pilots.

Neger (Negro)

Neger human torpedo
A pilot enters a Neger with his Drager breathing apparatus. Despite the carbon dioxide filter, the fatality rate due to suffocation was very high.

The Neger was named after its designer Richard Mohr, a naval engineer in Germany. Mohr in German means Negro, hence the name Neger. It consisted of two G7e torpedoes, with one torpedo mounted atop the other. The lower torpedo was a modified conventional torpedo and could be launched at enemy ships whereas the upper torpedo did not have a warhead. Instead of carrying a warhead, the space was converted into a cockpit from which the pilot could steer the Neger. The cockpit was covered by a watertight plastic canopy and was only about 18 inches above the surface. This meant that visibility was poor with the resulting effect that many pilots lost their way or failed to spot any targets. The Neger could not dive and had a range of 30nm at 3 knots, but the watertight cockpit carried enough breathing air for only one or two hours. The pilots for these weapons were often volunteers and not necessarily from the U-boat arm.

The first Negers entered service on March 1944 and the first mission took place on the night of April 20 and 21 1944. Thirty Negers were launched against Allied ships berthed in Anzio, but only 17 of them managed to deploy, with the other 13 capsizing upon reaching the water. Three failed to return and up until then, the Allies had no knowledge of this new unusual weapon. None had made any successful attacks.

The second deployment was against the Allied invasion fleet in Normandy on the night of July 5 and 6 1944. The Neger flotilla which numbered to forty in strength sortied from the Villers-sur-Mer, west of Honfleur. 24 of them executed attacks which resulted in the sinking of two British minesweepers, the HMS Magic and HMS Cato. Only 9 Negers returned.

The next mission was on the night of July 7 and 8 1944, which saw 21 Negers being deployed and resulted in the sinking of the British cruiser HMS Dragon and the minesweeper HMS Pylades. A further attack, which was also the last was made on the night of August 16 and 17 1944. During that attack, the British destroyer HMS Isis was sent to the bottom. Thereafter, the Neger was retired and withdrawn from service. About 200 of these crafts were built.

Marder (Marten)

The inability of the Neger to submerge made it very vulnerable to attack. The Marder was the succession of the Neger in which a diving tank was added in front of the cockpit which enabled the craft to dive up to a depth of 10 meters. The craft was slightly lengthened in order to accommodate the diving tank.

Although it was an improved version of the Neger, the Marder still suffered from two main disadvantages. First, underwater mobility was extremely poor and constantly required the pilotís full attention to maneuver the craft. Second, the lack of a periscope meant that it was virtually blind underwater. The pilot still had to surface to find his way and a submerged attack was not possible.

Very few attacks involving Marders were carried out. They were used against US warships in the Gulf of St. Tropez in the Mediterranean, but the mission was a dismal failure. There were also plans for U-997, a Type VII U-boat to transport these Marders for an attack against Russian warships in Murmansk, but owing to technical difficulties, the mission was called off. About 300 Marders were built.

Marder human torpedo
A Marder hoisted by cables is being lowered into the water. The steering rudder can be seen on the tail of the upper torpedo.

Hai (Shark)

The Hai was an experimental craft based on the Marder. It had a greater range and could reach distances of up to 90nm, which was three times more than the Marder. The body was further lengthened with a mid-section added which was used to accommodate additional batteries. The Hai proved to be un-maneuverable and only one was ever built.

Human Torpedo Specification
  Neger Marder Hai
Displacement 5 tons 5.5 tons 6 tons

25.1ft (7.65m)
1.7ft (0.53m)
1.7ft (0.53m)

27.2ft (8.3m)
1.7ft (0.53m)
1.7ft (0.53m)

36.1ft (11.0m)
1.7ft (0.53m)
1.7ft (0.53m)
Top speed

4.2 knots

4.2 knots

4.2 knots
Maximum range 30nm at 3 knots 30nm at 3 knots 90nm at 3 knots
Motor output 8.8kW 8.8kW 8.8kW
Diving depth - 33ft (10m) 33ft (10m)
Torpedoes One 21 inch One 21 inch One 21 inch
Crew 1 1 1
Number built 200 300 1

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